March 19, 2010

Too Many Ideas...too few? by Elaine Soos

This post was provided by Elaine Soos as we were discussing Idea development in my online class Teaching and Assessing Writing with the 6-Traits. ~ Dennis

One strategy from our readings that I would like to try with students who present too much information in their writing is asking them to "cut the copy in half without losing content" (Spandel, p. 213). This strategy intrigued me when I read it, yet I don't know why, because it's something I myself have done many times in my own writing -- including any time I write my primary post for this class! I once worked in the features department of a specialty newspaper whose editor would accommodate my passion for covering talks (or doing interviews) about complicated issues. I'd have a very flexible word count for my magazine-style articles, and I was in heaven. Then, I went to a daily where I couldn't do this -- not enough time and not enough space. I still enjoyed covering the same types of articles, but this time I had to intentionally think, "Use stronger images that will say more in less space." It was a whole new skill to learn and took awhile to get used to. (A quote I posted in our Friday Fun activity for Week 1 sums up this still challenging experience for me -- "I have made this [letter] longer, because I have not had the time to make it shorter." (Blaise Pascal 1623-1662) J Maybe our students can relate to this as well. :)

I also liked Spandel's suggestion (p. 213) to ask "wordy" students to summarize their message, to help them focus. When I have asked students who write too long or too much to state their main idea in one sentence verbally and then to do it in writing using a "condensed, no-words-wasted" approach (Spandel p. 213), I've usually found they "find" their main idea and are better able to write to it.  I can't wait to get my hands on Geoffrey Kloske's "Once Upon a Time, the End (Asleep in 60 Seconds)" suggested by Spandel, who says that once students  hear/read a few examples of these crazy summaries of popular fairy tales, they will better understand the idea of narrowing and focusing their own writing.

Then there are the students who write too long, but not because they have too much to say. Students who just "pad" their writing, repeat words, etc., to make their compositions longer suffer from not having enough to write about, often because they have not done enough research (or don't have enough knowledge of the topic from personal experience). I enjoyed learning about two creative and fun ways to help students learn to include rich details in their writing:
  • writing a "how to poem ... to explore any concept, term or person" (Spandel, p. 172) - e.g., "how to be Hestor Prynne, ... Nurse Ratchet... a democracy," etc.
  • putting their writing "to the test"(p. 175) -- having students write a multiple-choice quiz based on their writing, to see if it has enough "detail-rich information -- enough for several questions."
I would like to try these strategies with the students I will tutor. Has anyone "out there" tried them already -- or something similar -- and if so, did they help? (As I mentioned earlier, I thought I was ready to begin tutoring before I took this class, but I'm so glad I am getting all these great ideas beforehand, from our readings, lectures, Web sites/software -- and all of you!)

Elaine from Ohio