You can begin class with a moment of “First Thoughts,” free writing done in silence for just a few minutes about any thought that comes to mind; it is private and never shared. Then, if you like, you can give them a prompt in relation to their reading for that day, and they continue to write for five minutes. The students can then share their writing in response to the prompt in order to begin discussion. I notice that this simple process helps the students relax and get to work.
Suggest that the students do some reflective free-writing about their topics. Take a quiet moment (10-20 minutes) to answer these questions: Why am I drawn to this topic? What do I expect to find in the process? What do I hope to learn? What concerns do I have about the work? How can I address those issues? And, at the end of the written assignment, take 5-10 minutes to reflect: What surprised me about my discoveries? What did I accomplish, and what do I wish I had more time to accomplish?
Invite the students to break into groups and come up with contemporary examples to prove (or disprove) an author’s argument. It’s a simple way to make a historical text (or any text) relevant.
Each week the students in my classes first respond to specific questions about the readings in a journal for the first meeting, and then in a two-page typed piece for the second meeting. The journal functions as practice—they must learn to read reactively, to underline, to look up vocabulary, to jot down questions—without anyone evaluating their work. At first this process can be hard, so I ask them to bring in their journals to begin discussion. I give light comments on the weekly writings they turn in, mostly encouraging, and invite certain students to meet with me early on when I see significant problems with comprehension or grammar. Requiring the students to write twice a week is one of the most useful tasks we do; it helps them become more open and inquisitive writers and prepares them for longer assignments. At the end of the term, they assemble a portfolio of all of their work; they are often astonished by the change from their early work (stiff, impersonal, unspecific) to their later responses (engaged, personal, detailed).
When working on any text or image, ask the students to write a list of observations about what is actually there. If you are in class, you can have them share these observations. Then, they can list a series of insights or ideas they have about these observations. It’s good to share at each stage. Finally, ask the students to come up with an argument from these observations and insights. This process helps students to develop a precise and persuasive thesis.
Make a list of topics/authors/facts/ideas about the classwork. Cut them up and pass one to each student. Send them to the library to find at least one scholarly source about their topic. Give them a task to complete: Draw something they learned from the source; write three questions about the source; make a poster representing their most interesting finding. Return to class to share discoveries.
Ask the students to break into small groups and have them write a conversation using only the two texts. This exercise is useful to observe how authors write about a topic in differing or similar ways. Return to the group to read their conversations.
Twice a term, my students write a longer essay in three drafts. They present the first draft, which I have encouraged to be unpolished, and we go over it in small groups with a few rules (one is that the author cannot apologize for their draft). The listeners offer three things (one thing they like; one suggestion of adding evidence; one question to consider). The second draft is the one in which to expand, get messy, explore ideas. I meet with each student to discuss the second draft. In this meeting, the student can talk to me about any concerns or grammar questions. The student should choose a very specific topic for the essay; students often want to be ambitious or global from the start, yet I find that if they focus on something small at first they can later expand in the final draft. Students also try to choose a topic they already know about; I ask them to “Learn What You Don’t Know.
Students tend to write in generalities in their introductions and conclusions. Introductions, I tell them, are often finger-warmers, and in revision, they may find their thesis at the end of the draft. Conclusions, too, are often general summaries, yet students can use them to ask the questions that they haven’t answered in the body of the essay. Conclusions should be a place for further thoughts.
Have your students break into groups. They should come up with a list of their agreements and disagreements with particular points in the text. Ask them to return to the larger group and report on their list. This activity can be used to continue your discussion of the text.
One effective exercise we do in class comes from Jane Tompkins, whose essay, “Indians: Textualism, Morality, and the Problem of History,” sparks amazing outpourings; in class, I ask them to write about something they thought they understood, then later they realized they had not understood completely or at all. This exercise is useful when you want to show the students the importance of being open to new ideas and revising their assumptions.
Some student writers tend to be hesitant to make assertions in their drafts. In conferences, I tell them “Be Bold.” I ask them to edit all the “seems/perhaps/maybe” parts of the draft. They need to make an assertion, then find the evidence for it, and build a thesis.