Today was “Fun with Scissors!” day in my methods class, otherwise known as our end-of-term paper workshop.
I’m sure I am not the first or only person who believes in cutting up papers to emphasize organization, strong thesis statements, and good topic sentences, but in case you’ve never heard of the tactic, here’s how it goes:
Everyone brings in a complete first version of their paper to class, printed single sided. They scribble out the in-text footnote numbers, and then cut off the top, bottom, and sides of their papers. Finally, they cut what’s left into individual paragraphs.
Once a student has a pile of paragraphs, they shuffle them like a deck of cards, and hand them to another student. That student’s job is then to put the paper back together in the order that makes sense to them. There is absolutely no wrong way to organize the paper – and there’s also no right one. The student who’s reading the paper is simply looking to make sense of the disparate paragraphs in their hand.
Once students put the papers back together, they talk about the ordering. How easy was it to put in order? What challenges did their face? What helped them figure out how to link one paragraph to the next?
Often, students will be able to put chunks of a paper together, but not find a through-line for the whole piece. That tells them that the thesis sentence and topic sentences need work. Sometimes someone will utterly change the order of the paper and it makes more sense in its new configuration. That tells them something about their introduction and organizational structure.
Together, the paired students will then work on making thesis statements as clear and directional* as possible, and tweaking topic sentences together so that they accurately describe what’s coming in the paragraph.
It’s a fantastic way to teach organizational writing skills, especially because it means moving pieces of paper around, and being freed from the tyranny of the computer screen. It’s not always easy on an electronic device to see that paragraph ten should be paragraph three. Spread out on the floor or on a table, that movement is not only easier to visualize, but easier to do.
Thanks to the students in HIST 285: Historian’s Workshop for giving me permission to take photographs of the process!
* my analogy is that theses are a lot like driving directions. You can tell someone to go from Galesburg (our town) to Chicago and they’ll have a good sense of where to go. But if you tell them to go to Chicago via 74 to 80 to 55, they know exactly where they’re going and what to expect.