Thursday, May 3, 2012

Creative Writing, Draft Two

This summer I'll be teaching a Creative Writing class at Punahou for the second year in a row. Last year's class was a lot of fun, both because it gave me an opportunity to help my students tap into their creativity and because it compelled me to be creative as well. I'm looking forward to that opportunity this summer, especially as a kind of counter-balance to the kind of writing I have to do for my courses here. With a few notable exceptions, I'm rarely pushed to produce synthetically creative work as a PhD student, as analysis is the touchstone of academic discourse. That is not to condemn the academy by any means, but rather to point out that there are forms of writing it does not necessarily value, but which I still enjoy.

Last year I wrote a post about my curriculum writing process. I outlined the early stages of my backwards design process, the effort to determine an "enduring understanding" for my students, and the pitfalls of biting off too small or too big a goal. The results of this process I captured, at least in part, at the beginning of the course. I don't think I ever got around to writing a retrospective, but suffice to say the course was a blast, the students had a great time, and apparently I was well-behaved enough to be asked back this summer.

Which means that it's time to rewrite and revise. Writing a Creative Writing curriculum is a particularly recursive kind of activity, because the very principles you're trying to teach are - at least in part - the kinds of things you have to employ while constructing the course. Among these is the conviction that revision is necessary. For all of the successes in last year's course, there's so much that I want to do better, so many activities that I want to restructure, so many learning experiences that could be improved.

Perhaps the biggest weakness of my curriculum last summer was its overly workshop-y feel. That is, I treated the course more like a summer camp than a class. On some level this was appropriate, especially because I did select individual activities such that they all revolved around a small number of central themes. However, I believe that the summer school affords the opportunity for a more sustained engagement with a particular text or project than I attempted last year. With that in mind, I'm planning on expanding on a small set of activities I used last year concerning Italo Calvino's Invisible Cities.

In addition to being one of my favorite books, Invisible Cities is a wonderful jumping-off point for creative writing. It stands at the intersection of poetry and prose, traditional storytelling and vignette, abstraction and minute, concrete detail. My students struggled to understand the bits of it we tried to read in class last year. Until I sent them out to campus and had them write their own vignettes about Punahou. Invisible Punahou has been percolating in my mind ever since, and I think this year's class will create it.

So we'll spend more than a day with Calvino. We'll read him carefully, try to understand what he's doing and how he's doing it, and, most importantly, create our own version of the story. The purpose of doing so is to collaboratively create, through sustained engagement with a particular text and with a series of writing tasks and activities, a story that describes the campus that these students have spent the better part of their academic lives wandering.

There will be other revisions to the course as well, though none so significant as this sustained project. I have revamped and reworded my central purposes, making them more forceful and more meaningful. I have cut activities that didn't work last year, expanded those that needed it, and substituted in some new ideas. Above all, I have made space to better walk the tightrope that all teachers must walk between careful design and student freedom. I plan to enforce sustained engagement with Calvino, but the project will proceed very much on my students' terms. They will be the authors of whatever it is we produce. They will wield the creative power.

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