Stephanie West-Puckett

writing, teaching, studying new media and digital rhetorics


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An Embodied Writing Process

My son’s 6th grade English teacher reports that he has a tough time staying on task and producing the required amount of journal writing in the classroom. She must, she says, constantly refocus and redirect him, and even then, he can only produce a couple of sentences in twenty minutes, she laments.
Curious to see what was happening, I gave Rylan the same journal prompt that he was given in class, set the video camera up in a quiet room, and left him to work out his own process. At exactly 15 minutes, he shot out of the room and presented me with two full paragraphs (10-12 sentences) of on-topic writing, which meets the teacher’s assignment criteria.
The video revealed quite a bit about Rylan’s writing process and about his ability to self-monitor and re-focus. As a social and hyper-aware student, he stops writing to listen to every noise made beyond the door of the room. When quiet is restored, however, he quickly picks up where he left off. An active child who is seemingly tortured by periods of stillness, he is able to sustain attention by taking a micro-reset after each sentence–breathing deeply, bouncing his pencil on the desk, readjusting in his seat, and stretching his arms. He is constantly checking the clock to gauge precisely the amount he needs to produce the required number of sentences in the given time– a skill he says he learned to help him achieve on standardized tests.
Even though this writing assignment is a journal prompt and he understands sheer production is valued over quality, he re-reads after every three or four sentences, erasing and revising so it “reads right”, thinking early (too early?) in the drafting process about audience.
What I like most, though, is the jaw-popping cheek drumming technique featured in this video that Rylan uses to re-focus in the home stretch and write through the last two-minutes of this assignment.
These behaviors, strange as they may seem to adults, are essential parts of Rylan’s embodied writing process, and I wonder if these “strange” behaviors might be the very targets of the teacher’s redirection and refocusing efforts, thus stripping him of the essential strategies that he uses to produce and perform. I am reminded here of Elbow and the ways we, as well-meaning writing teachers, disrupt students’ writing processes, standing in the way of a healthy, emerging poesis.