Paper and prose
Ongoing research by Lainey McQuain ’15 using the Japanese art of origami shows new ways of teaching students in high school and college how to be better writers.
By Eric Townsend
Can paper cranes and kusadama flowers make us better writers? It sure looks that way.
Ongoing research by Elon University senior Lainey McQuain has found that the Japanese art of origami may serve as a valuable resource for educators who teach writing to high school and college students. McQuain, an English education major from North Carolina, shared details of her work this summer in Tokyo at the 6th International Meeting on Origami in Science, Mathematics and Education, a visit made possible through the university’s Summer Undergraduate Research Experience.
In collaboration with Associate Professor Alan Russell, a mathematician with a lifelong love of origami, McQuain had previously introduced students in two of Russell’s classes to origami birds, butterflies, rabbits and bow ties. She then asked the students to write instructions for how to create those items. Typical origami instructions don’t use words. Artists instead rely on diagrams with dotted lines and arrows to indicate where folds should be made.
Written instructions required students to consider specificity of language, organization and audience identification. And origami, it turns out, isn’t that easy to explain in print. “We told them the purpose of origami is to get the folder to finish the model,” McQuain says. “That should always be the purpose when writing something that is process-based, getting someone from step A to step B with a finished product. Nowhere in what you write should somebody say ‘I can’t do it.’”
The research shows new ways of teaching students in high school and college how to be better writers. McQuain believes many educators take for granted that students know how to perform “process-based writing,” using the written word to give instructions. But where is that actually taught? And how does such writing create stronger communicators? The origami project demonstrates both. “Ultimately, students should have a better understanding of purpose, their audience and the language they’re using,” she says.
McQuain took a statistics course with Russell during her first year at Elon. When the duo bumped into each other a year later at College Coffee, Russell quickly offered to serve as a mentor after McQuain mentioned her own interest in origami. She is continuing her work this fall with the help of Elon alumnus Michael Hall ’14, a high school English and journalism teacher at Clover Garden School in Burlington, N.C. Hall is hosting McQuain and Russell for a week of class activities tied to origami and instructional writing. She hopes to share the results of that project in April at the university’s Spring Undergraduate Research Forum.
“Lainey has stumbled on an area that really hasn’t been studied, and she wants to share this information to make our school systems better,” Russell says. “That ‘teacher’s heart’ serves her well, and it will also serve all the places and schools that she’ll touch in her career.”