dead butterfly

For a recent assignment, students were to examine an advertisement. Questions led them to look at the visuals: emphasis, originality, the placement of objects, type of people pictured. Then, they examined techniques such as use of pathos, band wagon appeal, or slogans Finally, they were directed to evaluate the intended audience,  and validity of claims in the text. In the end students had to take all the answers and compile them into a composition.  However, their writing basically read like a list of answered question.  Taking something in one form and changing it into another form that appears organic is the art of transforming words into writing. Like the metamorphosis of the butterfly it seems to be magical. Exactly how do you get students (or yourself) to take a fragmented stew of ideas and facts, and transform it into with something  else?

The first piece of wisdom is not to rush the process. Let students jot down ideas over a period of time, and read about a range of subject matter before research begins full swing.  This helps them consider different viewpoints and select what is interesting. This is most often the step omitted under the pressure to complete something… anything to turn in for a grade.

Often things we do to simplify writing for students, that ends up detrimental to the final product.  Let students figure out what questions to ask themselves, and they will have a deeper understanding.  This allows them to delve into the subject, and retrieve relevant details that can be tied together.  If they have no idea of what to look for first, have them choose a subject (topic or idea) and one to two others that parallel their chosen subject.  Then compare these to see what differs, and name the attributes of what it is that differs.  This gives them a clue on how to narrow research.

The next thing to do in order to transform ideas into well written prose is to read… a lot. Perusing Helen Keller’s autobiography, I found an appendix that included a large number of her letters. The early ones were stilted with accounts with formulaic sentences, even mentioning the color of gifts she received but could not see. Obviously someone was telling her what to say. However, as her reading increased she gained words to express her knowledge of a world she smell, taste and feel, but not see nor hear. Her improved and she mastered techniques to describe what her senses did detect to describe her world with insight. (It is an interesting assignment to have students trace the improvement in her writing.)

Writing should continue on a regular basis. This allows them to practice capturing the right words and phrases to show the essence  what they want to say.  Lessons learned about transforming meaning into writing in one area  transfers well to others. It is also a good idea to have scheduled chunks  of class devoted to writing. Warn students to come prepared to work intensely for twenty to thirty minutes without interruption. Then stop, break, and do a completely different activity.

Review work frequently for progress. Look at the amount done and ask each student how far he or she can get by the next review. Do the same for yourself, if you have a hard time producing the ideas on paper. According to J.P. Guilford, transformation is processing input in a way that shows comprehension of changes in information, such as getting a joke based on a pun[1].  So finally, slow down and enjoy the process of turning caterpillar ideas into butterfly prose.

[1] Guilford, J. P. (1983) Transformation abilities or functions. Journal of Creative Behavior, 17(2),75-83.

Photo by S.L. Listman

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