Before I started teaching, I spent five years as a writing tutor in the Marygrove College writing center. While each student had a unique set of needs, most struggled to commit their initial ideas to paper.
Like most of us, students want to get it right on the first shot. Unfortunately, that’s not how it works. Writing is chaotic. It’s messy. Why? Because most of us (that includes professionals) don’t really know what and how we’re going to say what we want to say until we actually start writing.
To help students move beyond the “scary white screen,” I came to rely on a writing strategy called clustering. If you’re not familiar with this invention strategy, the student starts by jotting down a nucleus word; this should be a word or phrase that is related to the assigned topic. The nucleus word should trigger a series of other word associations that students continue to jot down quickly and without censorship.
It’s a chaotic process, but even after five minutes of clustering, most of my students were astounded by how much they knew and how many questions they had about topics they, not even five minutes before, vehemently claimed were “boring.”
While I started teaching students to cluster by having them write on a scrap sheet of paper, I eventually turned to a free web application called bubbl.us.
During our session, the student and I would read through the clustering handout (you’ll find this below). Then I would pull up bubbl.us on my laptop and turn it over to the student.
bubbl.us. is convenient for a few reasons: First, there’s no learning curve. Second, it allowed me to save a digital version of the cluster and email it to the student. When we picked up the following week, all I had to do was pull up the file and I would know exactly what we discussed in our previous session.
In my experience, this exercise is helpful with students of all ages and abilities. I even use it myself. To help you teach clustering to your students, I’ve included the handout I used with my own students below.
What is Clustering? And How Can It Help Me Develop My ideas?
Most serious and experienced writers incorporate some sort of writing strategy into their habits, so you should feel no shame in using them. In the following exercise, you’ll learn how to use clustering as a way of developing your ideas.
First, you must think of a word or phrase. You can do this with any random word or phrase, but it is far more effective to choose something that is related to the assigned topic. Say you are writing an essay about your experience with the American Dream….well, “American Dream” might be the best phrase to begin with. Here’s what to do next:
- Get comfortable with the process of clustering by letting your playful, creative mind make connections. Maintain a childlike attitude by letting whatever associations come to you fall out onto paper. Avoid judging or choosing. Simply let go and write. Let the words or phrases radiate outward from the nucleus word; draw a circle around each of them if you like. Connect those associations that seem related with lines—even add arrows to indicate direction if you feel compelled. Just don’t get caught up in organization and tidiness; it’s not important now.
- Write down anything that is triggered by the key word—and whatever you do, don’t inhibit or censor yourself. At this point, nothing is silly, stupid, inane or unrelated. If you plateau and can’t think of anything, write, “I don’t know what to say.”
- Every writer is different, but you should know when to stop clustering when you feel a strong, sudden urge to write—this usually happens after a couple of minutes when you feel a shift that says, “Aha! I think I know what I want to say.”
- You’re ready to write. Scan your clustered perceptions and insights. Something therein will suggest your first sentence to you, and you’re off. Should you feel stuck, however, write about anything from the cluster to get you started. The next thing and the next thing after will come because your right hemisphere has already perceived a pattern of meaning. Trust it.