conversation

Focused Freewrites (FFW):
Response Journal

Focused freewriting is perhaps the most versatile pre-writing technique of all. A focused freewrite is the same as a regular freewrite (all the same rules apply), except it starts with a prompt. Some quick examples:

Do a ten-minute focused freewrite…

  • about one of your favorite foods
  • describing a peak experience you had as a student
  • beginning with the words, “From when I was eleven years-old, I remember…”

The response journal (a.k.a. “2-column” or “double-entry” or “dialectical” journal) is a kind of focused freewrite in which the focusing prompt is a quote, and the freewrite is a response to that quote. Response journals are endlessly useful. Whole, thoughtful, original, well developed essays can easily evolve out of a series of response journals.

How to do a response journal

  1. From a piece you’ve finished reading, go back and choose a quote
    • Generally speaking, a quote no longer than a single sentence and as short as a single word is the easiest and most fruitful to work with)
    • The quote should draw your attention (why is totally irrelevant); pick a short passage that strikes you in some way
  2. At the top of a fresh page, preferably in a different color, copy out the quote (the whole quote: writing it yourself is a way of taking it in)
  3. Under the quote, write a FFW response

What kind of response, though? Well, any kind, as long as it is a response. A response is when we listen to something that someone else has said, and say something back that is in some way related to what they have said. Our response might be personal, analytical, descriptive, comparative, sympathetic, argumentative, or something else, or some combination of two or more styles—in other words, no rules. If you said to me: “Nice weather today,” I could respond in various ways:

  • You: “Nice weather today.” Me: “I thought it was cold, but you’ve made me feel warmer. Thank you!”
  • You: “Nice weather today.” Me: “Reminds me of being in San Diego. Not enough rain, though.”
  • You: “Nice weather today.” Me: “What do you mean by ‘nice’? ‘Kind’? ‘Solicitous’? ‘Gentle’?…”

These are all responses to what you’ve said to me. By contrast, here are some ways I could react that wouldn’t be responses:

  • You: “Nice weather today.” Me: “Piss off.”
  • You: “Nice weather today.” Me: “I’m, like, totally in love with your voice.”
  • You: “Nice weather today.” Me: “Whatever. Where can I get a good hamburger?”

What do these reactions have in common? Not one of them has taken in what you’ve said, and given something back in conversation. Response journals are conversations with the text.

Sample response journal

Here’s an example of a three-minute double-entry journal on the poem “Piano” by D.H. Lawrence:1

a woman is singing to me

A woman. A woman singing makes me think of my mother singing to me at bedtime. Except my mother didn’t actually do that. So I guess I’m just thinking of some mother singing to her child—I mean, singing her child to sleep. It’s comforting, a comforting picture. For some reason I’m seeing a big down-feather blanket—a comforter—and the mom sitting in a wood chair next to the bed. She’s singing. There’s nothing else in the room, just the mother’s voice.

As you may suspect by now, the response is a true free write: no should s about the content. This is your chance to explore the text freely; to interrogate its concepts, conjure its images, test its implications and boundaries, play with its language, and plumb its associations. Freely written responses do all of these things. Analytical responses are fine; over-analytical responses miss much. The more parts of yourself you allow to respond, the richer your reading and writing will become.
 


  1. Here is the complete poem(1918):
     
     

The Best Revision Tool Ever

I’ve come across and taught many revision procedures in my time, but this one towers above all the rest. It was first articulated by Peter Elbow, and I received it from Jamie Hutchinson. I give the lineage of this technique because it possesses that timeless quality of a teaching that operates on multiple levels simultaneously and regardless of specific context—similar to the practice of using “I” statements—and because, when employed properly, it opens up writing like only truth can. I have used this process successfully in several areas outside academic writing: creative writing, understanding and evaluating art, directing plays, and coaching clients.

This tool originated as a “Peer Response” procedure (generally in groups of 3–4 students) which I will summarize forthwith. If you practice it regularly and get it into your blood, you can become able to use it all on your own, as I often do.

Peer Response Process

Rules: “The writer is always right. The reader is always right.” Nevertheless, the writer is in charge of the proceedings. Thus, the following is all addressed to you, the author.

Read your piece aloud. Always aloud. Never distribute your writing for silent reading.

There is almost always a powerful impulse for everyone in the group to plunge themselves into uncommunicative isolation by reading the piece individually in silence. For those responding to your writing, taking in your language (words) through the sense of sight is a significantly different cognitive experience from taking in language through the sense of hearing. The sense of sight tends to objectify, divide and classify what it perceives, whereas the sense of hearing tends to be experienced inside our heads. For your purposes, you want sympathetic, understanding responses. Let divide-and-classify come after your writing is published. Without the hearing, the quality of your authorial voice will be easily overlooked and misread. Similarly, hearing yourself speak your own words is a substantially different experience from reading them silently.

Read your piece aloud at least twice. Never once. Always two times—or more.

Another temptation is to read the piece aloud once through, and then let the critiquing begin. This doesn’t work, because the sentences and paragraphs your listeners hear after they’re already familiar with what’s coming are completely different from the sentences and paragraphs they hear for the very first time. Similarly, for you, reading a piece aloud for the first time is almost always about performance and nerves, and little if anything in your own writing is actually heard by you; but the second time around is often quite fruitful; you begin to hear nuances you hadn’t noticed before. So, read your piece aloud at least twice. At any point in the stages that follow, anyone in your group may request additional readings of the whole or any part of the piece, and you may at any time spontaneously decide to read aloud again; the more readings, the merrier.

The first reading is just for the listeners to get an overall sense of what the piece is about. The second and subsequent readings are for them to pay attention to details of language, images, ideas, feelings, intentions. (Also, after the first reading, your listeners may take notes.) After the second reading, lead your group through the following steps.

(Notes:

  • Steps 1–3 are to be performed by all the listeners of the writer’s group.
  • Repeated responses are valuable and not to be withheld—i.e. “I was going to say what she said” is not a valid response. If a listener heard what she heard, that listener should repeat it! It’s crucially important for you, the writer, to hear it more than once if the same response arose in more than one person.
  • Precision is required: your listeners must use the language given below. Why? Because it’s magical and it works. Think of it as a magic spell: say “Abraca-DOH!-bra” and nothing happens.)

Step 1. Positive Pointing: “I noticed/liked…”

Each member of your group, in turn, quotes—verbatim—words and/or phrases from your piece to you: specific language from the writing that particularly struck or impressed or simply stayed with them. The reasons for their quoting back what they do are irrelevant and distracting; stay focused here: you need to hear what parts of your language resonated in them, regardless of why.

Most important: verbatim quotes. Listeners often want to paraphrase: “I liked the part about…” Paraphrases use their language, not yours, and this is about your language, not theirs. You need to know that your words were heard, and which words and phrases in your writing have sticking power—for good or ill. Again, the listeners’ reasons are irrelevant and will mostly introduce impurities into the process. (Reasons for listeners’ responses will become important once you begin asking your own questions—see step four, below.)

2. Center of Gravity: “I hear this saying…”

This is when your listeners “say back” to you what they hear as “the source of energy, the focal point, the seedbed, the generative center of the piece” (Elbow and Belanoff, Sharing and Responding). Surprise, surprise, often this is not your intended main idea, but a segment, image, or anecdote where your writing feels more impassioned, more personally charged—i.e. what’s really on your mind and in your heart concerning the subject—whether or not you were aware of it while writing.

The utility of emphasizing center of gravity over thesis is powerful: It is easy (especially when under pressure to write something for a good grade) to jump to a hasty, underdeveloped thesis with no center of gravity, whereas a substantial center of gravity—precisely because it is heavy with meaning for the author—has zero tolerance for a weak thesis.

The easiest clue for where your listeners (and you) should look for the center of gravity is the language they quoted in step one: those passages drew them in because those passages have the force of gravity.

3. Active Listening: “I’d like to hear more about…” and “Have you considered… ?”

(Author, please insist that all suggestions in this step begin with either the words “I’d like to hear more about…” or “Have you considered… ?” Those phrases keep the authority of the writing firmly with you without diluting it.)

This is your listeners’ opportunity to share two powerful things with you:

  1. “I’d like to hear more about…”: Having articulated what rumblings and nascent ideas and images they hear emerging in step two, your listeners now suggest, based on their genuine interest (genuine not feigned interest is critical!), what you could develop further—what they felt they wanted or needed that is already rumbling in the piece and might be given full voice.
  2. “Have you considered…”: Alternative choices—suggestions of changes—that could strengthen what the piece is trying to say.

If your listeners become too insistent, gently remind them that this piece is your creation, your baby, and you’re responsible for its growth and wellbeing.

4. Author’s Questions

Finally it’s your turn! Ask your group any questions you want about your piece and how to revise it. If you think of a yes-or-no question, first turn it around so the answer will be fuller than a simple “yes” or “no”: for example, instead of “Was my paper clear?” (“No.” Awkward silence.), ask “What parts were clearest?” and possibly add “Where could I be clearer?”

Here is a list of suggested author’s questions from Jamie Hutchinson:

  • What do you hear lurking in this piece (what’s just beneath the surface)?
  • What does it make you feel? Where [in your body] and why?
  • What do you want to hear more about?
  • What kinds of connections do you hear in it? What connections do I still need to make?
  • What don’t you understand? What seems unclear?
  • What holds this piece together?
  • Who does my audience appear to be? Friends? Teachers? Strangers?
  • What’s your favorite part? Least favorite part? Why?
  • What seems unnecessary to the piece?
  • Where do you lose interest as you listen to it?
  • What would you remember about it tomorrow?
  • Where could I use more detail, more examples?
  • What theme(s) do you hear in the piece?
  • Which sections need more development?
  • What tone of voice do you hear in it?

Further Questions to Consider

Again, from Jamie, questions for you, the writer to ponder:

  • What kind of response do you want from your reader?
  • What feels “risky” to you about writing this piece?
  • What do you most care about in what you’ve written?
  • What would you like someone to get out of reading this piece?
  • Where does your voice feel strongest to you in this piece?
  • How will you know when this piece is finished?
  • What was the color of the sky when you…?

As with all deep processes, this one deepens with practice. Enjoy!

How to Talk With Your Instructors

A while back I asked some TCL Facebook friends for their advice about how to communicate effectively with professors. Here’s what they (students and instructors) had to say:

I believe the best way to communicate effectively with professors is to think of each teacher/professor as your “partner” in education.

—Connie S.

In the beginning of the semester, don’t assume they know who you are (unless you’ve worked with them before). Profs meet many new students each semester, so when you first contact them be sure to identify yourself and tell them which class you’re in. If you meet with them during office hours and ask questions that show you’re interested in the class, they’ll figure out who you are pretty quickly. In a good way. Also, don’t email a prof and expect an immediate answer. Most profs don’t check their email as often as students do. If you don’t get a response and you need to hear back from her, be respectful in your follow-up email. Remember that your first email may not have reached her, or it may have been deleted in error, or she may have been too busy to check her email at midnight or whenever. Always be respectful; profs are people, too.

—Bette E.

Don’t be intimidated by them; assume they want to see you succeed… which means you have the same goal. That’s the biggest difference between me as a returning adult student and the “kids” in my classes.

—Monica G.

Make contact. Make an effort to show the professor that you have a functioning brain and personality and give him/her a reason to care about you.

—Meaghan O.

I always spoke with them in person, then followed up with an email if needed. It was a good way to remind them and myself of the important points of our conversation (or what still needed to be addressed).

—Alexander P.

Before and after class is a stressful time for many teachers. They often have many students coming at them with questions and they have their own pressures to get to another class or meeting, etc. I always appreciate it when a student takes the time to seek out the teacher in an office hour. I am relaxed and ready to handle what they need.

—Jacqueline D.

Helps to have actually read the material, too.…

—Norman D.W.

Amen. Good teachers are interested in the subject and in students learning the subject. Professors profess. We want to talk to people about our disciplines. In that respect teachers are still students who love to discuss their favorite ideas. Really, I should have put Norman’s quote first. Do the reading, engage your teachers in conversations that have to do with their profession, and not only will you become someone they love talking to, they will do backflips to help you in any way they can, even if—often especially if—you’re having difficulty with the material. We don’t only want to talk to people who are, “Oh, yeah, I get this; it’s easy”; we think the whole world needs to know what we’re professing, and nothing makes us happier than the opportunity to introduce, orient, guide, and support others who want to get in the know.

Nevertheless, approaching a professor can be intimidating. While many professors do possess these qualities in abundance, neither gentle bedside manner nor social grace is a requirement for becoming a teacher. And sometimes a professor and student are just not on the same wavelength. Yet being able to talk to your teachers is a necessary skill. So treat it as a skill.

In her book, Say This, NOT That to Your Professor, Ellen Bremen offers short scripts to help you navigate every kind of nerve-wracking conversation with your teachers, from asking about a bad grade or requesting an Incomplete, to using e-mail wisely and getting extra help. Her book teaches the skill of communicating effectively with teachers.

The bottom line? It’s not generally known, and be careful whom you tell this to, as you might unduly shock someone who isn’t prepared to hear it, but… teachers really are people, too. People who love to talk, who talk for a living.

Talk to them. That’s the way we did it in the olden days.

—Christine M.

Go Fish in
Streams of Consciousness:

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