Both formal and informal speaking gives students an opportunity to shift their focus on, and preoccupation with, the "rightness" or "wrongness" of their ideas that can often direct or prescribe their writing. They can try out ideas through the freedom of movement, dialogic nature, and spontaneity that speaking engenders, which may, in turn, help open them up more in their writing. Such opportunities for speaking can, as a result, serve as pre-writing, as well as peer assessment, exercises.
Two such exercises, Pointing and Taking a Stand, are included in this section. Both exercises can be used to help illustrate the important connections and differences between speaking and writing. Most importantly, they encourage creativity and play among diverse voices and ideas, perhaps the most important pre-writing practice in which students can engage. The section entitled Finding a Voice in the Classroom gives suggestions for setting up an atmosphere of spontaneity, creativity, and collaboration in which speaking comes to feel less daunting.
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Finding a Voice in the Classroom
From the first day of class, students can begin to exercise their voices in the classroom in a non-threatening way by means of the oral introduction of another class member. The earlier in the quarter that students can experience their own voices as helping to constitute the culture, and at times the content, of the course, the less threatening more formal speaking will be later on.
The oral introduction exercise (and any variation thereupon) is designed for early on in the quarter, when students are getting to know each other and themselves in the space and community of the classroom. The other activities, as follows, can be conducted throughout the quarter to give responsibility to students for carrying the conversation.
- Oral Introductions
- Student-to-Student Discussions
The oral introduction is a straightforward introductory exercise that can help to set a tone for collaboration and community-building on the first day of the quarter. Reading the syllabus, introducing the subject of the course, and laying out the trajectory of the course are, of course, necessary first-day activities; the oral introduction can be presented as an equally necessary activity as students' voices, prior experiences, and expectations often infuse and sometimes shape a substantial part of the course, whether implicitly or explicitly. This exercise gives students a chance both to assert their voices (and to be uniquely heard) as well as to listen to another voice in a focused and careful way. It also gives students a sense that they, indeed, have a place and a voice in this community.
- Ask students to get in pairs. Each person should take out a piece of paper for taking notes.
- Allotting about five minutes for each member of the pair, ask students to introduce themselves to their partners. It is a good idea to give some direction to the introduction that may resonate with the direction the course itself is taking. For example, if this is a literature course, you may ask students, after giving their partners the basics (name, year in school, academic and career interests), to describe a metaphor they would use to describe their current everyday lives or their senses of the future. If this is a psychology course, you may ask them to share an anecdote about a time when they recognized or came into contact with their unconscious (by means of a Freudian slip, a dream, etc.).
- Reconvene as a class and ask pairs to volunteer to introduce each other. Each person should introduce his or her partner to the rest of the class using the notes he or she took during the exchange. Continue until everyone has had a chance to introduce and be introduced—even if the exercise spills over into the second day of class.
This exercise is straightforward in its execution and is meant to preempt the discussion-as-racquetball phenomenon that occurs when each student's comment gets directed at you, the instructor and then, in turn, you must (akin to the walls of the racquetball court) bounce the ball back out to elicit another student's comment.
- Call on the first student in the discussion.
- After speaking, she or he calls on the next student, and so on.
- Each student must acknowledge in some way the comment that was made just before and create a transition between that comment and his or her own comment.
Debates are useful exercises for getting students to demonstrate their familiarity with and understanding of texts, as well as to practice their ability to extrapolate verbally and extemporaneously on writers' arguments and ideas. Use the debate exercise when you want student to think about how to put various writers' ideas in conversation with each other.
- Get students in groups of about four (depending on the size of the class and the number of essays/writers with which you want them to engage). Just make sure that students are evenly divided among the different readings.
- Assign each group an essay or a writer.
- Raise a question to which the members of each group, in the voice of their writer, must respond, using specific support from their writer's work. For example, you might ask them to engage with the question: What role does or should art play in social reform? One group will represent W.E.B. DuBois, one group will represent Carl Van Vechten, one group will represent Langston Hughes, and one group will represent Zora Neale Hurston. Sometimes it is also useful to ask them to respond to a question that seems out of the immediate context and concerns of the writers. For example, you might ask how each group's writer would respond (however anachronistically) to Spike Lee's film Do the Right Thing.
- After groups have had about fifteen minutes to prepare their stance, bring them together in a configuration such that they can all see each other (a circle around which the various groups are clustered together can work well). Ask one group to initiate the conversation. After the first group has presented its position, call on another group to respond to the first and to articulate its own position, and so on.
- After each group has had at least an initial opportunity to respond and to articulate its position, invite all groups to keep the conversation going. The only real rule is that groups must support their arguments with specific statements made by the writers they represent.
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This is a speaking and writing exercise that follows certain prescribed steps that build on each other. Applicable across a wide variety of disciplines and classroom contexts, Pointing:
- Gives students varied opportunities to speak in class. Pointing and saying back is a very non-threatening way for students to begin to use and hear their own voices in the classroom.
- Reading one's writing out loud can be a little more daunting but if you emphasize the extemporaneity of the writing, they may feel less threatened to produce something eloquent.
- Gives students the chance to hear their own words in new ways. Their words are their own words but they are given a kind of communal respect.
- Emphasizes the value of collaboration and community in terms of creativity.
- Introduces freewriting, demonstrating through this practice that it can be a place to begin any kind of critical thinking or writing process.
This exercise necessitates an evocative and short text (or section of text) that you can read out loud to the class in about five minutes. The best kind of reading is generally a fictional or creative non-fictional narrative—something that will be easy for your students to listen to and to follow on the page, without getting hung up on concepts. This does not mean that the piece has to be simplistic; but neither should it explicate esoteric theories. It is also a good idea to select a text that is related conceptually to the content of your course.
Guide your students through the following steps:
- Hand out a copy of the section from which you will read.
- Tell your students that as you read the section out loud, they should listen and follow along on the page underlining words or phrases that particularly strike them for their meaning, their metaphors or images they conjure up, or merely, for their sound. Assure them that they will not need to analyze or defend their choices at this point. They will just need to identify them.
- After you have finished reading, allot about five minutes for you and your students to "say back" the words or phrases that they have underlined. They should neither raise their hands, nor speak all at once. The class should sit in relative silence except when someone is reading a word or a phrase, as the spirit hits him or her. Students should not preface or explain their choices. Each student can speak more than once. Ask students to listen and to hear the uniqueness, the power, and the beauty of the words as they are spoken. Tell them to let the voices and the words wash over them. (This step and the previous are the process of "pointing.")
- After the class falls into silence, give some time for discussion, posing questions as such:
- Now that you've heard the language of the story tell me about your responses to the story:
- Did you like it? Find it funny? Depressing?
- Did you hear it in a different way after "pointing"?
- What does this passage seem to be about?
- What are the various themes you can find in the passage?
- What questions does it raise?
- What kind of narrator is this? What kind of narration is this?
- Shape the discussion questions in such a way that you can touch on the specific themes of the passage and the ways in which it relates to your course.
- After discussing for about ten to fifteen minutes (depending on the length of your class time) ask students to take a word or phrase (or someone else's that they heard) and use it as a "prompt": That is, they should use it as a starting point for a five-minute freewrite in which they put their pen to paper and just keep writing anything that comes to mind. It is useful to make this a "directed freewrite" (that is loosely structured around the theme of the course, for example) but also to encourage students to let themselves go.
- Give them the following directions:
Don't worry about coherence.
Don't pick up your pen.
Start with the phrase or word you have chosen and make it your own.
Shape it into your own experience, tell a story, respond to the reading, anything.
After we are finished, you will be invited to read what you wrote, but no pressure. (Unless no one reads).
Ask several students to read their freewrites out loud. As the others are listening to the freewrites they should again write down words and phrases that strike them. Emphasize that it is crucial that they write a number of words and phrases for each piece, as they will be working with these words and phrases later.
After a number of people have read their freewrites out loud (about 5-7 seems to work well), ask students to look at the words and phrases they have collected and recorded and to make a poem out of them. They need not use all of them but they can ONLY use these words and phrases—no changing the syntax or diction.
Give them 5-10 minutes to do this and then ask for volunteers to read their poems out loud.
Be sure to discuss how the process felt to them after all volunteers have read. What was it like for them to hear their own words in others' poems? What was the writing like?
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Taking a Stand
The most valuable part of this exercise is, it seems, the articulation of multiple positions within the same side of an argument. Students are quite adept at taking opposing positions but are less practiced in differentiating a unique position from another that is in general support of the same issue. This exercise helps students to see the many and varied positions and issues that make up what seems to be a clear pro/con controversy and to think about how they might incorporate such complexity into their written assignments.
An in-class activity that requires that students move throughout the space of the classroom, Take a Stand introduces and reinforces argumentation strategies and can be implemented at any time in the quarter. You might use it to socialize students in the practice of critical thinking, as well as considering and responding to many different positions in an argument; later, it may be useful in helping students think through the complexity of arguments they are developing in their own written assignments.
Use or adapt the following steps:
- Come up with a controversial statement that has two clearly defined "pro" and "con" positions (e.g. "Condoms should be freely distributed in public high schools.") Whatever statement you come up with should pertain to the subject matter of the course and should not be polarizing or subject to arguments over semantics. (It is probably a good idea to avoid the subject of abortion, and that probably goes without saying.) You can also adapt the game to engage with literary or other kinds of texts. For example, you may make a statement about a character in a literary work that elicits arguments, such as, "Melville's Bartleby is an example of Emerson's notion of self-reliance."
- Draw an imaginary line down the center of the classroom for your students. Deliver the controversial statement and designate one wall of the classroom the "pro" position, the opposite wall, the "con" position.
- Tell students that they must take a stand on the controversy by standing somewhere in relation to the two walls. If they strongly agree or disagree with the statement, they should stand against the appropriate wall. If they fall on one side of the controversy, but are persuaded by some of the counter-arguments, they should pick the side of the line with which they are most in agreement, but stand closer to the line. They can stand anywhere in relation to the two walls and each other but they may NOT stand on the line.
- Tell students that they can move at any time during the game in response to positions that their classmates take. (And assure them that they will most likely be called on to explain their moving.)
- Begin to call on students to explain the stance they took. Give them a chance to articulate their stand and then ask them for nuances: "Why are you standing three steps in front of the wall instead of up against the wall or closer to the center line?" Call on students on either side of the line as well as students within one side to encourage them to differentiate their specific position from those who stand on the same side of the line but in a slightly different position.
- Enforce yourself as mediator; students can only speak when you have called on them. This will ensure that they listen to each other's points and can move or speak in response.
- Continue for as long as you see fit or until everyone gets a chance to defend his or her stance.
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