Dangerous Pedagogy: Preoccupied Prewriting (Part 1)

Have you ever noticed how many ideas you get while doing other things?

Students hard at work at not writing!

Have you ever noticed how hard it is to think of ideas to write about while you are staring at a blank page but how many ideas you get as you sit down to do some basic math, like paying your taxes. Or how when you are doing some small activity, like coloring or doodling, you come up with ideas for things to write about. This writing activity taps into that experience.

Following up on our experiment with timed thinking, I wanted to explore other potential in-class prewriting activities that harness the full writing process.

(ADMINISTRATOR TRIGGER WARNING: I should note that this article offers another very provisional, first-time experiment that offers few warm fuzzies for lovers of rigor. Nonetheless, NO students were harmed in its execution.)

Timed Thinking opened the door to the role of mental activity in writing. So I decided to try something that might tap into a little unconscious creative thought. Hence…

Preoccupied Prewriting

Most of writing happens when we are not inscribing words onto paper (real or virtual). A Rebecca Solnit has said, “Writing is not typing.” In fact, a good portion of writing happens while we are doing other things. How does thinking open up when we are preoccupied — and here, I am using this word not to mean “worry” but in the sense of “occupational therapy” — when we are doing something other activity, when we are otherwise occupied?

How does thinking open up when we are preoccupied? And here, I am using this word not to mean “worry” but in the sense of “occupational therapy” — when we are doing something other activity, when we are otherwise occupied?

In this exercise, I tried to help my students tap into some of that process by asking them to do some non-linguistic activity, such as math or coloring, in order to free up their mind to think about other things. Like Timed Thinking this activity can be aligned with the mindfulness movement, but unlike a lot of mindfulness activities, this activity has a particular goal or context. The goal was not merely to free up students minds but to open them up to opportunities to reflect on other things, which is different from (what I understand to be) the context of some meditation and mindfulness work. I was trying instead to activate what could perhaps better be called “contemplative” thought.

Here’s the experiment…

  • Scissors
  • Colored pencils, coloring sheets
  • Math sheets: addition, multiplication, long division
  • Chalk, chalkboard, eraser
  • Students choose their activity
  • 15 minutes of nonwriting activity; 5 minutes of journaling; 5 minutes feedback; 10 minutes discussion.
  • (opt.) Students can listen to music if they want.

Doodling not drawing:

Absentmindedly doodling seemed to work better than trying to depict something.

This student decided to see where the chalk would take him.

One student found herself getting absorbed in a drawing, which is worthwhile in itself but not necessarily for freeing up these background thoughts, since it is already an act of expression.

The student said she found herself concentrating too hard on this depiction of typical art patrons.
This student who drew this said drawing abstracted shapes helped free his mind

Another student got into the zone by zoning out, which was relaxing but not generative of other ideas.

Sun and waves formed in small strokes.

Some used the opportunity to just let art happen. According to another student:

“My thing ended up being some sort of alien landscape? Don’t know but it came to me about a quarter way through the activity, not when I was concentrating but just in rhythm.”

An alien landscape emerged.

Math: Mindless not Mind-Full.

I remember getting a lot of ideas for story and other writing projects while doing math, particularly arithmetic. So, consider the following problems, one based on addition, the other multiplication.

8373 _____________________2039
+938____________________*384

While the first problem (addition) could be solved without much thought, the second (multiplication) required a bit more focus. Unfortunately, the second type triggered my students’ desire to solve the problem correctly and a concern about making mistakes.

Similarly, the adult coloring pages stressed students out. They wanted to stay inside the lines and pick the perfect colors.

Like the math, if the activity triggered their desire to “do it right” or “get it right,” they entered a mode that was not so conducive to new (or other) ideas.

Students’ desire to stay inside the lines and pick perfect colors disrupted their ability to free their minds to think of other things. So, that’s why when I personally tried the coloring pages the second time, I tried to keep myself from caring about how the final image looked (and as you can see below, I succeeded). And, as a result, I did think of various writing ideas, and about my daughter…

…because I associate her with Harry Potter, of course. In fact, in that time, I thought quite a bit about my daughter. About how she is doing, about how she has been feeling lately. It seems, the coloring in a kind of absent way, just picking wharever colors, not worrying about the lines so much, allowed my mind to go where it needed to go.

In reactions to this initial experiment, students said they often thought about nothing or about their activity, but then, in the silent writing time that followed activity, ideas flowed. Perhaps these were not ideas that would have occurred to them otherwise. On reflection, the activities I chose for this initial go ‘round seem to require a bit too much concentration. As one student put it, the difficult math might be more conducive to the writing we do when we’re procrastinating, which is of course another very fruitful vein that I hope to tap.

During our debrief, there was a lot of talk of washing dishes. Now, I just need to figure out how to get a sink into the classroom!

Update: Due to the Coronavirus, we’ve been asked to do a test of online instruction. Students will mostly be at home in their apartments. All of the sudden, the sinks have come to us!

(More about Part 2 soon.)

writer/researcher of emerging digital writing forms. Prof of Writing @ USC, Dir. of Com. for ELO, Dir. of HaCCS Lab

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