INTRODUCTION: I have taught English and Speech for the past thirty years. In a recent semester, the majority of students in my English 101 class were graduates of a remedial English course, and in the first class meeting, we discussed both their expectations and mine. We also talked about how English 101 differs from the remedial English class. Usually, at this point, the students experience some anxiety about how much work they are going to have to do and whether they will be able to complete the course. I needed a two-fold writing assignment—one that would give me an initial assessment of the students’ writing and one that would, in spite of their misgivings, successfully launch the students into the English 101 writing experience.
- To provide my students with a positive initial writing experience that builds on the skills they developed in the previous (remedial) writing course.
- To build student confidence and reduce some of their initial anxiety about the difficulty of the course.
- To give the students an opportunity to do some goal setting in the process of writing an essay.
- To give both the students and me an accurate idea of their writing skills at the beginning of the course.
- Paper and pen for each student
1. Give the following directions for the writing assignment: “Dumbo had his magic feather. Cinderella had her fairy godmother. For this assignment, you have the assistance of the ‘One Wish Genie’. (The traditional Three-Wish-Genie is on vacation.) The One-Wish-Genie is going to grant you one wish, and it is this: You have the ability to succeed at your greatest dream. For you, failure is impossible. So, compose a descriptive narrative of the moment(s) when you accomplish your greatest dream. Bring a copy of this dream narrative (preferably typed) to the next class. Remember the ‘3-D’ from the writing recipe: Details! Details! Details! Relax. Stay focused on your dream. Remember that this is a draft, not the final product. Use present tense. Be there in that moment. After all, you don’t want to miss this great event. Use all five senses. Doing so will help you be more specific and the details will be more vivid. Describe both the external and the internal realities that you are experiencing. Feel the feelings. How does it feel to have made this wonderful dream a reality?”
2. Before turning the class loose to write, remind students of the following:
- Although you are working on a preliminary draft, proofreading the dream paper before class is what a successful student does.
- You are the world’s greatest expert on this topic. “In your dream, your word is law.”
- There will be an opportunity to read your own work and to listen to what others in the class have written. (I tell them that, if they would like, I will read them one of my dream narratives.)
- For this first assignment, if you write it, it’s right. (Some of that genie juice works here, too.)
- If you have any questions, you can e-mail me and I will get back to you ASAP.
- Finally, you should “be brilliant, creative, and have a good time” (which is the way I end almost every class).
3. After that, they begin to write. The total time that I allotted for this activity was 1 ½ class periods, or about 2 hours.
4. In a subsequent class, have students read their dreams aloud and engage the class in a discussion of both the dreams and the way the writers convey their dreams.
I was delighted. The students were enthusiastic about the assignment. Almost everyone created a detailed dream scene. And once a couple of students had volunteered to read their dreams, almost everyone read. Among the dreams realized were (a) joining dad as a partner in the family accounting business; (b) owning her own business (Seline’s Salon), (c) receiving her civil engineering degree, (d) pitching for the Phillies, (e) graduating from Rutgers with a Bachelor’s degree in education, and the one that may be the most original, (f) becoming a professional falconer.
The class was very supportive of all the dreams and of the dream success narratives. If anything, they were a bit more enthusiastic than I wanted. They seemed to be of two minds about the assignment. One group thought it was more difficult than they thought it would be. The other group thought it was easier than they feared. (Both agreed that the assignment was not the typical 500-word essay.)
One student was convinced that there was some trick involved because he had never enjoyed writing anything before. “There’s got to be something wrong,” he said. So, I supposed he (and others) discovered that it is possible to learn and to have fun at the same time.
I said almost everyone participated. Sadly, one student decided not to do the assignment. He thought it was “ignorant,” which around here means it was “stupid,” “not cool.” I asked him if he and I could talk about his decision later that day. We did not meet that day, or the next, or the next. I later found out that he withdrew from school.
During the next class, we continued the discussion about the power of dreams and about the writing process. It was one of those “Ah-ha!” classes. Students were talking about the writing process, about the choices they made, why they made them, and how well they worked. Specifically, there was discussion about whether a piece of writing was too much description or too much narrative, about how long the “dream moment” was supposed to be, about using a variety of sense impressions, and about whether the lead-in to the dream moment was too long. And, there was an over-all desire to revise.
What I found interesting was the students’ comments about their own and their classmates’ writing. They covered most of the points that I would have, so I didn’t have to say much. Instead, I affirmed their observations. I didn’t have to lecture, just add an additional comment or two.
The dreamers seemed energized by the guaranteed success fantasy. They bought into learning, into discovering for themselves that writing can be very powerful. I think that if the early enthusiasm starts to fade, we can do a re-visualization of that success experience and bring the positive feelings back. Success generates success.
There were two examples of the Law of Unintended Consequences that especially pleased me. The first is that a number of students, especially those just out of high school, began to accept the idea that “it’s okay to be smart.” That is a big shift from their previous educational culture where being smart is not necessarily cool. The second is toward the other end of the spectrum. One student said she felt free for the first time in ages after having completed the Dream assignment. She said she had given up on the big dreams because of life and work and family. She came in semi-scared, wanting desperately to succeed in college, even though she isn’t sure what she wants to do. I hope she continues to live her own dream, not someone else’s.
What I learned from using this strategy:
- Both the students and I underestimated their writing skills. They are better writers than we thought they were. That is a relief for all concerned.
- The next time I use this assignment, I will emphasize the moment of achieving the dream and caution against overdoing the lead in to it.
- I should not underestimate the power of the On Course process. The results of the exercises and journals and writing assignments from the On Course text are amazing. I know they work because I have been a participant in the workshops. But even now, I have a hard time accepting that the strategies work equally as well with students as they do with highly motivated On Course Workshop participants.
- I am going to have to be more trusting of my students’ ability to be responsible for their own learning. Part of me wants to let go and believe they will do the right thing. Part of me wants to hang on to the old techniques and notions. I suspect my Inner Critic is sitting back there someplace saying, “Yeah, right, sure they will.”
- I often find it difficult to get out of the way to allow students to be creative learners on their own.
- I can choose to just let go, minimize the lecturing and do more coaching and cheerleading for the students I am working with.
- The more teachers pay attention and stay new, the more they can learn from their students.
The Wish Genie exists, and wishes are granted to those with the courage to ask and act. Having said that, I am returning to an old, old dream of mine. After a long absence, I have returned. I am a writer. I asked for it, and I am doing it. What a powerful tool. What a pleasure to use it.
This activity is based on the Dream Accomplishment exercise found in the On Course Facilitator’s Manual.
–Chuck Scannell, Faculty, English, Burlington County College, NJ