This fall, I spent twelve hours observing an elective creative writing class at Urbana High School. The course was taught by an English teacher and a student teacher from UIUC. It was taught in fifth and sixth period and was composed of students ranging from Freshmen to Seniors. My first observation was on the eighth of November and my last was on the seventh of December.
I followed the class through two projects. One was to write a poem, record it and add music to it and the other was to write a screenplay that would be entered in the local “Pens to Lens” competition that takes screenplays from grade school students and turns them into actual movies.
The classes mostly followed a standard format. Upon arrival, the students would be asked to write for five minutes on a given subject and then they’d share their work in a group. The students seemed to do well at this activity in terms of being engaged and producing writing. However, I didn’t think it was the best way to start a class. I understand this matches up with the “Quickies” writing assignment in Inside Out, but I personally dislike it. It struck me as jarring as I feel students need a moment to orient themselves before being thrust into an activity. They need a bit of fluency in the mood of the class I think before thrusting themselves directly into writing. I know I as a student would hate it. Also five minutes is much too short of a time. However, I could be totally wrong here as the exercise seemed to be pretty successful each day.
After this exercise, the class went into the main activity of the day. These all centered around exposing the students to language and format of either poetry or screenplays and I thought it did a good job of coaching fluency. For poetry, there was a packet full of famous poems and poetic terminology like anaphora, metaphor, simile, hyperbole, etc. I thought the poems were pretty well chosen and were varied enough that much could be gleaned from each of them. One of my favorite poems “Daddy” by Sylvia Plath was included, which I thought was fun. After the class was exposed to the writing form, they were given a second writing exercise that used what they’d learned. For example, on the day they learned all the poetic terminology, they were asked to use it in a poem. Then the class would share their poems in groups at the conclusion of class. There were also classes based out of the writing lab devoted solely to in-class writing and working on their main project. During those periods the teachers and I would go around and answer questions from the students.
My personal experiences were a bit slender, but the times I engaged in teaching, I found very rewarding. The reason they were slender is because students had to volunteer to share their poems with me. Because of their personal nature, I didn’t have access to them off the bat without the students’ consent. Everyday when the students engaged in their editing process, I’d announce to the class that I was happy to work on their poem with them and that I was a grad student in creative writing who’d been trained for years to workshop creative writing. Even with this announcement, sometimes no students asked me for help. This might partly be due to just low energy on that particular day as some days the students were more involved and excited than others.
However, I did have a handful of really poignant workshop experience in which I feel I really helped the students. One particularly striking teaching experience happened right before Thanksgiving with a student who had ambitiously decided to do two poems for her final project because she was too passionate about both to not finish them. I read both of her poems and immediately recognized them as exceptional well beyond the standard range of the class. They set up a powerful mood through word choice and pacing that only the most successful poems could employ. After I read the poems, I expressed this to her and pointed out lines that I liked and why I liked them. The class theme for the day was copyediting, so I framed my discussion around that. Luckily for poetry, copyediting format is extremely important and can change a whole lot about a poem, because it directly affects its form. I mentioned her form, which was to use frequent periods to create a sort of abruptness of mood that matched the content. In mentioning her form, I asked her to focus on maintaining it and pointed out places that she could without changing the intent of her work. We discussed these moments in the poem and she agreed with all of my suggestions. Towards the end of the workshop I told her that I’d read a lot of poetry and that she was quite good and should keep it up. She mentioned that she loved it and hated it to which I asked why. She responded that she was never happy with her poems and that she could always see them being better. I said that this shows she really was thinking like a good artist as an artist is always looking to improve their craft. Then I mentioned that its important to acknowledge your successes and accomplishments as well. She said she found herself writing until late in the night, but sometimes she’d get distracted and start surfing the web. My response to this was my favorite dad-style advice that I like to give and that I made up myself which is, “You have to work on the things you love in life, or life will make you work on something that you don’t love.” I also told her it was only natural to get distracted sometimes and to not be too hard on herself. It was an enriching teaching experience and I felt like I really helped her poems and got her excited and confident about writing.
I workshopped with several other students as well and I basically followed a tried and tested workshop approach which is that I start by saying what I like about it. Then I go into how it could be improved, which with these students usually involved more cohesion, then I’d close on something else that I liked about the poem. I felt like with each workshop with me, the students came away from it with concrete ways to work on and improve their work and I believe they all felt encouraged and as if they understood their own work a bit better. The main teacher of the class noticed me being helpful and increasingly suggested that students work with me. This didn’t always help my chances, but sometimes it did.
Overall, I feel I learned a lot about the art of teaching in this class, partly from seeing the main teacher engage her students, which she did well and with warmth. I also honed my workshopping abilities and figured out how to tune in to younger writers more and I feel I was successful in my attempts. Not only that, but it felt like I’d done some good for the world if only just a tiny bit.