From Students to Writers:
The Power of the Creative Writing Workshop in the First-Year Writing Classroom
I modeled this course after the creative writing workshop. Accordingly, I devoted the majority of class time to full-class workshops of student assignments. Each student received feedback in a full-class workshop on most, if not all, of the four assignments, and students prepared for workshops by writing a short response to each paper being workshopped that day. After the workshop, students whose work had been workshopped wrote a response to the feedback and set a revision plan. Students could then revise their paper an unlimited number of times for more feedback before the final draft was due a couple weeks after the last workshop of the unit.
For assignments, students started with the Rhetorical Analysis, which they wrote on an article of their choice. They then wrote an Issues Papers on a topic of their choice, before creating a webpage in the Multi-modal Unit. In place of the Opinion Editorial, I introduced the Choices Unit. During this unit, students produced work in any genre of their choice, from a poem to a webpage to a Cliffs Notes article. Along with their project, students handed in a 2-page explanation of the genre they chose, describing the project’s audience and aims, and explaining how the project accomplished that aim for the intended audience.
For textbooks, I assigned the Little Penguin Handbook and Joseph Williams’s Style, along with various articles that students accessed online, through newspapers such as The New York Times and The Wall Street Journal. In addition to assigned class readings, students were responsible for spending one hour each week reading material that enhanced their writing. I provided suggestions but approved many types of reading, from novels and writing guides to advertisements and blogs. As long as students could justify a connection between the material and their work in class, I approved the reading. Additionally, during the Multimodal Unit, I required students to analyze the visual design in advertisements and films.
As a creative writer, I have long believed that full-class workshops improve writers. In addition to providing writers with extensive feedback from their peers and multiple perspectives on one piece of writing, workshops provide students with the opportunity to analyze other students’ writing. I believed that this course design would teach students how to analyze and revise, along with teaching them the importance of communicating clearly. I also hoped that the democratic nature of the workshop would create a classroom where all students felt comfortable participating.
My rationale for introducing the Choices Unit came from my theory that the best thing I can do as an instructor is provide students with writing options. Many students will not write a rhetorical analysis after completing Writing 150, but all students will write in one form or another in the future. By allowing students to choose a genre that mattered to them and develop their writing in that context, I hoped to encourage students to take ownership of their writing and to continue writing in the future.
As far as the order of the assignments is concerned, I had students start with the Rhetorical Analysis so that they would already have a theoretical understanding of what makes a good argument before attempting their own argument. Students then progressed to the Issues Paper, already prepared to objectively analyze sources. I placed the Multimodal Unit after the first two assignments so that students would have a chance to develop their own argumentative skills before working in groups and transferring those skills to visual rhetoric. The Choices Unit came last so that students would have experience with a few genres before deciding what genre to produce for their own project.
Overall students respond very positively to this course design. Most students report that the course workshop has improved their writing, and after two semesters using this design I have yet to hear one student complain about workshops. Students say that they appreciate receiving feedback from the entire class and that they also appreciate the chance to provide feedback. A few students who struggle in their own writing have been surprised to discover that they can give excellent feedback to other writers, and their newfound confidence surfaces in their own writing. Students did find the pressure of writing a workshop response before each class a bit demanding, so I shrank the responses from one page to half a page. The half-page responses are still insightful but without the fluff students were initially sneaking into page-long responses. Students also enjoy the flexibility of the Choices Unit, and some of the most professional work students have produced has surfaced during this unit.
The first time I taught with this course model I graded each draft and told students that future revisions were optional. That policy motivated most students to revise several times per unit. However, it encouraged students to worry about grades immediately, and some students produced many shallow revisions instead of a few thoughtful drafts. A few students also came to feel that a paper deserved an A as long as they had tried to address the issues I had pointed out on a B or C level draft. The second semester, I avoided those issues by only grading final drafts. While this solution has discouraged shallow revisions between drafts, students have also been much less likely to submit more drafts for review than strictly necessary. In the future, I would look for a solution that compromises between these two extremes.
A few other instructors have already begun adopting similar course models, and for good reason: students respond very positively to the workshop model. If I teach this course or equivalent composition courses in the future, I will continue to utilize the creative writing workshop, and I will continue to devote the majority of class time to workshops. I recommend the workshop model to all 150 instructors, even if students only workshop a few pieces each unit.
In the future, however, I would make this course even more student-owned by requiring students to lead in-class discussions of readings. Leading a discussion on a reading helps students comprehend the material, in addition to helping students see how the principles found in the reading can apply to their own work. In the future I might also return to grading each draft, but with the caveat that students can only hand in one new draft for feedback each week, in order to encourage careful revision.
I cannot stress enough, though, just how successful the workshop component of this course has been. If you haven’t tried using workshops in your classes, I highly recommend it.