Today’s guest blogger is Tanya Rodrigue, an associate professor in English and coordinator of the Writing Intensive Curriculum Program at Salem State University in Massachusetts.
Several years ago, I observed a writing class wherein the professor asked students to find a visual that represented their feelings about writing. One student brought in a picture of a young man standing at the top of a cliff. The young man looked terrified as he looked down, perhaps thinking he could tumble off the edge at any moment.
The message was clear: writing is scary.
Writing has historically been known to evoke feelings of fear and anxiety in many people, and our students are no exception. Many of them are scared to write for fear of “not sounding smart” or “not doing it right.” Many of them are scared to share their writing, especially with their peers, because they “stink at writing” or “don’t have any good ideas.”
Fear and anxiety yield all kinds of problems for writers. Some experience dread at the thought of writing; some experience severe writer’s block or paralysis; and/or some just try to avoid writing altogether.
So how can we help our students overcome their fears related to writing?
I orchestrated a brief, but surprisingly very effective activity to help students identify their fears about writing and support each other in facing these fears. The activity helped individual students gain confidence, but perhaps more importantly, it fostered a caring, supportive environment for a community of writers. In facilitating this activity immediately before peer review, students approached each other’s work with a kind of empathy and understanding that they had not previously had.
Step #1: Ask students to take out a piece of paper and respond to the following prompt. What is your biggest fear or challenge about writing?
Step #2: After students finish responding to the prompt, ask them to fold up the piece of paper and place it in a box. Then ask each student to randomly pick out a piece of paper from the box, making sure they do not pick their own.
Step #3: Ask students to write a response to their peers on the same piece of paper. Students may choose one of two options: write a suggestion to help your peer overcome the fear or challenge OR write an affirmation.
Step #4: One by one, ask each student to stand up and read their peer’s response and their response to their peer.
Step #5: After the last person speaks, encourage students to give each other a round of applause.
In my courses, students provided excellent suggestions—ones that I never thought of myself. They also expressed solidarity and support with phrases like “I feel the same way” or “don’t worry, everyone feels like that” or “we’re in this together!” The activity energized the class and encouraged students to engage with each other’s work in a productive and caring manner.
While this activity is useful to orchestrate prior to peer review or peer assessment, there are other instances wherein it would be effective. For example, students may benefit from facing their fears and feeling support from their classmates and professor on the first day of a writing course or at the start of any writing assignment, especially if students are composing in a foreign mode or genre. In slightly altering the prompt language, the activity could be used while students are engaged in the composing process or during the revision stage (What has been, or what do you think will be, a challenge in writing or revising this paper?) The prompt could also be altered to become a multimodal activity: students could draw or bring in a picture that represented their challenges or fears, and then their peers could respond to the visual.