Sunday, May 22, 2011

Motivate Your Students with Purpose-Driven Lesson Plans

Image: healingdream /
Our students are now more distracted than ever.  As writing teachers trying to hold the attention of our students, we compete with Facebook, Netflix, and the upheavals of the modern family.

To keep our students focused on our classes - and, more importantly, to keep them interested in writing - we need to give our students a reason to to study.
I once read that clarity of writing is a clear sign of clarity of thought, and I do believe there is some real truth to this.  However, there are many clear thinkers who have never been taught to appreciate the power of writing.  From lawyers who refuse to read fiction to engineers who see writing as a waste of effort, I've met some very intelligent individuals who are unable to express themselves on the page.

As a teacher, my own goal is to help every student become a writer.  And I don't mean that my students all need to love poetry, or that they'll each need to publish in the New Yorker.  I simply believe that every student should complete my course with the feeling that he or she can and should learn to write well.  Whether it's writing e-mails to close friends or refining proposals for NSF funding, I want my students to see the importance of words in their lives.  As an added benefit, students who believe in the importance of writing will also believe in the importance of your class, and this makes them better students.  They will be more likely to complete their homework assignments and to approach you with questions.

Here are techniques I have used to instill this desire in my students.

Treat Your Students as Writers
Are all my students writers?  Yes - of course they are.  Any student taking my course is actively writing fiction or poetry on a weekly basis.  They are all writers.  Hopefully, they will continue to be writers long after they turn in their final portfolio.

To ensure this, I make sure to never put up the boundary of "I'm a writer and you're a student."  Instead, I will often start my lessons with "As writers, we need to understand..."  Now, I understand that it may sometimes be hard to think of your students as writers - sometimes, they will turn in paragraphs which are so convoluted that you'd rather stare at the wall for hours than try untangling the mess.  But really, they are no different than we were at some point.  Sure, I might have learned to write a coherent essay before some of my students could read, but I still remember that big red-pencil "C" I got on the first five-paragraph essay I ever tried to write.  I can still remember my first journalism professor deleting half the sentences in an article I wrote - he then went on to explain that the remaining words "needed to be stronger."

Every writer starts somewhere.  It is impossible to know who our students will be in five, ten, or twenty years.  Whether they go on to six years of graduate school in fiction or choose a career in biomolecular engineering, they are in your writing class.  They are on the road that has been followed by Stephen King, William Shakespeare, and Sylvia Plath.
Give Contemporary Examples of Successful Writing
It's tempting to think that movies and the internet have "ended" the "age of writing."  This is, however, patently untrue.  From e-mails to movie scripts, writing is still an integral part of our modern society.  Lessons in setting, plot, and characterization help our students understand the world around them.  By describing a room on paper, they learn which details are important in perception.  By writing a coherent plot, they learn to understand and utilize causality in storytelling.

It is our job as teachers to reveal this to students.  When discussing plot, I often reference blockbuster movies to illustrate the ideas of scene and climax.  When assigning literary essays, I teach them how to structure a convincing argument - the kind of argument they might run across in one of those "Special Advertising Sections" of Newsweek.  For a final project, I had one of my classes put together a Facebook Fan Page for writing - basically, I asked them to use writing to help others learn to write.

Writing, in my eyes, is more than simply placing words on paper.  It's the art of ordering those words to convey compelling thoughts, images, and opinions.  By teaching our students how to do this, we are also teaching them how to think rationally.  We are teaching them to observe the subtle differences between individuals and to understand how disparate aspects of the world are interrelated.
Show How Writing Benefits Individuals in All Fields
You don't need to be a professional writer to benefit from writing well.  I have had a few students who see writing courses as a waste of time - usually, they're planning on entering more lucrative fields in the sciences or engineering.  What they might not realize is that funding for scientific research goes to those who can write the best proposals, and that individuals who are able to write clear and concise e-mails are better able to collaborate in the international landscape of modern research.

Share Your Experiences
Have you found ways of teaching that really help motivate your students?  Please share them.  You can either comment below or, better still, post on our wall: 

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