Sunday, March 30, 2014

Creative writing elective

Last night, some family and I sat around a table listening to Dad tell stories about growing up without much money or many worldly possessions but with lots of love and happy memories. He told story after story of hardship and adventure, and we all chimed in telling stories of our own. Every tale was complete, engaging, and relatable. No need for training in storytelling. No need for a course on dialog, plotting, or voice.

This term, I'm trying to teach my students that they're already storytellers, that they constantly communicate in story form, just like we did around the table. The first challenge for them, for anyone really, is taking a story from the lively atmosphere of the kitchen table or the imagination and making it just as alive on the page. The second is knowing what to include, what not to include, and how to get from the beginning to the end.

The challenge for me is that this is an elective course. Though these eighteen students have to learn some technique, read and analyze strong examples, and write stories or parts of stories, the majority are not in it to strengthen their beloved novels: they're in it to get their elective credits. That means they've got every right to not love the topic like I do. In spite of that reality, the loveliest surprise has been all the beautiful, thoughtful pieces I've gotten so far. For the first time in a long time, I actually enjoy grading papers.

Plus, the class is teaching me everything about technique that I wish I'd been taught in grad school. I had a great grad school experience, but the classes I took focused more on critique groups and research than technique. So I'm not just teaching the basics of how to make a story work, I'm learning the basics in a straightforward way after spending years stumbling my way through drafts, learning by doing. In other words, more of the fog (that is the mystery of great written storytelling) is clearing.

More on that soon. For now, we're halfway through the term, and I'm loving the challenge. Since I don't know when this class will come back around again, I'm teaching like it's the only time I'll ever get the chance. When it's over, I can only hope a few of my students will have gotten the itch to keep writing after the final bell rings.

Friday, March 7, 2014

Philosophy of Teaching

On August 29, 2011, I walked into a college classroom as a teacher for the first time. Last night, I walked into a college classroom to teach for just over the 150th time. That comes out to about 600 teaching hours.

Since last night's class was one I've never taught before, going in felt a lot like that first time. My heart thumped. My hands shook. I was sweating. It was fight or flight like I haven't felt for many a term.

A couple weeks after I taught that first class, I posted a blog about the experience:

My lesson plans are right here in front of me. Yesterday was spent grading papers and quizzes. I've gotta teach on Monday. So it must be true. I must have finally gotten where I was going, at least in one sense . . . My first class was such a strange thing. I wasn't exactly nervous (I wanted to succeed too much to let nerves win out over adrenaline), but I was certainly new. Things went okay. Not awful, not amazing. We all survived, and most of them have stuck with me. There were moments when they got what I was saying and moments when their blank expressions told me I'd lost them. But overall, we made progress . . . The worst part is knowing it'll take time to learn what works and what doesn't.

And then I said this:

It seems, at least from this very green teacher who's looking for something constant to hang on to, that there are two critical things I must do, and one thing they must do. I must understand and effectively (passionately on a good day) communicate the material, and I must sincerely want the students to succeed. They must try as hard as necessary to meet the goals satisfactorily.

I wanted to post a blog today about how much wiser I've gotten, and how the basic teaching beliefs I held then have gotten richer and smoother with age. Sure, I've become much more comfortable in the classroom. I'm better at switching gears if things aren't going well, redeeming things before they're lost, knowing when they are lost and trying again the next week. The material isn't such a mystery anymore and lessons don't need so much preplanning. Questions in class don't trip me up as often. Safeguards have been set against common issues like plagiarism, narrow thinking, and absences. Instead of being difficult to fill, four to five hours in class has become hard to fit everything into. The students have heard of me now and generally seem to enjoy themselves. These things all make a better experience for the students and me.

But there are also plenty of moments when I lose them. There are times when Jonathan asks, "How'd it go tonight, babe?" and I answer, "I don't wanna talk about it." There are days when I think I can't do this anymore. There are most certainly occasions when I know I need to learn more about what I'm teaching, when I feel like a fraud, when I want to run away screaming. When I cry.

So teaching, like any job I suppose, is one day at a time. However familiar it becomes, every day is new with something new in it.

150 class meetings later, if I had to define my basic teaching beliefs again, I'd still say what I said back then:

I must understand and passionately communicate the material
I must sincerely want the students to succeed
They must try as hard as they can to do the work satisfactorily