Monday, November 28, 2011

Teaching a creative writing class for adults

Odilia Rivera Santos

I taught writing on and off for fourteen years and made all the usual teacherly mistakes.

One of the biggest mistakes a creative writing teacher/instructor/professor can make is talking too much in class. If it is labeled a 'writing' class, the majority of the time should be used for writing.
If you must talk without allowing your students to talk or respond to your questions, change the name of the class to 'teacher-as-storyteller; be quiet and still as I chatter endlessly.'
I guarantee you would have very different students in each class.
Sometimes, a writing teacher is very insecure and feels he or she must continue proving their validity in the writing world by telling stories about past writing gigs, etc.
As writers, we have to do all kinds of writing work from the mundane mechanic stuff of proofreading articles on lip gloss and celebrity pregnancies to the more delicate art of teaching in a humble manner. If we view work as service, we have to seek a way to do it in a humble fashion.
Being humble means you do not make yourself the hero of every story, nor do you name-drop constantly because these two bad teaching habits can come across like a job interview. If you're in front of a group of students and the institution has your bank account details, chances are you're hired. Don't try to get the job you already have; just do your job.

The first tip for an aspiring writing teacher
1. Shut up.
The second tip for an aspiring writing teacher
2. Give students reading assignments for homework -- students shouldn't spend class time reading, unless it is a short piece written by another student in class, which they are required to critique.

Other useful tips
3. Always hand out a short writing tips guide and have students refer to these tips when editing their work. Students should learn to internalize their editor asap instead of relying on a teacher to correct everything.

My writing tips guide includes grammar, punctuation and word choice tips.

What can a student learn in a creative writing class?

Perspective / Dramatic incident, villain included
One of the most popular assignments I ever used in class was to have students write down the name of the person who had hurt them most in their lives. After the names were written, students wrote an autobiographical essay in the first person from that individual's perspective.
A male student wrote an autobiographical piece from his father's perspective; his father was very young and did not raise him. My student felt abandoned and hurt. Writing allowed him to imagine the life of a nineteen-year-old Latino male in the Bronx with a newborn and he said writing the essay had made him understand his father and he was interested in reconnecting with him.
This experiment was not to turn the class into a therapy session; the purpose was to get the writing to flow. I have found that many times, it is easier to get people to speak or write about disappointments or unpleasant experiences than happy ones. After writing their big disappointments, the students were freed up to write about less melancholy incidents. In the exercise, the student was also forced to step out of him or herself, and, through this process, gain an understanding of writing a piece with more than one character.

Using the autobiographical essay, the student can then create dialogue between him or herself and the villain. After writing from the perspective of another person, it becomes easier to recall the cadence of speech or the person's vocabulary. And in order to keep it natural, the teacher could remind the student of certain dialogue pointers.
-People tend to speak in incomplete sentences.
-People tend to use contractions.
-People tend to interrupt each other during conversations.
-People tend to be nonlinear.

Have students experiment with present, present continuous tense, past, etc, so they can see how important time is to evoke a certain feeling in a piece.

Writing assignments for homework!
For each reading assignment, ask for a 500-word response paper in which the student can answer the following questions
What did you like? and why
What did you dislike? and why
What aspects of this author's writing would you like to emulate?

Sharing work and tactful critique
Have each student email work to other students each week - three or four days prior to class. Each student comes in with questions written on other students' papers, armed and ready to ask questions.
This serves two purposes: the students learn to edit other writers' work and begin to read their own work in a more objective light.

May your writing lives be full of profitable writerly gigs!

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