Educational researchers and theorists often tout the benefits of social learning. Frank Smith (1998) addresses the role of social environments in acquiring and retaining new knowledge; Jonathan Erwin (2004) describes the payoff of appealing to students’ need for belonging through cooperative learning strategies; and Jim Burke (2008) frequently notes the success he enjoys by allowing students to collaborate on projects. Humans clearly need social interaction to live fulfilling, meaningful lives, and it is no different for children who spend the majority of their time in schools. Certain academic endeavors, however, tend to lend themselves to cooperative learning more readily than others. In an English class, for instance, a small group discussion of a poem or short story creates a social environment where the exchange of ideas fosters student growth and curiosity. However, when that same class transitions to a writing assignment, students are typically discouraged from talking and forced to develop their ideas in isolation. While there is certainly a place for quiet, solitary reflection, maybe creating more time for students to write collaboratively would improve their perceptions of writing in general.
Rebekah Caplan alludes to the appeal of social writing in her book, Writers in Training. She recalls that her happiest experiences with writing came when scribbling notes to friends or penning farewell messages in yearbooks. In other words, writing that involved self-expression for and among friends. Though she mentions her experience as a way of getting at students’ tendency to write in broad, general statements rather than in specific details and examples, her recollection suggests that collaboration should perhaps play a larger role in writing instruction than it does. Part of Caplan’s training program involves daily writing. Every day she provides her students a sentence that tells and asks them to transform it into one that shows. For instance, students might receive the telling sentence, “The bus stop was painfully cold that morning,” then write a paragraph for homework that showed the experience. Urging students to provide the experience for the reader rather than telling about it is a good way to get them to grasp the purpose of the exercise.
There is indeed much value in having students complete showing exercises. They hone their writing ability through using specific language, closely examining a situation, developing ideas, and creating a questioning interior monologue–all important characteristics of good writers. Because my eighth graders need to work on developing all of those traits, I implemented a version of Caplan’s training in my own class. Rather than have them complete the paragraph for homework, however, we practiced writing to show as a whole class. With a telling sentence as our guide, students took turns suggesting sentences to create an engaging, fun paragraph. I was happily surprised by their enthusiasm and eagerness to share. I began to have the impression that they were starting to see how writing–as a mode of self expression–can be more than something they are forced to do in English class.
It is clear to me that the same eagerness and enthusiasm would have been absent had the exercise been given individually in class or as homework. The reason is that there would not have been a social collaborative element at play. As Caplan was writing in 1984, she could not have anticipated the abundance of opportunities to share that are available to students today. Perpetually texting, posting, tweeting, and updating, kids today have more writing modes available to them than ever before. However, English teachers are justifiably reticent to legitimize text messaging per se as writing fit for class, but ought to channel students’ desire to socialize and collaborate through writing. I have addressed this notion in previous posts treating the work of Kittle and Hicks as well as Stacy Kitsis, and my opinion remains–taking advantage of students’ urge to collaborate is a must for teachers of all disciplines. Whether it is a simple class exercise or a writing assignment completed on a class wiki, appealing to students’ social needs through collaboration is well-advised.