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WHAT WORKS IN EDUCATION The George Lucas Educational Foundation
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Object(ive) Writing: A Creative Exercise for the Composition Classroom

Kerri Flinchbaugh

Writing program administrator in eastern North Carolina

At the 2012 Conference on College Composition and Communication, three well-known writing scholars led a discussion on a writing exercise they'd assigned themselves. For 30 days, each wrote for an hour about a different everyday object. After CCCC, three of us -- all friends, teachers and writers -- were energized by the idea of this activity and decided to try it out.

Our Rules

On each day for one month, each of us wrote for 30 minutes on one of the 30 objects we chose in advance -- each of us had selected 10. We could write about any object in any order and posted our writing on a public, communal blog.

We didn't confine ourselves to any particular writing process or genre. Moreover, we didn't erect boundaries between the objects' stories, so that, for instance, Laura's ladle spoke in defiant response to Patrick's (below).

Patrick's Ladle


Laura's Retort

The exercise proved to be powerful, helping us to engage one another in writing as we learned about each other, ourselves and the objects with which we interact every day. Midway through the exercise, we recognized its strong educational potential. Suitable for employment in any disciplinary context and at any level, this exercise encourages meaningful reflection as authors of our own work in the world and as an interacting community of coauthors.

Reflections

All three of us agreed to reflect on his or her experience during the process and to contribute to a final reflection blog. Below we have written some of the themes that emerged.

  • It could make us feel a little vulnerable to put our writing "out there," but the rewards can be great.
  • We discovered new things about ourselves and our writing processes that may have been left unexplored otherwise.
  • We are never 100% satisfied with our written products, so why not go ahead and share? The process doesn't have to stop just because you shared work with others.
  • What is writing? If we use a piece of writing that we worked on last year but we want to revise for a new project, is that "writing" or "cheating"? If we research aspects of an object, is that "writing time"? Is writing just getting words on paper or on a screen, or is it much more than that? With the constrained writing aspect of this project, we found ourselves reconsidering what a writing process may really consist of.
  • Inspiration is everywhere. All we have to do is pay attention.

If we believe William Carlos Willams' famous dictum, "No ideas but in things!", the power of these kinds of composing activities seems obvious. We have a tendency to tokenize, to signify and to create connections. We are meaning-making machines, we human beings. Every thing around us means something, and if that meaning doesn't manifest itself of its own accord, we find meaning where meaning may not at first be. That meaning, in turn, says more about us than we might at first suspect, and that's where much of the educative power of this exercise lies.

We feel that educational value can be found also in both the freedom of an object and the unique experiences an author brings to the object. This object gives permission to reflect and imagine, yet also takes the blame if, once on the page, the words don't seem to work. The exercise genuinely invites low-stakes, no-pressure, anything-goes writing.

"That's ultimately what's struck me most about this project: how quickly I came to know my friends more deeply through their own words . . . I've known Kerri for some time now, and I found I learned just as much about her through 3 x 30 = 90 as I did about Laura." - Patrick

"I didn't always like the final product, but I needed the wouldn't-this-be-cool adventure to propel my summer writing. I've already begun revising and reworking. Although the 30-day writing exercise is officially over, I feel like I'm just getting started." - Laura

"I became much more aware and mindful of the objects and everything else that surrounds me. And my mind would start creating stories about them without even thinking about it." - Kerri

Writing as Praxis

The National Commission on Writing's The Neglected "R" (2003) defines writing as "an essential skill for the many" (p. 11) that "has helped transform the world" (p. 10). It also points out that writing is "increasingly shortchanged throughout school and college years" (p. 3). A simple truth is that we do not always teach writing in a way that allows students to experience its transformative power. Often we do not provide enough opportunities to experience writing as a vehicle for making sense of themselves and the world around them. As a result, writing is not always viewed as a practice. Rather, in some classrooms, it is procedure or product. Robert Yagelski (2012) asks what would happen if we dared to view writing as something other than a practice, procedure or product? “What if we understood writing as praxis?” (p. 189)

To consider writing as praxis is to consider what happens as we write, an act equally important for students and writing instructors. Peter Elbow (1973) points out that if we lack control over our words, we lack control over our lives. And while we do not exist because of writing, writing can bring our existence more sharply into focus. Inherently, writing is an act of connecting.

Objects in Composition Classrooms

So how can we use object writing in our classrooms? The flexibility of it makes the options almost limitless. With our students, we can decide the parameters and the desired product, whether that product is a blog, a multi-genre presentation or some other piece of low-stakes writing. The process and final product can be adapted to fit our classrooms and our students. Here are a few concrete ideas and suggestions:

  • Select a material object, or an image depicting such an object, and write about it for a fixed amount of time. (Students may write for as little as five minutes, or as long as half an hour.) Write freely about the object, perhaps describing its nature, reflecting on your relationship to it, and uncovering connections between it and its surroundings.
  • Use object writing as a "first-day" activity to break the ice and help students learn more about one another. Or, more broadly, use the activity as a rapport-building exercise at any point in a class, helping students to build the mutual trust and understanding that leads to a healthy learning community.
  • Provide an authentic audience other than the self and the instructor. Whether the students write on a communal blog or take advantage of an "author's chair," it is essential to design some kind of platform for students to share their work.
  • Students will get the most out of the activity if they are encouraged to reflect on their work. Try to allow as much reflection is possible, through discussion in class or through reflective writing after.
  • Remember that students can be very averse to risk-taking, so encourage them to take some. If, for example, you plan on grading the activity, involve students in constructing the rubric you will use to assess their finished work.

Patrick Bahls and Laura Benton also contributed to this blog post.

Comments (7)Sign in or register to postSubscribe to comments via RSS

Michael's picture

I have used military uniforms as a "Prompt" for a couple of years. I always get some great writing from my 7th graders. This year I also plan on bringing in some violins, some old and beat up, others new, as a prompt for some poetry.

Kristal Davis Wilkes's picture
Kristal Davis Wilkes
PK-5 Teacher, Georgia

Thank you so much for this great blog. I also love the idea Michael threw out of military uniforms to prompt writing. This will really improve student learning by offering an authentic experience. I believe that I will participate along with my students. For the younger grades, having a word bank displayed will help writer's with variety.

Maryann Young's picture
Maryann Young
4th grade teacher, St. George, UT

This is a great idea. I had used something similar years ago but have not in the past few years. We have been talking a lot about writing ideas and how to better implement them in our trainings this week. This idea came at the right time. Thank you.

The Dixie Diarist's picture
The Dixie Diarist
Teacher, Writer, and Artist

I taught a workshop at the conference to a room of teachers about how I got a bunch of unmotivated and uninterested and nearly illiterate kids to write stories and essays. To write something every week by Friday.

I told them I borrowed this one from the working world, especially the newspaper news room: Every Monday the kids got a fun subject to write about, a low word count, the opportunity to be edited by me, and then I would read their work, out loud, in my goofy announcer voices, to everybody else every Friday. My God, did it work.

The first couple of Fridays were horrifying to the students, but then they finally got whacked each week by a sense of pride and Fridays became the most looked-forward-to day of the week. Not because it was the last day of the week. It became the proudest day of the week because they learned that hard work and a dedicated routine always has a payoff. When you see emotionally fragile kids pat each other on the back--literally pat each other on the back--because they liked each other's stories, it's hard not to get teary-eyed right in front of them. Every Friday.

www.adixiediary.com

Garreth Heidt's picture
Garreth Heidt
High School Liberal Studies teacher, Design-minded educator, Forensics Coach

A thorough overview of the process. Thanks for the detail. Aside from the creative writing that can easily stem from such observations, this activity engages the student in mindful observation of detail that undergirds so many of the sciences and humanities.

Beyond this, we could also look to the manner in which using objects can more easily spur the inquisitive mind and give us a method for teaching students how to investigate objects, ask questions about them, and literally teach themselves. I'd like to recommend an essay by John H. Smith called, "Teaching Yourself to Teach with Objects." http://isites.harvard.edu/fs/docs/icb.topic862568.files/Supplementary%20...

Anna's picture

Thank you so much for posting this blog! I really like the idea of giving your students an object to write about and letting them go. Many students struggle with writing because they do not know how to start. I believe giving them an object to work with as a prompt for their writing could help them create a wonderful story.

You're right, Kristal, a word bank would help younger students broaden their writing abilities. Thank you so much for sharing!

Becky Fisher's picture
Becky Fisher
Education Consultant

I love this idea, and I love that it focuses on one object. I truly believe that when given this type of open-ended writing constraint (sounds like an oxymoron, I know) students can really thrive. They have something to focus their ideas on and center their writing around, yet they still have the freedom to write creatively and express themselves freely. I may even give this a try. It sounds like an interesting idea to take 30 minutes out of each day and lend it to the power of creativity and observation.

Thanks for posting!

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