Why Composition Classes Should Be Discussion-Based

The gospel of discussion-based teaching is nothing new and nothing particularly revolutionary.  You can find plenty of arguments for its virtues all over the Internet.  Discussion-based teaching is so hip that last year, my Esteemed Place of Employment brought in consultants for a full two-day workshop on the Harkness method.  So what can I tell you about it, oh intrepid teacher of literature, that you haven’t heard a billion times before from more highly credentialed education experts than you can count?

Mostly this: composition classes should be discussion-based.

I’m defining “composition classes” here as any class for which writing will make up fifty percent or more of the student’s final grade.  College freshman writing seminars count; AP courses with “and Composition” in their names count; writing-intense standard English courses count; creative writing counts, though its “composition” element is a little different here.  Basically, as far as I’m concerned, students who are learning to write well should also spend a lot of time talking. They should certainly spend way more time talking than they spend listening to me.

They should spend a lot of time talking because, done right, it gets them writing.

I begin every class with some variation on the question “What did you notice in the reading last night?”  (Sometimes, but not always, I’ll have a list of things to point out if no one brings them up.) Because we’ve talked about how writing is all about things doing stuff, they know they’re supposed to focus on characters and their actions.  A student may, for example, point out Pyotr Petrovich Luzhin’s bizarre clothing – a pink striped cravat and purple gloves –  when we meet him for the first time in Crime and Punishment.  A lively discussion of Luzhin’s pimp suit follows, which flows into a larger discussion of the overall significance of what different characters wear in Crime and Punishment.  Sounds like it could turn into a good paper, doesn’t it?  And it can, because while it’s going on, everyone is writing it.  For a teacher, the atmosphere during the best of these discussions is unreal.  It’s like listening to your students perform a symphony.

I tell my students on the first day of class, and remind them several times after, that “if you aren’t talking, you should be writing.”  They bring notebooks* to class every day, and most students will have filled one and started another by the end of the semester. Don’t just write down whatever I say, I stress to them.  Write down what your classmates say. Write down what you say, so you can remember it for later.  Write down the random things that pop into your mind that you didn’t get a chance to say.  Write down questions you were embarrassed to ask so you can bring them up when you come to my Extra Help later.  Write it all down. You’ll sport an impressive writer’s callus by the end of the semester, and you’ll have way less work to do when the time to write the formal essay rolls around.

When a student comes to me, struggling to think of a good paper topic, my first question will be which book she wants to write about – usually an easy question to answer.  Then I ask her why: what interests her about that book? Sometimes she knows, but much of the time, she waffles a little, because she hasn’t thought about that part of the process as much as she needs to.  Not to worry. We then go through her notes together, so that we can discover what she has already been writing about during discussions of the book.  Often, she can lift directly from her notes into the pages of her word document.  (Some of my really enterprising students type up their handwritten notes once or twice a week.  I strongly recommend that strategy to any students reading this post, especially if you have crappy handwriting.)  Watching the light dawn in a student’s eyes when he finds something in the literature to be excited about is one of those rewards that keeps you coming back for more.

In short: talking in class means writing in class.  And writing in class means that your students can feel good and strong and prepared when it’s time to Write For Real, because the writing is done.  All that’s left is to stick it in a Word or Google Doc and transform it into something musical.

*The physical kind, filled with paper.  Laptops and tablets in class are not part of my religion, but that’s a discussion for another day.

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