Tuesday, June 14, 2011

The First Day of the Rest of the Class

Today was the first day of the creative writing course I have mentioned intermittently in this space over the past few months.  I'm not going to detail what happened in the class, but I will wax philosophical about creative writing, curriculum, teaching, and my plans for where the course is going.

The course is organized around a single goal - per backwards design - of working together to learn how to be better writers.  That is to say, I my goal is not for the students (and myself) to be better writers, but rather to learn to be better writers.  That's a fine distinction, perhaps - especially because becoming better writers is a natural outgrowth of learning how to do so - but it's an important one.  It is, as I told the students, much like the famous saying about catching fish: if you give a man a fish, he'll eat for a day... If you teach a man to write, he'll be a better writer, but if you teach him to learn to write, he'll be an ever-improving writer.

In order to accomplish this goal, I've posed two questions (of a highly philosophical and basic nature) in the class: what is writing? and what is creativity?  Now that's perhaps a little glib, and I'll acknowledge that those are actually impossible-to-answer questions.  But the point is that a part of learning how to write is asking yourself what the limits of writing even are.  If I think of myself as a writer only when I sit down to compose a blog post, I'm missing out on countless opportunities to learn to write in other ways.  A conversation, a video game, a trip to the beach... in some sense, can't all of those things be writing, or at least a precursor to it?  Perhaps, perhaps not.  Regardless, creativity might find its way into each and every of those things, and so it's worth, to my mind, keeping those two impossibly broad questions in your mind.

I've also organized the activities of the class around three values: metacognition, dialogue, and collaboration.  Metacognition is, simply, thinking about thinking.  So I mean it broadly, in terms of self-awareness, self-critique, learning about learning, and generally taking ones understanding of a situation, text, or whatever to another level of complexity.

Dialogue is, of course, essential to writing, and a wonderful analogue as well.  Good conversations are, to my mind, a kind of writing.  Moreover, dialogue lets writers communicate with each other about their writing, which thus enables them to learn more about both their own writing process, and that of others.  In a class where learning how to learn to write is paramount, dialogue is a natural complement.

Collaboration is a value I had tapped that, I later discovered, is also prominent in the Punahou mission statement.  In a writing class, however, collaboration can be difficult to achieve.  With that in mind, I've tried to put together a number of activities that encourage - if not force - students to work together.  Workshopping is a kind of collaboration, of course, but I believe critiquing the work of others and communicating about it is too limited.  Rather, I will make the students write in teams, both because collaboration is valuable in itself, and because most creative writing in the modern world (at least the type that people get paid to do) happens in teams.

Having gone through the process of deciding on and shaping these high-level goals, the nitty-gritty details of what we do, why, and how came together in a matter of hours.  The result is a curriculum with five content themes (as opposed to the process or philosophical themes above), one for each week.  This first week we're looking at, talking about, and working on prose.  The second week will center on verse.  The third will cover design and its role in writing.  The fourth will be a broader look at art and creativity, and the fourth will be about refining and polishing writing.

It's not a lot of time, and we've got a lot to do:
- A trip to the art museum
- Comparing scenes from The Princess Bride movie to the book
- Writing observational haikus
- Going to a poetry reading
- Playing Apples to Apples and Balderdash
- Playing and writing about the Oregon Trail
- Watching the special features and commentary of the Lord of the Rings to unearth design decisions
- Critiquing the venerable Elements of Style
- Watching The King's Speech and listening to other wartime speeches to investigate propaganda and persuasion in writing
- For the students: writing two mini-projects (one prose, one verse), giving two presentations, proposing, drafting, and completing a final project, and keeping an exhaustive journal.

And there's more.  Frankly, some may have to be cut as we go, just to make sure there's time to do enough writing in class.  But I'd rather err on the side of too many good learning experiences in my curriculum than too few, and culling is easier than adding in.

Finally, a word on assessment.  I'm going to grade the students on three things: participation, a journal, and a final project.  Each is vital to measuring some part of my goal and values of the course.

Participation will be a measure of dialogue, of course, but also a way of keeping track of how students are feeling about writing, reading, and language in general.  Participation in conversations is important, then, because it's a big part of how I know what a student is thinking.  A major barrier to conversation with high schoolers is, of course, that they're used to being graded based on what they say and how much they understand, whereas I'm only interested in whether they're engaged.  Indeed, I'd rather have them all clamoring to ask for clarification, to say "I don't get it" than I would have them clamoring to give answers to questions.  That's a process, of course, and a challenge to me as a teacher to make our discussion environment support that kind of a dialogue.

The journal is a measure of, well, just about everything.  And that's because it's exhaustive.  As I told the students, everything and anything goes in their journals.  They should put in text messages, tweets, facebook status updates, grocery lists, and anything else they write in the next five weeks.  Part of the point, then, is to demonstrate that they already write a lot.  Wait, that's not the real point...  No, the point is for them to be conscious of the fact that they are writing - to be metacognitive - when they do things they normally don't think of as writing.  Of course, the journal will also contain drafts and ideas and outlines and poem fragments and so on.  And, really, those things should be the bulk of it, at the end of the day.  But I think it's valuable to turn that writer's eye on everything one does for a while, just to see what you see.

Finally, the final project will be a single work (or small portfolio) of the highest quality.  By virtue of amassing a large, unwieldy, messy, nonsensical journal, my hope is that the students will not be able to help coming up with good ideas for a final project.  The challenge I levied at them was this: publishable.  Will they reach that level?  Maybe, maybe not, but we can try, and I can do my best to support the effort.  Regardless, they're not going to get there - or anywhere close to it - without writing a lot in the next five weeks, and writing a lot that's not the final project.  Why?  Because learning about the process, about how to learn to write, about how to collaborate and how to dialogue and how to think about thinking...  All of those things that the course is designed around are, to my mind, the real key to good writing.  And you can't get to writing well without doing a lot of writing poorly along the way.

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