On Writing Workshop, Cognitive Overload, and Creative Writing by Garn Press Author Paul Thomas
Paul Thomas is the author of Beware The Roadbuilders: Literature As Resistance.
By Paul Thomas
“The cause for my wrath is not new or single,” wrote Lou LaBrant in 1931, targeting how too often the project method engaged students in activities other than literacy.
This sharp critique by LaBrant has always resonated with me because even though I am now a teacher educator and have been a teacher for well over thirty years, I have always balked at pedagogy, instructional practices of any kind but especially those driven by technocratic zeal.
As one example, literature circles as an instructional structure represents the essential problems confronted by LaBrant about 86 years ago: the instructional practice itself requires time to teach students how to do the practice properly, and thus, “doing literature circles” becomes a goal unto itself and as a consequence subsumes and/or replaces the authentic literacy goals it claims to seek.
Further, many instructional practices border on being gimmicky because they are constructed in such a way to facilitate that anyone (regardless of expertise and experience) can implement them in the role of “teacher.”
For a while now, I have been contemplating the tension within teaching writing (composition) between those who teach writing as teachers and those who teach writing as writers.
I certainly default to the latter, and am drawn often to John Warner‘s public examinations of his teaching of writing (see below) because he also teaches writing as a writer.
Warner’s pieces about grading contracts and de-grading his first-year writing course have come when I am beginning my English/ELA methods seminar and wading into how my candidate must navigate ways to seek authentic practices in the context of the real world of teaching that often models for her teaching writing as a teacher, as a technocrat.
Here, then, I want to pull together a few concepts that I think are at their core related to LaBrant’s “wrath” and my rejecting of technocratic instruction—writing workshop, cognitive overload, and creative writing.
Warner in blog posts and on Twitter questions his commitment to writing workshop, and offered that he has abandoned the term “workshop” for “laboratory.”
In one response, I mused that this all depends on what we mean by “writing workshop.”
Teaching about and practicing writing workshop for me have always been grounded in Nancie Atwell’s use of Giacobbe—that writing workshop incorporates time, ownership, and response.
Of course, writing workshop also typically involved peer and teacher-student conferencing as well as a number of other strategies such as read alouds and examining model texts.
So, although I do not wish to put words in Warner’s mouth, I believe he and I share a skepticism about writing workshop when “doing workshop” becomes so time consuming and complex that the pursuit of workshop replaces students actually doing the very messy and unpredictable task of writing, composing.
This is again the technocratic trap of instructional strategies of all kinds.
For the teaching of writing, something Kurt Vonnegut claimed could not be done, this trap is more common than not, particularly because teachers are often under-prepared as teachers of writing and teachers who are not writers (most ELA/English teachers, I would suspect) dominate who is charged with teaching writing.
Technocrats have ruined concepts such as the writing process, conferencing, and workshop by scripting and work-sheeting them into practices anyone can implement.
The teaching of writing requires teacher expertise and a high level of teaching as a craft—but fastidious attention to doing workshop or intricate peer-conferencing or mandating students demonstrate the writing process or essay templates ultimately fails fostering young writers.
Concurrent with the problems inherent in technocratic pedagogy is failing to consider the importance of cognitive overload when students are developing complex behaviors such as writing or reading.
Each of us has a limited amount of cognition we can devote to behaviors. When something becomes “second nature,” we then free cognition space. For me in the past year or so, returning to mountain biking has exposed this dynamic since road cycling had become “natural” to me, but mountain biking demanded so much purposeful thinking, I was constantly bumbling and frustrated.
Few truisms mean more to me as a teacher of writing than paying attention to (thus, avoiding) cognitive overload when your main instructional goal is fostering students as writers.
For example, if the topic or writing form is too demanding for students, they will often devote less or nearly no energy to writing itself. Many of us as teachers have read garbled essays by students, blaming the students instead of recognizing that we have asked them to do more than they were capable of doing concurrently.
For this reason, I stress the need to use personal narrative (because the content of the writing is an area of student expertise) as one foundational way to help students focus on craft and authentic writing forms.
K-12 students and first-year undergraduates, I think, need some careful consideration of cognitive overload as they acquire writing craft, and for first-year undergraduates, as they become more adept at the nuances of disciplinary writing in academia.
Avoiding technocratic pedagogy and cognitive overload, then, share the need for the teacher to keep primary the goals of learning; if we are fostering writers, we need to be sure time and effort are mostly spent on writing—not doing a pet instructional practice, not acquiring some disciplinary knowledge.
Finally, as I was discussing avoiding cognitive overload with my ELA/English methods student, I had her reconsider her plan to have students write short stories as the composition element in her short story unit this coming spring.
Just as I balk at technocratic pedagogy, I struggle with asking K-12 students to write fiction and poetry—primarily because these are very demanding forms of writing that encroach on my concern about cognitive overload; student must have both high levels of writing craft and the ability to fabricate narratives in order, for example, to write short stories.
As a high school English teacher, I found that students often reached for derivatives of derivative fiction in order to have something for characters and plot in their original short stories; for example, a student would write about an ER doctor as a main character (he or she always committed suicide at the end), drawing from almost entirely what the student knew about ERs from the TV show ER.
I made my case about cognitive overload, and then, she and I brainstormed what to have students write instead of their own short stories during her short story unit.
First, I asked her to reconsider her definition of “creative writing” being limited to fiction and poetry. I prefer LaBrant’s definition:
For in truth every new sentence is a creation, a very intricate and remarkable product. By the term “creative writing” we are, however, emphasizing the degree to which an individual has contributed his personal feeling or thinking to the sentence or paragraph. This emphasis has been necessary because too frequently the school has set up a series of directions, to this extent limiting what we may think of as the creative contribution: the teacher names the topic, determines the length of the paper, and even sometimes assigns the form. For the purposes of this paper I shall, perhaps arbitrarily, use the term “creative writing” to include only that written composition for which the writer has determined his own subject, the form in which he presents it, and the length of the product. (p. 293)
This pulls us back to honoring the broad concepts of writing workshop above, focusing here on “creative” being linked to student choice (ownership) over what s/he writes about and what form that writing takes.
Next, we brainstormed the possibility of asking students to write personal narratives while also emphasizing that their original personal narratives would have in common with the short stories they are studying—craft elements.
Students could focus on organizational techniques in narratives, for example, while reading fiction, and then, incorporate that craft in their own personal narratives.
I have examined here ways to rethink writing workshop, cognitive overload, and creative writing so that we forefront our writing goals when teaching writing and guard against technocratic and reductive instructional strategies that can mask our own expertise and experience as writers.
From LaBrant to Warner, we can unpack that teachers of writing are often working from places of fear—fear about losing control, fear of not being adequately prepared to teach writing, fear students will not write if given choice and freedom.
However, “I have heard many teachers argue that, given a free hand, pupils will write very little,” LaBrant explained. “I can only say that has not been my observation nor my teaching experience…” (p. 299).
And then Warner: “With the de-graded contract, students are writing more, and more importantly feel free to take risks in their writing.”
Our antidote to these fears is trust, and then the willingness to honor for ourselves and our students the value in risk.
Teaching writing like writing itself is fraught with fits and starts as well as failure. Trying to control those realities results in either masking them or destroying the greater goal of fostering writers.
For Further Reading
Thinking Context: No More Writing, John Warner
LaBrant, L. (1931, March). Masquerading. The English Journal, 20(3), 244-246.
LaBrant, L. (1936, April). The psychological basis for creative writing. The English Journal, 25(4), 292-301.
Beware the Roadbuilders: Literature as Resistance
About Paul Thomas
Paul Thomas is a recipient of NCTE’s George Orwell Award and author of Beware The Roadbuilders: Literature As Resistance. He engages the public in the most profound and controversial topics of our day, exposing the terrifying truths of the times in which we live. His work can be followed at Radical Eyes for Equity (blog) and @plthomasEdD on twitter.