by Linda Louie, French
Teaching Effectiveness Award Essay, 2017
Revision is one of the most challenging parts of the writing process to teach because it is so specific to each individual student and paper. Furthermore, many students come into writing courses with a preconception of what “revision” entails that is more like proofreading or editing than the kind of wholesale re-organizing, re-reading, and re-thinking that we, their teachers, hope they will undertake. The first two semesters that I taught writing classes, I was disheartened to observe that often, after a productive office hours session in which a student came up with an exciting new direction for a paper revision, they would turn in something that was almost identical to the original, with just a new paragraph or sentence here and there. Students often confessed that they had intended to make more intensive changes, but ran out of time, or got stuck. To me, this indicated that they did not know how to accurately budget for how long revisions would take, and that they often hit roadblocks in the revision process that I had not foreseen, during finals after our classes were over.
My third time teaching R&C, I faced both the challenge of condensing a course into a six-week summer session, and the opportunity of having two-hour-long class meetings nearly every day. I knew that the time pressures built into the shorter schedule were likely to encourage the kind of superficial revision I had encountered before, and I resolved to somehow use the longer class periods to bring the revision process into the classroom. I decided to employ a time-management and planning method that I have used in my own dissertation writing, called the Pomodoro Technique. The first part of this technique entails simply setting a timer and working with strict concentration in a 25-minute sprint, or “pomodoro,” with a 5-minute break between sprints. The second part of the method is that each pomodoro is allocated to a single specific, previously defined task.
I devoted a full two-hour class period to our first pomodoro revision session. Following peer review and office hours on their first drafts, I had students list out all of the revision tasks that they hoped to accomplish, and how long each would take. I then had students split any tasks that would take more than one pomodoro into smaller, more manageable chunks, and group shorter tasks into chunks that would equal 25 minutes. They chose two pomodoro tasks to work on for our first, one-hour in-class session. Contrary to my usual practice, I had allowed them to bring laptops for this class, and even earbuds for listening to music, which created an instant frisson of excitement. I had them hold up their hands and recite a pledge to work exclusively, and without distraction, on the task they had chosen. Then, at the same moment, we all started our chosen pomodoro timer and off we went!
Students had confessed to often feeling distracted when writing at home, but I was astonished to see the laser focus with which they attacked our in-class pomodoro. During our 5-minute break, they checked their phones, stepped outside, or commiserated; then we were off again. Afterward, we processed the experience together. Many were delighted to find out how quickly they could finish a task when working on it so intently. Students expressed common confusion about certain issues, which I was then able to discuss and clarify with the whole class; I was also able to make important interventions on an individual level. I found that budgeting time for each task encouraged students to be more active in their revisions, since I worked with them to estimate how long a change would actually take, and ensured that their plans were both ambitious and realistic. Most revelatory, though, was the way the in-class pomodoro system made revision (and writing in general) a team pursuit. For the rest of the week, we continued to do one pomodoro per class, and I also had students budget for when they would complete the rest of their revision tasks outside of class; many of them opted to voluntarily use the pomodoro method at home, some working in groups. Without question, the revisions were the most ambitious and successful I have seen, and reading them, there were no surprises for me as an instructor, since I had been working closely with each student throughout the revision process. Using this method, the revision process was demystified, brought out of the shadows of the desperate midnight caffeine binge and into the bright light of our afternoon class.