ERIC Identifier: ED475390 Publication Date: 2003-06-00
Author: Brew, Alan Source: ERIC Clearinghouse on Rural
Education and Small Schools Charleston WV.
Writing Activities: A Primer for Outdoor Educators. ERIC
In "Experiential Learning," D. A. Kolb (1983) defines learning as "the
process whereby knowledge is created through the transformation of experience"
(p. 38), and he identifies "reflective observation" as one of four important
steps in the transformative process. Writing activities are one means of
facilitating reflection and learning because, as Easley (1989) explains, the
process of writing "is active in the sense that it requires a re-creation of an
experience on paper and reflective in that it requires a conscious search for
meaning . . ." (p.11). This Digest summarizes a procedure for designing writing
activities, and it describes six activities appropriate for outdoor education
curricula: journals, freewriting, descriptions, literary responses, letters, and
DESIGNING WRITING ACTIVITIES
Composition specialists agree
that effective writing activities are planned in advance and integrated with
experiences (Lindemann, 2001). To facilitate the development of such activities,
instructors might begin by asking themselves a series of questions: * "Why am I
asking my students to write?" (to prepare for a discussion? to reinforce the
teaching of a skill? to encourage reflection?) * "What type of writing is
appropriate for my purpose?" (freewriting? journaling?) * "Given my purpose,
when should I ask students to complete the assignment?" (after a specific
experience? at intervals during the experience? at the end of the experience?) *
"How do I want the students to complete the assignment?" (on their own? in
groups? in a single sitting? in stages?) * "For whom will the students be
writing?" (themselves? members of the class? me?) * "How, if at all, will I
respond to what the students write?" (in a discussion? with written comments?
with a grade?)
Having answered these questions, the next step is to prepare a description of
the writing activity for the students. This description should communicate
concisely and in language familiar to the students the purpose, form, and
audience for their writing during the activity. Although it is tempting,
especially in the field, to present these assignments verbally, Lindemann (2001)
emphasizes the importance of providing written directions, which students can
review throughout the writing process.
Planning and communicating writing activities in this manner assures that
they will be integrated fully into an experience and that they will contribute
to the process of transforming experiences into knowledge.
Keeping a "journal," which shares linguistic roots
with "journey," is an activity that may be integrated into outdoor experiences
in multiple ways. As Murray (1995) explains in "The Sierra Club Nature Writing
Handbook," a journal can be a mechanism for recording and organizing experience,
a tool for processing events as they occur, and an "unflinching mirror" that
reminds individuals "of the importance of eliminating self-deception and
half-truths in thought and writing"(p.3).
Often, however, students have preconceived notions about journals. Some
associate them with private diaries; others are intimidated by the journal's
formality, feeling that they must write in an elevated style and record profound
thoughts. Broadening students' conceptions of a journal frees them to use their
journals as working notebooks, where they may collect thoughts, observations,
and even objects. Petersen (2001, pp. 39-50) offers a helpful description of
different journal types and approaches to keeping them in "Writing Naturally."
In general, journaling activities ask students to do the following: (1)
express their feelings at a given moment; (2) record what they see, hear, smell,
and touch; or (3) probe the emotional and intellectual significance of their
responses to readings, landscapes, people, and experiences. Specific suggestions
for journaling activities may be found in a number of recent books. Of
particular note are Hinchman's (1991, 1997) "A Life in Hand" and "A Trail
Through Leaves;" Leslie and Roth's (2000) "Keeping a Nature Journal;" and the
works by Murray and Petersen cited above. Raffan and Barrett's (1989) essay
"Sharing the Path: Reflections on Journals from an Expedition" offers an
analytical study of the role that journals might play in an outdoor experience.
Freewriting, like journaling, often leads to
realizations about an individual's experiences. It is also a helpful activity
for insecure writers. Promoted by Elbow (1973) in "Writing Without Teachers,"
freewriting can undo "the ingrained habit of editing at the same time you are
trying to produce" (p. 6). As Elbow explains, most individuals edit what they
perceive to be unacceptable as they write. Freewriting allows these thoughts to
appear and be acknowledged.
The activity is a simple one: Students write for a designated period of time
about anything that comes into their minds. During this time, they should write
continuously; they should write in sentences, rather than lists or phrases; and
they should not correct or revise. After completing a freewriting session,
students can select a sentence or idea from what they produced and use it as a
prompt for a second session, thus focusing their unconscious exploration of an
idea. Or, students might share what they have written in a discussion. However
the writings are used, they should not be graded. Students must be confident
that what they write will not be judged.
Further suggestions for facilitating freewriting activities may be found in
Elbow (1973) and in Tallmadge's (1999) essay "Writing as a Window into Nature."
If freewriting helps students express
unconscious or repressed thoughts, then descriptions help them capture and
reflect on sensory experiences. As Hinchman (1997) observes of Henry David
Thoreau, "In finding words that marry experience and response, he knows the
deepest pleasure of the writer. Without the words, he's looking at the surface;
in finding the words he immerses himself"(p. 125).
Typically, these activities require students to describe their surroundings.
Hinchman (1997), for instance, asks her students to keep "cloud logs," updating
them hourly from dawn until nightfall (p. 130). Tallmadge (1999) encourages
students to refine their observations of color by asking them to describe the
sky, which requires them to consider not only hue but also texture, sheen, and
density. In longer courses, students might visit a specific geographic location
over time, describing what they experience at different times of day or seasons.
Description activities do not, however, need to be limited to observations of
nature. Students might describe the behaviors of other participants in the
course or, if skill development is a component of the course, how to start a
fire with flint and steel.
This activity introduces the perceptions
of others into the writing process by asking students to read what others have
written about experiences similar to theirs. These readings broaden the
students' understandings of an experience because they help students see the
experience through the eyes of another.
Written responses to the readings facilitate reflection by providing a
starting point. For instance, students may not know how to begin processing
their personal experiences of a wilderness canoe trip, but reading an essay by
Sigurd Olson gives them something to respond to. Thus, a student might write,
"The emotions that Olson describes are not the emotions I felt, but I did feel.
. . ." Another benefit of these activities is that the writing of others gives
students models, providing words or structures that help them capture their own
Like a journal, letters can serve as a
record of experience and as an impetus to reflection. A common letter-writing
activity requires a student to compose a letter to him or herself near the end
of an experience. These letters are collected by the instructor and mailed to
the participant six months after the course. As D. C. Kolb (1988) observes in "Letters from the Past," these letters serve as effective vehicles for follow-up
in a variety of situations.
Other letter-writing activities ask students to compose letters to future
participants in a course or to their parents. Foster, Biernat, and Wheeler
(1985) provide an overview of these and other activities in "Letter Writing for
Essays are more formal than the other activities
described in this Digest, but they also have a unique benefit. As Tallmadge
(1999) explains, "...the discipline, concentration, and attention required to
produce a finished story or essay carry perception and understanding deeper than
is possible through journal entries or freewritings alone" (p. 24).
These assignments are most effective when they are presented as an
opportunity for students to formulate their ideas for presentation to an
audience. Asking students to follow specific length and format guidelines
heightens the sense of formality, as does publishing the essays in some manner,
whether in a self-published course reader, institutional newsletter, or even a
In the field of outdoor education, instructors
understand that reflection is an important step in the process that transforms
experiences into knowledge. When writing activities are carefully planned and
integrated with outdoor experiences, they become an effective and efficient
means of facilitating reflection in a variety of circumstances and at various
stages during an experience.
Easley, A. (1989). Learning through writing.
Journal of Developmental Education, 13(1), 10-12.
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