by Diana Senechal
Recently I came upon a lesson plan on the Pennsylvania Department of Education website. Titled “Brainstorming in Groups” and designed for grades 7-12, it pithily encapsulates our educational and cultural principles. I quote the lesson below and then give it the close textual analysis it deserves.
Divide the class into small groups of equal size (3 or 4 students per group). Each group selects one person to be the recorder. The recorder will need three pieces of paper. Explain the prewriting strategy of brainstorming, emphasizing that the point is not quality, but rather quantity of ideas at this stage of the writing process. Give the class one topic to brainstorm in their group, allowing about four minutes. Then give the next topic, allowing another four minutes, then give the last topic, and again allow about four minutes. Ask each group to count the number of ideas that were generated for each topic. Select one topic and write all ideas on the board or overhead projector. Conclude with a discussion of the value of this group activity as a prewriting strategy. If time permits, create an outline for a formal essay working with the topics generated in the groups. Suggested Topics: Poverty in America, Contemporary Music, Technology in Education, Fads, Violence and Television, College Life, Effective Parenting.
Now let us look at this beauty, sentence by sentence.
Divide the class into small groups of equal size (3 or 4 students per group). Taken figuratively, this is essentially a credo. It is wonderful to affirm one’s faith, especially faith in a group process. Group processes have no power to disappoint. If they don’t work, it’s because you are doing them wrong. The proper action at that point is to bring in a consultant who can show you what group work is really supposed to be.
Each group selects one person to be the recorder. Some students don’t work well in groups; they tend to question the premises of the activity itself, disrupting the process for the others. But if they are assigned the role of recorder, they will be too busy taking notes to make trouble. Make sure the designated recorder is held accountable.
Explain the prewriting strategy of brainstorming, emphasizing that the point is not quality, but rather quantity of ideas at this stage of the writing process. The quantity strategy applies to everything. Read a wide variety of texts, make lots and lots of friends online, fill your day with activities from morning to night, send text messages from everywhere. If students master the quantity principle, they will be shielded from meaning.
Give the class one topic to brainstorm in their group, allowing about four minutes. Never allow more than four minutes, as that would lead students to sort through their ideas and eliminate the ones they thought were bad. Nothing is bad here, and nothing is good. Nor should the topic become a matter of concern or interest. It is counterproductive to know, care, or think about the topic. The point is to be engaged.
Then give the next topic, allowing another four minutes, then give the last topic, and again allow about four minutes. This is a great opportunity for the teacher to identify students who have trouble jumping from topic to topic. Those students may need a psychiatric evaluation.
Ask each group to count the number of ideas that were generated for each topic. A counting activity is a great way to integrate math into the lesson. The teacher should be circulating to assist those students who have difficulty with it.
Select one topic and write all ideas on the board or overhead projector. Teachers should develop the practice of writing out students’ off-the-cuff ideas, good, bad, and indifferent. It is empowering for the students and appropriately humbling for the teachers. Granted, some teachers would much rather write out a Blake poem or grammatical principle instead, but whose interests are we serving here? Is this lesson for the adults or for the children?
Conclude with a discussion of the value of this group activity as a prewriting strategy. We know that the value of this activity is indisputable, so this discussion will be uneventful—just a summing up and self-celebration. Make sure that every student utters the word “strategy.” In some districts, students join hands and say in unison, “Thank you, strategy, for helping me today.” Other districts have various pep cheers. The point is to make everyone feel good about having learned nothing.
If time permits, create an outline for a formal essay working with the topics generated in the groups. Time won’t permit—but if it does, students may learn to transfer the quantity principle into their essay writing.
Suggested Topics: Poverty in America, Contemporary Music, Technology in Education, Fads, Violence and Television, College Life, Effective Parenting. Ultimately it is hoped that students will be able to talk about any of these topics without the crutch of knowledge. They will be glib and gird themselves with the gadgets of catch-phrasery. They will have the social interaction skills needed for life and the workplace. Who needs to know about poverty when you have a newsflash every few seconds? The information flow will make them senseless to passion and pain.
Now, we know that line-by-line textual analysis is a dated technique; the new method is to read holistically. So, if we go back and reread the lesson from start to finish, we see that the point was not to learn anything at all or nothing at all, but rather to learn how to learn nothing at all. “How do we go about learning nothing at all?” That is our essential question. And I will leave you, readers, to take that higher-order question to your brainstorming groups.
Diana Senechal has a Ph.D. in Slavic Languages and Literatures from Yale; her translations of the poetry of Tomas Venclova have appeared in two books. A former (and possibly future) NYC public school teacher, she is currently writing a book on the loss of solitude in schools and culture.