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Sticky Little Invention (The Post-It Essay)

Jill Ostrow

I love a graffiti board assignment -- a chance for students to display their learning in creative ways and receive brief "graffiti" responses from their peers. Teachers in my college courses have been creating graffiti boards ever since I was asked to make one years ago as a graduate student and fell for the idea. The freedom, collaboration and the luxury of time for graffiti boards encourage responding to a reading, a series of readings, a project, or a poem. During a teaching retreat, I was introduced to the idea of the silent graffiti board. After the boards were displayed, we were asked to take a post-it note and respond to the boards without words -- a beautiful experience.

Over the years, the graduate students I teach have responded to these boards using post-it notes, markers, pens, or pencils. I've noticed a pattern developing with the comments -- they are utterly dull. Seriously. If I have to read one more, "I love how you . . ." or "I really connected to . . ." or "Great job!" I think I'll drown myself in a pack of pale pink post-its. There's nothing terribly wrong with I love how . . . or I really connected to . . . or great job. It's just that now I'm wondering, what's the point? Do these comments go deep enough?

The groups do pull the boards down with the comments and reflect on what everyone has written. But how does one comment deeply, thoughtfully, and purposefully on "great job?" I teach these teachers to guide their own students to dig deeper with reflection and always ask "so what" and "what's the point" questions as they plan. I try to do the same.

That led me to think hard about the "point" of the responses to graffiti boards. I considered the problem with graffiti boards -- creating them was not the part of the assignment I wanted to change. Free-form creative construction is important to me. I won't give up letting my students have time to think, create, explore, play, and figure out how to put their thinking down on paper. What needed to change was the reflective piece itself. Instead of simply telling my students to "respond to each board" or "reflect on what you see," I knew I wanted to be explicit, purposeful, and challenge my students to do more.

The Roots of the Post-It Essay

At the same time I was contemplating this notion of reflective response to a graffiti board, I was reading a blurb about my friend Kimberly Campbell's (2012) book Beyond the Five-Paragraph Essay. There's something so enticing about Kim's writing. She's funny, clear, concise, and engaging. That's when I had the idea for the "post-it essay" assignment. 

Knowing that I'd need to see if this idea would even work, I tried it out. I wrote my first post-it essay on a Michael Pressley article. I went for the big guns. I figured, if I could write an essay on a Michael Pressley research article on a 3x5 size post-it note, surely my students could write one in response to a graffiti board!

Guess what? My essay wasn't half bad. I actually learned a lot about synthesis and getting right to the point . . . fast. I wrote it in pencil so I could erase, but I made sure not to revise since I knew my students wouldn't have time to do so in class.

When I handed out the assignment, instead of moans and groans, my students were actually quite motivated to write their essays. I thought they would each have time to write one, but they each wrote two. Are they stellar publishable pieces? Nope. Was that my purpose? Nope. Students wrote much deeper responses stretching way beyond, "I love how you . . ." or "I really connected to . . ." or "Great job!" I created a book with all of their post-it essays which we published digitally for all to read.

What has happened since we tried this assignment? Some students have continued writing post-it essays when they need to synthesize a chapter or article for class. I haven't asked them to do this, but the post-it essays naturally became part of their response toolkit anyway. The students who write them regularly have told me that it helps to synthesize their thinking. Another teacher in class tried this out with her own students. One student told me that the structure helped her learn how to write better essays, and she has since used it to craft essays for other classes. 

I will always have students create graffiti boards. Now I have a new way to have my students reflect a bit deeper on what their classmates have produced, and yet another use for that awesome sticky note invention.

 

Jill Ostrow

Jill Ostrow is an assistant professor at the University of Missouri.