Freewriting is a means of teaching students that personal and emotional aspects of the "self" are welcome and are often seen in all types of writing, including academics. The "academic" writing that one is taught in high school often discourages the use of the personal or emotional to get a point across. What every reader must realize is that there is a bit of "personal and emotional" influence in every written work. If students "avoid personal or emotional topics, a source of motivation and interest is lost" (Connors 26), and they develop a resistance to writing anything. Expressive writing, specifically freewriting, if taught correctly can foster critical thinking skills in freshman composition students. Therefore, dispelling the myth that freewriting is merely a senseless activity that discourages students from learning academic language. Freewriting, according to Peter Elbow, professor of English at the University of Massachusetts, Amherst, is "to write and not stop for anything. Go quickly without rushing. Never stop to look back, to cross something out, to wonder how to spell something, to wonder what word or thought to use, or think about what you are doing" (qtd. in Fontaine 4).
Freewriting fosters uninhibited thought, because students know that they are not going to be "graded" on their emotional responses to a particular topic. They also realize that there are no "rules" per se to worry about, such as style, grammar, specific organization, etc. Whereas with academic writing, students are faced with a million worries. They must adhere to strict guidelines, in format, mechanics, organization, style, etc., and there is no time to "think" of what they are writing about, because so much time is spent focusing on the "correct" way to write.
Many freshmen enter college believing that they will make an "A" on a paper if they follow the five paragraph format learned in high school: the first paragraph being an introduction where the last sentence of the paragraph is the thesis statement. The second, third and fourth paragraphs constitute the body of the paper where the support for said thesis idea is presented, and the last paragraph represents a tidy conclusion, restating in somewhat "different terms" the thesis statement. The five paragraph essay is "the formalistic approach to writing that predominates today, and encourages students to box their ideas in ready-made forms, to write by formula" (Scanlon 95-6). Freewriting, however, adheres to no specific format, but is designed to allow the student to write for five to ten minutes on an assigned or chosen topic. This type of exercise will help the student prepare his/her ideas for writing a larger, more specific essay. Freewriting is a means of teaching freshmen critical thinking skills, as well as getting them to write at all. There is also evidence to support the concept that despite the haphazard ideas seen in student's freewritings, that there are underlying organizational aspects to these writings, which if the student were to analyze fully, would discover that in the midst of their ramblings and/or venting of emotions, lies a focused idea that could be developed and expanded to aid in the production of academic papers.
Elbow divides thinking into two stages: first order thinking which "is intuitive and creative and does not strive for conscious direction or control," and second order thinking, which "is committed to accuracy and strives for logic and control" (Change 37). First order thinking is used "when we write fast without censoring, and let the words lead us to associations and intuitions we had not foreseen" (Change 37). This type of thinking is obviously describing freewriting, while second order thinking is "what most people have in mind when they talk about critical thinking" (Change 37). Freewriting fosters critical thinking skills, skills that refer "to the ability to think critically about one's own thinking, feelings and beliefs, and a willingness to evaluate ideas and arguments" (Richard Paul, qtd in Wilhoit 126), in a couple of ways. First, freewriting can aid in eliminating "writer's block." Many students seem to have a difficult time getting started on a paper, but "once you manage to get yourself writing in an exploratory but uncensored fashion, the ongoing string of language and syntax itself becomes a lively and surprising force for generation. Words call up words, ideas call up more ideas" (Elbow, Embracing Contraries 59). This idea, of "words calling up words, and ideas calling up more ideas," pertains to critical thinking, because once a student begins writing about a topic, they will inevitably begin to perform some type of analysis on said topic, whether or not they are consciously aware of what they are doing. Linda Hammond cites a student's freewrite over a specific topic, a Sylvia Plath poem entitled: "Poppies in October," to demonstrate that analysis can and will creep into the freewriting scheme.
"EVEN THE SUN-CLOUDS THIS MORNING CANNOT MANAGE SUCH SKIRTS." Sun clouds sound very beautiful. I can imagine pink soft clouds that become brighter and brighter when the sun rises. But I have no ideas what "skirts" are. Are they the type that women wear? Or is it a skirting movement? All right, look at the titlePoppies in October. Poppies bloom. The dictionary says poppies are of "showy" colors. That makes more sense with the rest of the poem but not here. But back to skirtsdo the petals look like skirts? That sounds reason- ablenot too right but reasonable. Wait....this has nothing to do with skirts but I just said the clouds of the morning became brighter and brighter as the sun rises...like a flower becomes more vibrant as it blooms. (81-2)
It seems that the aspects of critical thinking are obvious in the above passage as the reader can see the logical steps that the writer goes through to reach her conclusion. She asks herself questions, then reflects on several possible answers, instead of rushing or forcing a conclusion as many students do (Hammond 72).
Second, freewriting encourages critical thinking by offering a larger view on a given topic than what is offered by academic writing (Elbow, Pre/Text 8-9). If one is more involved in what they are reading, then the tendency to analyze the feelings fostered by this involvement is much stronger, than if one were to only understand every other word of some technical paper. Elbow states, "personal expressive writing is often more clearly attentive to an audience and its views than we see in much academic writingwhere writers often slide into a glassy-eyed stance of talking to everyone but not really connecting to anyone" (Pre/Text 10). This is especially true with college freshmen, because if the student is even remotely interested in the topic at hand, then the written response to that topic is bound to be more interesting. It seems that many students at this age are more interested in subjects that revolve around socializing, rather than topics that center around self-introspection.
Not only does freewriting foster critical thinking skills, but it also adheres to certain organizational guidelines. Richard Haswell states that "the same piece of writing can be both 'chaotic' and 'coherent' because not everyone shares the same definition of organized" (35). Haswell points out that organization is always predetermined or presupposed by the reader, which is certainly true with freewritings. If the reader knows the genre of the work he/she is reading then they will automatically predetermine what type of writing they expect to read. For example, if one is reading a freewrite than a certain amount of chaos would be expected. On the other hand, if one is reading Hemingway or Steinbeck, than a different presupposition will takeover, because the reader expects a certain organization, style, and language.
Haswell divides freewritings into four distinct organizational categories: genre, logical, emotional, and situational (42-51). The genre type organization characteristics such as personal problems, lists of things to do, and descriptions of actions, seem to be geared more toward a journal type writing, rather than a five to ten minute freewrite. However, the emotional and situational categories have characteristics that I have seen in some of my students' freewritings. Haswell states that emotional organization is used 60% more by upper division students (48), and that the emotional elements instead of ranging from negative to positive, as one might expect, they often moved in the reverse, positive to negative (48). Situational organization pertains to language based on reference to the freewriter's expressions or ideas (48). This type of language includes phrases such as, "good time's up," "done," and "I don't know what to say now" (49). I have seen many similar comments on my students freewritings, especially "I don't know what to say now" and "this is boring, why are we doing this." Interestingly enough, Haswell cites nearly one third of his freshmen students as using situational organization, while only one tenth of his upper division students use this method (51).
As there are many ways to organize freewritings and to use them to foster critical thinking skills, there are just as many different approaches of teaching these organizational and critical skills with freewriting. Peter Elbow and Lynn Hammond both use freewriting in their classes in similar manners. Elbow went through three bouts of teaching before settling on the style he uses today. The first bout occurred during his graduate year at M.I.T. where he "simply tried to imitate the good teachers (he had) hadto be Socrates and a good guy at the same time" (Embracing Contraries 67). After teaching in this manner for five years, he went through a "why should I tell them anything if they don't ask me questions" stage, in which he taught his classes (sophomore level) based on a three step system. First the students had to state on paper three times during the year what the expected to learn or what they had learned. Each student pursued his/her own goals with only constraints of reality to steer their learning. Second, all students read either a work of literature, or something about literature each week, and third, they all had to write something on paper and put it in a box where all the other students could read it and make comments (Contraries 71). This process sounds similar to our e-mail usage in 5360. Finally, after becoming fed up with the above two methods of teaching, Elbow embraced his first and second order thinking technique. He states that his agenda for the beginning of a semester is "always to enforce generating and brainstorming and the deferral of criticism in order to build students' confidence and show them that they can quickly learn to come up with a great quantity of words and ideas" (Change 40).
Similarly, Hammond uses freewriting to promote critical thinking skills in her classes. First she creates a series of questions for focused freewritings that lead students through all the necessary thinking stages of a task. This, she feels, helps the student writer "engage in genuine exploration without having to be "right" at first, and also lets them discover insights that are more profound then their initial thoughts" (32). Hammond then stresses the revising process, where students set their work aside for a short time, then go back and read over it, and finally engage in the freewriting process again, to gain further insight into their writing.
Two other professors who use freewritings in their class structure are Patricia Connors and Kenneth Macrorie, generally acknowledged as the father of freewriting (Macrorie 175). Connors says that "freewriting and other unedited writing have a developmental function to help the writer discover the reactions and questions of an external or internal topic" (26). She has her students develop a large body of writings, and then from these, the students must pick several that they want to share with the rest of the class. This is similar to Lisa Ede's method, which I am using to teach my freshman composition class, only with Ede, there is no large body of work, but a single freewriting that has been done in class, and then is shared. Connors' method emphasizes freewriting as the develop- mental step to aiding the writer in discovering reactions and questions to certain topics, which is leading the student to use critical thinking skills.
Kenneth Macrorie began using freewriting in his classes in 1964, long before anyone else caught on. On the first day of class he reads an example of 'Engfish' (academicism), and tells the students to "forget for the moment grammar, spelling, and punctuation, then reads a powerful truth telling work written in a previous group by one of their peers" (188). During the semester his teaching method is similar to Connors, as he asks his students to freewrite in or outside of class, and then to revise the work for presentation. The critical thinking skills arise when a student must go back and analyze the work for presentation. They are digging deeper into their beliefs and thoughts to extract some concrete "truth telling" information. I use, with the Ede syllabus, some of the same techniques as do Elbow, Hammond, Connors, and Macrorie. Exercises such as looping and unpacking code words on freewritings force students to analyze and think critically about what they wrote. At the beginning of the semester many of my students would "blow off" the freewritings as boring and having no point, but now, a lot of them have said that the freewritings help them organize their thoughts, and help them to focus on a specific topic for their essays.
Despite all of the admirable qualities seen thus far in freewriting, "very few theorists seemed to believe, as Elbow apparently did, that freewriting could be important in the generation of analytic prose. It was fine for personal writing, for overcoming writer's block,...Beyond that, it seeme to hold little promise" (Hilgers, 93). Critics such as Patricia Bizzell and David Bartholomae claim that freewriting causes students to become suckers and powerless by failing to teach academic language. Bizzell cites two examples of how freewriting gives students this "powerless" voice. First, by using everyday language students are placed at a disadvantage when they must write within academic disciplines, and second, freewriting limits students' chances of developing academically valued ways of thinking (Fishman 5). Bartholomae says "a writer does not write...but is himself written by the languages available to him" (Hodgkins 9). Both of these critics agree that freewriting fosters a "weakness" in students' abilities to learn academic language.
Diana George and Art Young conducted a study in which three Engineering students used freewriting journals to help them learn in an art appreciation course (111). In this study students were expected to keep a freewriting journal in which they were to "make discoveries and develop knowledge, to relate personal knowledge to historical and disciplinary contexts, and to develop the voice and fluency to experience art more fully by entering continuous conversation about them" (113). One student, Emma, said that often her thoughts would get blocked, and she recognized the role of the freewriting assignment: "to unstick the brain and get the thinking going" (121-2). This statement is a direct contradiction to the claims that Bizzell makes. This student learned an academic language (that of Art Appreciation) which was different from the one that she was familiar with (Engineering), through freewriting exercises.
Bizzell's second point about freewriting limiting a student's chances to develop academically valued ways of thinking is easily refuted. Lynn Hammond and Peter Elbow agree that freewriting does exactly the opposite of what Bizzell is saying, and actually fosters thinking skills, rather than limiting them. Hammond states that freewriting can help students develop thinking skills in three ways. First, through freewriting, students can discover all the aspects of a topic or reading, etc. that are relevant for further examination. Second, the students is able to examine these aspects in detail, and from varying points of view. Third, the students are able to see what patterns are emerging and then draw conclusions based on these patterns (72). Elbow states a similar point with his theory on first and second order thinking skills. He emphasizes that "first order thinking (freewriting) often brings out people's best and most intelligent thinking (i.e. second order thinking)" (Change 37).
Further proponents of freewriting, Robert Miles and Linda Flower, express ideas that also refute Bizzell's and Bartholomae's criticisms. Miles asserts "that teaching creative writing amounted to the encouragement of overflows of spontaneous emotion, while adding to the views that creative writing not only encouraged craft but critical and finally theoretical thinking about craft" (42-3). Similarly Flower states: "The goals of self-directed critical inquiry, and of using writing to think through general problems and issues" are two important aspects of discourse (qtd. in Elbow, College English 142). Although, there is criticism about the uses and successes of freewriting to teach critical thinking, it appears that the opponents of this particular method do not have a very strong argument.
Although, freewriting received a lukewarm reception in the mid 1960's, today there are many respected professors of English and Composition classes that embrace the uses of freewriting to stimulate critical thinking and organizational skills. Lynn Hammond, one of the main proponents of freewriting, cites a student's work to reinforce the idea of using freewriting to foster critical thinking skills:
I have learned from English One that it is easier for me to formulate ideas in focused freewriting and then from those ideas form my topic sentence. This was a new and interesting approach for me. I picture it kinda like going in the back door, as I start with the evidence and go towards the thesis instead of forming a thesis and concocting supporting evidence from that. I find it a lot more enjoyable to get out all my thoughts and find similarities among them...What a great feeling of discovery! As I continued to write I discovered...that if I just keep pursuing an idea, a thought will eventually be triggered. (90)
It seems the above method of teaching can be found in almost all college freshmen English or Composition classes. It is used only by beginning teachers like myself, but also by many professors. Peter Elbow states that there would be a more universal acceptance of freewriting if "we would see clearly the truth about thinking and writing we would see that the situation is not either/or, it's both/and: the more first order thinking, the more second order thinking and vice versa" (Change 40).
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