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Jul 05

Inspiring the Writer in everyone

The Window activity was taught to me by Sally Jessup, my close friend and colleague. She had a gift for recognizing in others a capacity that they did not always see in themselves. The Window activity, as she designed it, is a powerful tool for inspiring writing in all people. She understood that writing skills are a constant struggle that many people grapple with, primarily because of their own negative self perceptions regarding their capacity. To understand the value of the Window activity, context is needed regarding the complex challenges that remain mostly uncovered in education.

Writing is a challenge for students. The writing process, particularly revision and reflection, is the elephant in every classroom from Kinder to college. Most teachers say that students need to use the writing process to become skillful writers, but few take the time to teach the craft, or do not know how. Through my teaching career, I’ve discovered that many students do not see themselves as good writers. For some, the fear of writing is nearly phobic.

 

A further complication is that many teachers who teach writing do not view themselves as writers. During some of the workshops I facilitate, I survey the staff: “Raise your hand if you view yourself as a writer?” The number of raised hands has been consistent: 10% or less.

When I worked on my Masters in English, I’d taught three years as a History teacher. Early on my graded papers were returned drenched in red inked corrections. This discovery that my writing was not as good as I thought was sobering. I’m thankful to those professors who (with extended patience) helped me realize I had work to do, and then when I showed a desire to improve–I was going to become an English teacher after all–they set me on a path towards lifelong development of my writing. Disclaimer: the red ink drenching worked for me but could shut down others.

That graduate school experience startled me with an epiphany that has stayed with me ever since: Writing is a muscle that gets stronger with thoughtful practice. Without development or usage, writing skills atrophy. The good news is that it’s never too late to improve one’s writing. Great writers are not born (sorry Stephen King), they work relentlessly and thoughtfully at their craft.

Sally Jessup understood the need for thoughtful practice. She also understood that writing needed to be purposeful and engaging. The Window activity provided the opportunity for all of these factors. A value added is that the Window activity opens conversations with students to mediate their negative self-perceptions as a writer.

 

The Window Activity

I’m including the directions for the Window activity in this link. Before you read the linked file that you’ve just clicked (if you’re like me) or watch the video version, I invite you to learn about the Window Activity by doing it. What follows is an example that I encourage you to experience for yourself. Try the writing exercise after each step. It’ll help you understand the anxiety and the benefits. Let’s begin…

Focus of activity: Celebrating Independence Day

Driving Question: How might rituals for celebration (like Independence Day) strengthen a community or nation?

Step One: Introduction

You are in an empty room. It has no door. The only light comes through the blinds of a single window. In a moment, I will raise the blinds so that through the closed window you will see a scene. Be ready to study the scene.

Blinds

 

Step Two: Brainstorming

I’m going to raise the blind. When I do, study the picture…

Describe what you see. If you run out of ideas from one part of the scene, look at a different section of the picture and continue to add details to your description.

Use the Fastwrite approach

Write without stopping–pen to paper or fingers to keyboard. Set timer for 4 minutes. Start it and write. If you get stuck on an idea, look at a different part of the picture for more detail ideas. While you look repeatedly write the word: rituals.

For this activity, rituals is the trigger word. A trigger word relates to the theme or a concept of the activity or project that keeps students thinking about the reason behind the work.

Study the picture below,

        start the 4 minute timer,..

                 and begin writing…Now…

Insert picture through a window.

July 4th 2010 Parade in Cayucos, CA - an exhibition of Americana

Step Three: Communicating through the Senses

I’m going to open the window. This lets in the breeze and other senses. Describe details in the picture using sensory details: sound, smell, taste, touch, and sight. Try to use mostly the senses other than sight where possible. If you like a challenge, try to include many taste details (Note: taste sense is closely related to smell details).

Use the Freewrite approach

You may take pauses during writing to think about how you want to choose words for the sensory detail. Set timer for 6-8 minutes.

Study the picture below

       start the 6-8 minute timer,…

                and begin writing…Now…

July 4th 2010 Parade in Cayucos, CA - an exhibition of Americana

 

 

 

Step Four: Becoming part of the scene

You are being transported through the window and into the scene. Choose your location and role. Write in narrative format as if you are part of the scene. Use sensory details as part of your narrative. Writing in 1st person perspective is recommended. You may use fast or freewrite format for 5-10 minutes.

Study the picture below…

         start the 5-10 minute timer,…

                  and begin writing…Now…

July 4th 2010 Parade in Cayucos, CA - an exhibition of Americana

 

 

The next step is to have participants share their 2nd or 3rd writing piece with 1-3 others. The expressions of pleased surprise at the quality of the writing is common. I never get tired of seeing people having the epiphany that they can write better than they thought.


Please post your writing from step 3 or 4 in the comment section below. It will be great to see what you craft, and how you might use this with others. The excitement and confidence in writing that this activity generates is exactly how Sally Jessup (RIP 2012) had intended. So lets inspire others to discover the writer inside them.

Blinds

7 comments

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  1. Ms Laurie

    Thank you so much for sharing this activity!

    1. John McCarthy

      I’m glad you find it helpful. It’s a great activity.

  2. Jessy Tosh

    I was so impressed by this activity that I have started a creative writing club at school. I am a math and science teacher and this will help a bunch, bring out the creativity in us all. Thanks for sharing!

  3. John McCarthy

    Glad you like the Window Activity. It can engage the inner writer in everyone. Also, think about how you might use this to launch a Science unit. It’ll get your students deeply connected to the topic.

  4. Clarinda

    What a brilliant strategy for all learning styles (actually three strategies). In my writing classes, I begin with the premise that people constantly–in their minds. My mantra from Day 1 in a writing class is that we must “make the invisible visible” (a phrase from Cris Tovani’s work). Your Window Activity embodies and affirms that notion–and so much more. LOVE it. Thank you for generously sharing your work. I’m tickled I stumbled on this site.

  5. Deborah Vigneaux

    This is a great activity, and not just for an English (writing) class. It’s important for students to observe what they see, imagine what they would feel, and put themselves into a scene. The ramifications of putting yourself there–identifying with someone in the photo– can be huge! I use something similar in my Spanish classes, where I give the students a painting to look at and they may either write about the scene in general, description; write about what is happening from the point of view of someone in the scene; or write themselves into the scene and write in first person. Most students opt to just describe it, but it gives other options to the more creative students.

    1. John McCarthy

      Hi Deborah,
      I’m glad you found value in the strategy. It’s a good way to help students find writing appealing. 🙂

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