An academic scientist recently claimed that writing is more like an art form and there are no rules; it doesn't make any sense. With this in mind, how do you actually teach writing?
During one semester I taught the football team at 8 o'clock in the morning. How did I teach them writing? I taught with coffee for the entire class--and a plan. Teaching writing is comparable to learning a football play handbook and using the strategies to complete a successful game. Writing is not a free-form of art. It is a carefully structured crafting of thoughts into a manageable form for communicating specific ideas. The ability to write - like the ability to complete an entire football game - builds on one task at a time. Engagement and motivation are the starting point for writing. A student must be interested. To generate interest, I build rapport with students by asking them about themselves. I encourage them to share interests. One student, Brett, only wanted to discuss and write about Tim Tebow, for example. It was a starting point, and I built from there. I build on our dialogue with stories, but more importantly, reasons. I let students know why we are doing writing, and in what way it applies in our lives. I have taught and completed many different kinds of writing. I relate applications of writing in our lives: a blog, a podcast, a eulogy, a lawsuit, an application for a parent for elder care, a resume, cover letter, a proposal, and finally, a thank you letter. All of us communicate through non-verbal expression, through texting, sign-language, or the spoken word - from spiking the ball, signaling or writing a play, listening to the coach, understanding an official, or talking to the press. Communication is challenging enough based on our separate and unique experiences, so it is to our benefit to say and write what we mean. Once students make an investment into themselves and their need to communicate, I explain that writing is basically decision making. I will show students how to develop their styles of generating ideas, free writing, choosing topics, organizing, researching, developing ideas, arguing, describing, and analyzing. Each task is a specific and individual part of the process. My student, Brett, who only wanted to write about Tim Tebow, was allowed to do so, as long as he could analyze some controversy about Tebow that could be applied to a broader audience. Brett agreed, and like his football teammates, used many strategies of writing at the same time, much in the same way different kinds of plays are used on the field. One strategy is that students will write shorter related pieces of the larger assignment, and I will critique and conference with them, one student at a time. Students will also read exemplary writing to compare with their work. Group writing workshops, drafting, and follow-up conferences are also crucial to the game plan. Finally, much like the scientific process and the football season, the writing process is a hypothesis and experiment with specific variables that the student may implement based on teacher or coach recommendation, and student success. Drafting is the process of what works for each individual student. Like the football plays and the first and subsequent experiments, students draft until they feel confident and comfortable with the parameters of the assignment. Brett, after researching and writing several drafts came up with the great final play, his final paper. "Practice, practice, practice," say the teacher, the coach, and even the scientist who repeats his work for verification. I teach writing as a careful process of crafting that includes requirements; it is not an art form. Comparing the tasks of writing with a structure in the students' lives provides me a valuable platform to encouragingly coach, "Go, team!"
Literature can often be tragic or sad. Can you relate an experience or two when you made it fun--and still taught the lessons?
As a student of literature, I know that stories must have conflict, show evolution of characters as they learn lessons, and bring the conflict to some ending. The ending does not have to be pleasant. The examples of these tragic and sad literary tales are endless, from Golding's Lord of the Flies, to Dicken's Great Expectations, Knowles' A Separate Piece, Norris' McTeague, or Kafka's Metamorphosis. I have been privileged to bring some evolution to the teaching of otherwise sad and tragic literature. For my student teaching, I worked with seniors in high school. Teaching seniors in April, May, and June is challenging: they are ready to be released out into the world. I taught World Literature, and instead of any type of lecture, I gave my students a modern retelling and video production project. They loved it! With a class of 36, I asked students to work in groups of four and take a short story we had not covered in class. Each group had to retell the story in a modern setting and use a modern adaptation. They had to film their efforts and the final cut of their retelling. They had to create advertising, and even a post assessment and debrief for the class. I wrote the project in a way that would allow for a large percentage of an individual grade with a smaller percentage of a group grade. The groups were motivated. They deconstructed the stories, set their imaginations and technical savvy to work, and turned their ideas into video. They had fun and were able to create lasting memories with each other--while taking control of the lessons. I, for one, will never forget their joy and their applause after each production. I also taught literature to college students. College students are often busy with their jobs or with social engagements; thus, it was also a challenge at first to motivate and integrate literary lessons into their lives. I taught short story, poetry, drama, and novel, but the beginning of student motivation and awakenings started with poetry. I made poetry come alive by sharing modern poets reading and performing their works. We went to poetry readings, or we used PBS, Sunday Morning, or other program. I added musical lyrics. I added rap and ballads. I added standards and country. The students were amazed by what was right in front of their ears. I asked students to choose a modern lyricist and interpret the song lyrics for the class. The sheer unexpectedness of actually listening to the words in the song made students gasp with realization. As I integrated symbols, imagery, figurative language, archetypes, and more into their awareness, their knowledge and ability to connect ideas grew. As the semester concluded, I asked students to critique types of fiction. Students did critique! They told me they enjoyed the whole new world that had opened up for them. They trusted in their own abilities to look for interpretation on many levels--even in movies, and in song--and in people. I tell my students, "Literature is the same in the dark or the light. It is how you look at it. There are monsters in the dark and in the light, but being aware is the tool and the elevation we need. In the end, it's about us, who we are as humans." Our humanity within literature comprises the entire human spectrum, not just tragedy or sadness. I believe there is positive--especially when we put the book away at the end, and we have evolved because of it. As Frank Herbert wrote in Dune, "Only I will remain." My students and I remain with the joy of our own advancement and self-knowledge. "Mischief managed," wrote J.K. Rowling.
I see that you teach writing. If you are teaching writing online, and if students are apprehensive about writing-- and also about learning online--how do you reach your students?
I am confident and happy to work with students online. I have tutored and taught writing online for almost nine years, and in the classroom, for thirteen years. I have worked with college-level students, military personnel, special needs students, and returning adults. I have worked with everyone! I know from experience that being online and trying to tackle writing are two of the most frightening tasks for any student. I always put myself in my student’s place. I am experienced to move even the most trepid student forward. I build student strength through steps of achievable but challenging tasks. Let's go! I let students know right away that I am prepared. I have teaching requirements and assignments ready. I have prepared personalized welcome messages. I encourage students to post a bio. I begin a rapport with the student. I am not their boss: I am their support, their coach, their advisor, their proofreader, and the person who lets them know what the world expects. I give them the confidence to engage with writing and communicate online. One cannot live without these skills today. Every small task is one that has an application--and the student, with my guidance--proves to him or herself that it is a comfortable task. Preparation for me extends to providing students with my contact information. Because I am vigilant, I am accustomed to answering students frequently. I want to let my students know I am there for them! Not only do I monitor my students, but I prefer to provide the best links for help, the best activities, and the best video or game to aid in understanding and practice. I will not simply "lecture"; my preference is to break up our time to keep the student interested and motivated to move forward. I have been an educator for twenty years, and prior to that, I ran my own business. I am able to assess needs and best strategies. I have seen that online education and teaching writing is a very individual activity. I am elated that I can work with each student as an individual! I am an instructor with a positive mindset. I encourage, but I do not diminish. There is a balance between expectation for completion of a large project right away, versus taking the time needed to build a student's confidence. I firmly believe that we can do anything we put our minds to. It is my pleasure to show this to students, by bringing examples, modeling correct application, and providing detailed feedback. I am on task; but somehow, I can do this with respect for the student--and also humor. We can be our best, one day at a time. Through excellent preparation, scaffolded teaching strategies, and a positive environment, I enjoy reaching my students with the requirements and applications of good writing.