Teach Reflective Writing Through Reflective Writing

I mean, DUH.

That “duh” is aimed at myself, because I really hadn’t put this together. After all these years of reading and writing about diaries and other forms of reflective writing, I hadn’t realized that the best way to teach the study of the diary is to have students write diaries. This is a lesson I learned from my students. In my Fall 2015 Life Writing graduate seminar, each students was responsible for teaching a text or topic and almost every student began their teaching presentations with some form of in-class writing. They were really good at creating provocative situations with all manner of challenging parameters that produced thoughtful, creative, and sometime hilarious responses. Usually the writing prompts followed the structure of “Given situation A, write B”; for example:

You are being taken to jail and you just have enough power left in your phone to send one message (text, Tweet, or Facebook post): what would it be?

Or,

You only have a few more minutes to live; write your final diary entry.

Great, right?

On the last day of class, I asked my students why they had almost all begun their teaching lessons with a writing prompt and we had a wonderful discussion about the fact that the life writing genres we were reading (specifically diaries and letters) were ones they didn’t necessarily feel familiar with, or confident about analyzing as literary texts. So, being given the opportunity to practice writing in the form or voice of a diarist or letter writer helped to bring them into the genre in a new and useful way.

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A page from Thomas Edison’s diary (1885).

In the past, I have hesitated to assign self-reflective writing because I lacked confidence about a) how to teach a self-reflective writing process and b) how to grade self-reflective writing. My training has only prepared me to teach and evaluate analytical student writing; branching out beyond that makes me nervous. But, I am committed to rectifying this, in large part because my students have taught me that if I am going to continue to teach self-reflective writing in my classes (which I am), I need to use self-reflective writing practices to do so.

Next semester I am implementing two new assignments: The first is what I am calling “Friday Morning Reflections.” I have a MWF schedule and I plan that every Friday morning class will start with an in-class writing assignment (ungraded, maybe even not taken up) that asks students to reflect on a question, topic, or problem from the class material. These will (hopefully, if I do my backwards design well) ultimately feed into later writing assignments including my second new assignment: A gender memoir. I’m teaching the Introduction to Women’s & Gender Studies and my students will be asked to use their “Friday Reflections” as the seeds for a gender memoir that they will write at the end of the semester, (hopefully) after having gained new insight into themselves as gendered subjects. We’ll see how these assignments go, but I am interested in reflective writing as a pedagogical tool, not just as a subject matter or literary form worthy of recovery and analysis.

Image source: The Thomas Edison Papers, Rutgers University

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