using a card game to turn class discussion into writing practice
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What is the point of these cards, and how do they work?
“English class” involves three core activities: reading on your own, talking in class, and writing on your own.
Students only get paid for the final activity, writing on their own, with some minor exceptions like “class participation,” whatever that is, or “reading tests” designed to assess how the first activity is going. But the heaviest weight of assessment is the writing.
So: if class discussion doesn’t have a direct and meaningful effect on the writing, it is to some degree a waste of time, often an exercise in hearing the teacher’s interpretation of what’s important about a literary work and tuning the upcoming writing to match that interpretation. As teachers pull back from lecturing and make discussion more “student-centered,” the problem can become worse: students might spend ten or twenty minutes of class hearing an undeveloped idea by one or two students who don’t know any more than other students, and inevitably that experience colors the writing at home.
But the elements of writing can be practiced in speech:
attention, analysis, understanding, experience, connections, abstractions, and rendering.
Attend: Read the text and listen to classmates.
Analyze: Break the reading into useful units with “kernels.”
Experience: Respond to the reading and tell related stories.
Connect: Compare, contrast, and distinguish concepts.
Abstract: Form a claim and “pitch” it to others.
Render: Craft sentences and paragraphs with clarity and grace.
If the classroom becomes a safe place for modeling and testing these elements, writing will improve.
By breaking down the elements into levels of sophistication, and providing models, the Speaking is Writing cards make that practice into a game.
Students toss a card into the middle of the table to play, and try to perform the element task on the card as if they were writing at home. They practice “facing the blank screen” in class, and watch others face it too, so when they finally get home that challenge will be more familiar, less paralyzing, and eventually more efficient as well.
The teacher’s job is to repeat, paraphrase, and clarify what a student says, then write a reduction of it on the board. Students will then see revision modeled. The teacher does not argue or disagree or say, “Really?” The teacher models what that idea would look like if it were written at home and came in as part of a paper. Then, in real time and with no risk, students can assess their thoughts and connect them to other students’ thoughts.
If each student receives 3 cards and plays 2, we’d have about 30 cards played in a 55-minute class. That’s pretty intense!
Class time tends to allow about 20-25 cards, and students naturally “zone in and out” when others are talking. Our working memory cannot hold this amount of attending, analysis, understanding, experience, connections, abstractions, and rendering.
And the same thing happens at home: writers are constantly sampling and filtering, accepting and rejecting, dozens of choices at the level of the phrase, the sentence, the paragraph, the “point,” the quotation -- all the elements.
So how do we use class time to help students succeed when the memory fails and the mind wanders?
Students practice what real notation is: crafting meaning out of what people say, and also chasing down ideas as they float about in class.
The teacher models this craft on the board, and students who dutifully copy down the board will eventually customize their notes to better suit the paper they’re going home to write.
When done correctly, a student’s experience is this: enter class with the previous night’s reading done. Prewrite a few questions and ideas. Receive 2-3 Speaking is Writing cards. Listen to others play their cards, watch the ideas composing on the board, and notate the useful ideas on paper. When the time is right, play a card to build or redirect the discussion. Note how the class adapts to the new idea in their cards, and notate possible directions for the home writing. At the end of class, note how the teacher summarizes the key points of the discussion and how they might inform a writing. Leave class, ponder, and at the writing time open up the day’s notation. Recapture some of the threads, and selfishly render sentences that capture and express those new ideas.
After some weeks of this daily work, a “rough draft” will be a much healthier, messier, and more engaging collection of thoughts than the usual, sad, one-night attempt to cold-write a final draft.
At all times, students are encouraged to bring pieces of their rough work to the teacher, for more targeted responses. This forces students to do their best work before asking a teacher to render ideas for them, and also helps the teacher give more precise and actionable notes well in advance of any grade-earning drafts.