"I am a Minnesotan by birth and a traveler in wild places by vocation and compulsion." -Paul Gruchow

Thursday, September 15, 2011

Eng. 150: A Place to Start

It's true that Sara Evans' song "A Real Fine Place to Start" was going through my head during class today. My 150 turned in the rough draft of their first writing project, a personal essay that's designed to explore an aspect of a place they feel connected to. I'm pretty excited about what they're writing about.

Today's workshop is one I'm still in the process of developing. It mostly works, but I feel like it's going to be one of those that gets better with age. The idea is to find the energy and the heart of the text.

So, in their small groups of three, they brainstorm what might constitute "energy" in an essay. If I said, "Hey, where's the energy in this essay," what would you say? Once they had some ideas floating around, we put them on the board. Things like action/movement (which could be physical or mental or emotional); something personal, constructed with dialogue/scene; a vibrant voice (might be the result of dialogue or word choice); sentence structure that slows the reader down or speeds them up, depending on what the writer wants the reader to feel in those places; contradictory images or feelings.

Then I had them take one of their drafts, pass it to the person next to them in their group, and the group member was told to read quickly through the draft and mark in the margins/underline/star places of energy. However they defined it, mark the places which had some sort of energy.

When that was completed, I had them pass it to the next person and the new reader was directed to read quickly, but to mark scenes of action (with dialogue, etc. that put the reader right there next to them) and scenes of summary (where we're being told something happens). That's it.

When the author gets his/her paper back, they looked at the margin comments and they looked to see if what one person marked as energetic was echoed by the other person's marking of scenes of action or summary. I told the author to choose one of those moments of energy and flip their paper over and write that moment/scene with that kind of energy, as if they were going to start their paper with it--you don't actually have to start here when you revise, but I want you to write this moment as if you were going to. You always want to start from a place of energy, I told them.

I gave them time to do some writing and when we came back together, I asked what would change if you decided to start here: and they came up with ideas like restructuring chronologically, require more physical details, require more background information, etc. Some students did identify that those kinds of things were actually missing in this draft.

Next week, we'll talk more specifically about the rhetoric of beginnings and endings, with a packet I made up that takes the first page of quite a few essays and the last page. More on that next week. It's a fun day.


  1. What a fabulous activity. I love the way that you're forcing students to think about what makes a great piece of writing in a new and different way. And the fact that you're applying it directly to their work, and that they see the results in a creative and unique peer feedback activity is fantastic!

  2. If you use it, make sure you tell me how it went! (And you and I still have to have a Quotidiana conversation!)