Writing in Real Time: How to Teach Writing Through Collaborative Conversation

Spring 2018

By Harmony Button

The other day, I was wrapping up a meeting of department chairs during which we had spent a couple of hours drafting some important materials for our strategic planning process. One of my fellow administrators gave me a friendly elbow squeeze (the professional’s hug) as I was unplugging my computer from the giant flat screen where I had projected a document in which I synthesized and organized the group’s thoughts in real time during the discussion.
“You did such a great job,” she said. I thought she was commenting on my facilitation of the conversation in general or the couple of socially tricky moments when I had redirected tangents—both aspects of leadership that still make me feel a little insecure. But then she pointed to the large flat-screen TV that still held the projection of our drafting document, blown up to an enormous size so it could be viewed easily from across the room even by those of us who had forgotten our glasses.
“I’d have been so nervous to type in real time in front of everybody,” she said. “It would have been a mess!”
And then I realized: Writing in real time, in front of a group, as a way of making our thinking visible—that was the one part of that meeting that hadn’t made me nervous! As an English teacher, modeling writing as a process of thinking is what I do, all the time. Writing is how I teach, how I think, and how I often build consensus within groups—of students or faculty or administrators.
There are many ways in which strong teaching skills did not necessarily prepare me to be a school administrator or leader, but teaching writing has definitely helped. Whether you are modeling writing for students or practicing collaborative writing with a team, here are a few things to keep in mind:

1. Writing as an act of generative thinking is nonlinear.

Writing to synthesize ideas during discussion is not a note-taking act but a dynamic engagement with a shifting document. Whether I am working with students or colleagues, I tend to launch conversations with prompts, but I know that good ideas and analyses do not unfold in linear, bullet-point progression. After collecting enough data or ideas to start to see patterns, I pause the conversation to ask the discussion participants for permission to categorize or classify ideas, and I solicit feedback on organization options. I try to name the kinds of thinking that go into making these categories, which usually sparks additional content to be added. This is an exciting stage, as it usually marks the moment when the draft takes shape—often quite literally as I bring in formatting or outlining tools to help visualize the emerging structures.

2. Write with respect for others, seek clarification, and ask for confirmation.  

Even as I seek to model synthesis and articulation through the collective drafting process, in order for participants to stay invested and engaged in the drafting process, they need to feel ownership over the document. I spend quite a bit of time honoring participants’ ideas, seeking clarification, and asking for confirmation and consensus on my writing choices. If I’m in the driver’s seat at the computer, I need to make sure that everybody else in the room feels that they have some say in the navigation. I hope to be nuanced enough in my movement through the process that my students are participants in the process. In this pursuit, I try to name the thought processes that would result in revisions I might like to make: “How can we condense that?” or “Can we synthesize these three statements?” or “I’m missing a word . . . how do I express that idea?”

3. Relax and be human.

Don’t try to type too fast and flub it up and have to hit delete-delete-delete and get more nervous and flub again. Don’t be self-conscious about spelling errors or typos—what are you, perfect? Ask for help when you get stuck on a sentence. Laugh when you make funny mistakes. In my writing classes, I admit to my students that I might not be a better writer than they are on a first draft, but I’m probably a more skillful reviser. Embracing that revision is the art of writing, and then modeling comfort and facility in the process of drafting sets the tone for students to take risks, be messy, and stop judging their abilities during the thinking and generative stages of the writing process.

4. Cultivate classroom chemistry.

This practice of writing in real time through conversation puts the teacher in a position of vulnerability and asks the students to step up and help solve problems that the teacher might not immediately see the way out of. It puts the teacher in the position of lead collaborator, which is different from someone who performs an expert, prepared demonstration. Students need to trust each other to take risks, the teacher needs to trust students to engage, and everybody needs to have the team-oriented mindset to take satisfaction from a collaborative project. If you are not sure about these conditions in your classroom, you can lay some ground rules for participation or fall back on the same kind of strategies you might use to cultivate productive Socratic seminar-style discussions.

5. Practice, practice, practice.

If writing in real time in front of students and thinking on your feet in ways that strain your abilities to think systematically as well as conceptually make you anxious, find low-stakes ways to begin practicing this activity. Start with sentence revisions—I’d recommend Revision Decisions by Jeff Anderson and Deborah Dean1 or Voice Lessons by Nancy Dean2 as texts full of adaptable prompts and tactics for modeling writing.

6. Share the hot seat.

Once you’ve modeled collaborative writing for your class, consider offering opportunities for students to step up to the keyboard and take the lead. You can start with a small-group assignment that requires collaborative writing, followed by a class reflection on the process, or you can do a variation of a fishbowl discussion. In a fishbowl discussion, half of the class participates, while the other half stands “outside the fishbowl” and observes.3 In this variation, the half of the class that is observing practices note-taking that synthesizes and organizes the content instead of just transcribing it and then shares the various results with the rest of the class. Or you can even have a student who is ready take the reins at the projector for the whole class.

7. Celebrate and reflect on the process.

The Chrome add-on of “Draftback” allows Google Doc revisions to be played back, like a movie. You can watch an accelerated version of the generation of the document from beginning to end. This is the point in the process when you can review the writer’s organizational decisions and observations—point out the moment when you see a shapeless list split into two categories or when the argumentative points separate from the supporting observations. (Note: If you have your students share Google Docs with you at the beginning of their essay drafting process, you can also play the Draftback of their individual documents to watch their writing process unfold.)
Great writing classes require the same kind of vulnerability, courage, and patience from the teacher as they do from the students. There are times when what students need even more than specific writing tactics is for their teacher to model a growth mindset, a sense of humility and humor, and an engagement in the messiness of the process. Writing skills are exhibited and learned in process, as well as through critique of drafts that have been frozen at a stage of “Draft 1” or “Draft 2” and submitted for teacher review. If we are asking our students to become good writers, as well as critics of writing, then we should make sure that we are modeling writing in action, not just critiquing the products of work they have produced alone, at home, without a coach to talk them through the process.
1. Jeff Anderson and Deborah Dean, Revision Decisions: Talking Through Sentences and Beyond (Portland, ME: Stenhouse Publisher, 2014).
2. Nancy Dean, Voice Lessons: Classroom Activities to Teach Diction, Detail, Imagery, Syntax, and Tone (Mankato, MN: Capstone, 2000).
3. “Fishbowl,” Facing History and Ourselves; online at https://www.facinghistory.org/resource-library/teaching-strategies/fishbowl.
Harmony Button

Harmony Button (harmonybutton@waterfordschool.org) is the Academic Dean and teaches in the English Department at the Waterford School in Sandy, Utah.