Monday, 4 July 2011

Tips, exercises & ideas

This is the 112th entry in the teaching creative writing blog and I'm going to take a break.

But do not despair if you have just found your way here, or indeed if you are a regular. At the bottom of this blog you will see Labels, lots of them, so you can find all sorts of tips, exercises and ideas -- three and a half years' worth!

It's a very long list, so here is a shorter list of the likeliest Labels to find Really Useful Goodies.

Assessment, Assessment Criteria
Creative Process, Creative Writing
Critic Within
Difficult Students
End of Year, Endings
Exercises (24 entries!)
First Class (3)
How to Critique
Lesson Planning (6)
Pitching a Course (3 -- this is pitching it to an institution, not to students)
Start of Term, Starting Term, Teacher as Host
Travel Writing
Warming the Class
Writing Residentials

Meanwhile, there's the book, Creative Writing: the Matrix, Exercises & Ideas for Creative Writing Teachers, now in its 2nd printing. Click here to go to my website to explore and order direct from me. Each term there's an exercise and teaching tip. The book's on Amazon too (click here), but costs you more.

So what will I be doing? Getting on with Testing the Gods, the story of my great-grandfather's life, now 60,000 words in. And I want to write a companion to the Matrix, exercises and ideas for teaching creative non-fiction (travel writing, articles, memoire...) -- interested?

Emails will still come through to me; if anything exciting or extra-creativewritingteaching-puzzling arises for you, talk to me!

Sunday, 26 June 2011

Creative Writing & technology: the verdict

End of course and I asked my class to comment specifically on the use of PowerPoint, having told them this was the first time I'd incorporated it into the course. As well, of course, as my usual feedback queries:

- How have you journeyed as a writer on this course?
- What has been most useful? Least useful?

Well, this ol dog has learned the new PowerPoint trick. First, it improved my focus in prepping and delivering (see blog entry of 24 May). Second, here's the verdict from students. Out of 7 responses:

3 positively liked:
'I like having a visual focus so PowerPoint helps me.'
'Good, helped with focussing'
'Seemed to work well.'

2 neutral:
'OK, not necessarily needed.'
'Fine, but not essential.'

2 said nothing, too busy with their journey and other comments.

So, I'm converted. And actually, it's kinda fun.

Wednesday, 8 June 2011

Weird teaching moments

All my years of teaching creative writing and I have never bumped into this before... how to respond when a student submits, in effect, a dirty joke?
I was flummoxed and weirded out when I read it. The student is middle-aged, pleasant, well-meaning, innocent or even naive, a beginner at creative writing. From a tough blokish lad affecting cynicism I'd have been annoyed and angry, but not surprised. This left me perplexed and annoyed.
Had to ask myself -- am I just being a prude? It's a silly and fairly good 'dirty joke' -- so why do I feel sullied? I dunno -- I am surprised and insulted. Or maybe challenged (is someone testing or joking me? Oh no, I'm paranoid too!) It's not what I expect from any student and especially not from this one. It's simply totally out of context.
I just have to assume it is a matter of naivety. So, what did I do next? Treat it carefully and solemnly. I emailed (in reponse to the student's suggestion it could be read out in class and get feedback) to say we would not do this for two reasons:
Genre: the class is for prose fiction and non-fiction, and this piece is (self-described by student) comedy-drama. It is a joke, which is a different genre. I suggested trying a comedy writing course.
Content: the content is not appropriate in the context of this class. (This made me stop and weigh up -- why not?) In part, it's to do with genre. Writing in this (or any other) creative writing class may include strong language, references to sex and body parts and marital squabbling, but these would be set up in prose story-telling mode with more depth and meaning to the situation than given in this piece.
So that was to explain in advance, and then I did handwritten feedback with the work, as normal creative writing critique/feedback, based on the content and context of the course. Here I pointed out that the 'story' had two or possibly three elements but did not contain other key archetypal components. Testing this piece of writing against our Hero's Journey storytelling genre demonstrated that this piece was an entirely different genre, successful in its own terms as an entertaining joke.
By treating it in a respectful manner I thus managed to praise as well as criticise. Perhaps the student just meant it as a light-hearted tale... perhaps in analysing it closely for its archetypal quest elements I am a dry old academic... perhaps I am a po-faced prude!

Tuesday, 24 May 2011

Creative writing & technology -- effects?

In for a penny, in for a pound. Having woven in some Interactive White Board (IWB) [see 23/02/11 blog] for this term's run of Hero's Journey/Writer's Journey I am having a go at PowerPoint.

Here's the question for you: what effect does I.T. have on teaching creative writing?

Now, I ask you, doesn't your heart leap with joy at the word PowerPoint? Not. We have all been to talks/presentations using it, and well know that it's still the talk, the content that matters. However, as we HAVE all been to presentations using it, it's now regarded as standard professionalism. And, actually, our college's classroom technology is now v up-to-date -- ceiling-mounted IT projector, remote control, light pen (for the IWB, not PwrPt), so it's pretty whizzy. And, dear reader, I've done it.

Good effect: in prepping, and determining to do very few slides and to keep the lecture short, I found PwrPt helpful. Looking over my notes and the handout I boiled down to about 2 or 3 main points... just to pop them up there on the screen on hold while I talked. Doing it really focussed my thinking and -- I hope -- my talking. Then on to the writing exercises ASAP.

Not so good effect: by second session I had a couple of rather anxious queries from students saying that their stories did not have, say, a Mentor, or a Threshold (or other of the archetypal elements).

Whoah! For one thing, we hadn't yet covered these, except in the brief overview I gave in the intro about the course. For another, I had said at least twice that there is no such thing as a 'map' or 'writing by numbers' and that these archetypal elements are merely aids or tools.

So, does seeing things projected in B&W make students think in B&W -- that is, does it interfere with creative freedom? Does it inhibit creative writing?

Next session I talked up creative freedom loud & clear. Also brought in a short story, Rosendo's Tale, by Jorge Luis Borges. It's a fine little story, not great, but certainly satisfactory, and has a number of archetypal elements -- not all, and not 'in order'. We discussed and will continue to refer to it -- creative freedom, I hope, illustrated in this use of heroic quest archetypes.

I've told my students that use of PwrPt in this course is new, and so is use of a 'text', and will be asking them for feedback.

Use of the story raises another question for us tutors of creative writing -- does lit-crit help or hinder creative writing in a class?

Next class session: IWB again. Next I.T. challenge for me: moodle?? Experiences, opinions, anyone?

Sunday, 15 May 2011

Exercises for outcomes: person point-of-view views 2

Apologies for late start to this term's blog. For one thing, my college delayed term by a week to allow for the holidays and Royal Wedding. For another... the faction story of my ancestor's life is steaming ahead and I gave in to the desire to write, write, write. And my Hero's Journey teaching began.

So, I was talking about Point of View as a rich seam of storycraft and last installment (1 April) covered 1st, 2nd, 3rd person. This time the Learning Outcome is 'Learner should be able to recognise storytelling angle point of view.' Obviously it would be very good if the learner would also use various points of view in her/his own writing.

Now, you can do a whole lit-crit analytical thing with this... as tutor, search out a few stories, novels, texts, explain a bit and get students in pairs or groups to read the texts and figure out who is telling the story... moving on to examples where the story is seen from different characters' angles. But that is the lit-crit way... how much will it help writers DO it?

I suggest, instead, one of my favourite exercises. [As you know I like a lot of chatter and enthusiasm in my classes -- as well as a lot of silence: the sounds of pen on paper (or tapping on keys).] This means some fun prep for you: go through magazines to find 'agony aunt' columns or features. You may have to adapt or rearrange, but what you need is 4 or 5 problem situations which involve three or four people, possibly more.

Maybe the web has 'I need help' situations like this, I don't know. Or maybe you can borrow some storylines from Coronation Street or The Archers or even the news. Mind out for copyright infringement. But effectively you want a person with a problem, an unsolved domestic or relationship issue. It could be as simple as the situation I give below.

In small groups of four or so, give each group copies of one of the situations. They briefly read and discuss and each person in the group chooses one of the 'characters' in the story. Each student then writes in the voice of his/her character. So in the situation below, the mother-in-law, the mum, the husband... and even the toddler, even the dog.

Yes, yes, you'll get questions -- first person seems to be easiest but third person is fine, and each student can do whichever, the group does not have to agree (so illustrating/practising the other kind of POV). Some groups or individuals like to develop the story, or tell from later on in the story, and that's okay too. The main thing is to WRITE. They don't share with others in their group. Allow 15 mins of writing. Then each group reads out to the whole class (after reading out the initial situation).

And voila, a real live demonstration of how many angles can tell a story. And then on to discussion as to which one way they'd choose for this story, or would it be a patchwork of various voices, and what effect this has on the feeling and impact of the story, and what surprises/discoveries they made in writing from their person's POV. And awareness of all of this as their authorial creative choice in writing their own stories.

My mother-in-law comes to visit with her wheezy old dog,
I'm worried about my toddler, both germs and possible snappishness. I want
to leave her dog at home but she's devoted to it and my husband says it's
her lifeline. What can I do about this?

Assessment Critera: Tutor goes around and listens in to groups and answers questions or explains further. Hearing the reading out allows you to assess understanding. The further discussion also clarifies things. At this point, if necessary to show evidence of understanding, you could distribute a handout or worksheet with texts to identify or further discuss, as in lit-crit. But for me, writing's the thing.

Tuesday, 12 April 2011

End of term

Break time. Sorry I missed the final week of term -- due to the course I have been attending. Will resume blog the last week of April. My college has cleverly decided not to begin my course that week, being realistic about adult learners' priorities... a Bank Holiday one end and royal wedding the other.

If you are new to this blog and looking for exercises or other juice, just look at the labels below and browse through to find useful stuff. Look at the Matrix book's own website too, as there's a new extract each term with an exercise and tutor
support tip.

Friday, 1 April 2011

Exercises for outcomes: person point-of-view views

Apologies for this dense layout; somehow paragraphing will not work. I just re-blogged as if a new blog and the same bog blog effect occured. Maybe google blogger does not like POV? Hope it improves for next entry.SLK Point of view is a rich seam of storycraft that new creative writers need to understand and can have useful fun exploring. Three of the Learning Outcomes in the Narrative Devices course I wrote are about point of view (let's just call it POV from here on). I'll talk about two here. The Outcomes were Learner should be able to: Recognise person POV and Describe the uses of various person PsOV. So, work for you: dip into your fav fiction and find paras of the various 1st person, 3rd person, close-3rd (how about Hilary Mantel's Wolf Hall for that!), the challenging 2nd (Jay McInerney, Bright Lights, Big City the best example I've come across), multiple-3rd person. Assessment Criteria: If you had to prove students understood you'd probably do another handout. First one is a talking/discussing sheet. Second one is theirs to figure out which is which, in pairs/groups, with discussion, whatever. Writing exercise (see below) can also be used to assess learning. Discussion aspect is not just noticing I, he, you, of course, but what effect this has on tone/mood, and how author went about writing it. Exercise: Similar to last week, you could do better to discuss later and DO FIRST. Hand out the paras and get students to transpose... how would the 2nd person sound written as 1st, as 3rd? Have them turn 3rd into 1st, and take the 1st person example and make it 3rd. LOTS of technical challenges and YES they have to change words and all sorts of things. It's all about the power of words, the feel, the effect, the limits, the advantages... Next week, the other kind of POV.

Wednesday, 23 March 2011

Exercises for outcomes: fooling around with tenses

I was blogging recently about my course subtitled Narrative Devices (10 March 2011) and think it could be useful to go on. One Learning Outcome is Define verb tenses and their effect on narrative. Sounds so basic, yet I really only arrived at it because I was forced to break down creative writing into specific craft skills; turns out to make for some good exercises.

I invented two Criteria for Assessment.
1) Recognise present, past and past-perfect verb usage in published or own writing.
2) Evaluate strengths and weaknesses of different verb tenses in narrative effect.

Sneakiest way to get into this is to set an exercise, probably starting with a stimulus of listing or even a given list of words to choose from, where you ask students to write a paragraph or two about something (place, object, pet, person, event...). Or it could just start with 'I remember...' and go on.

Why is this sneaky? Because you want them naturally and unselfconciously to write in past tense. This is your (their) raw material. And now you talk a bit about present tense, maybe read out an example, and ask the students to transmute (or maybe we should say timeshift) their own piece into present tense.

They set to it... and then they start to say it is hard to do! Urge them to soldier on. Also some 'ask permission' to leave things out or change things because it won't work otherwise. Aha! Now they are seeing the craft differences in the two modes. Of course it's okay.

Then read out and share and comment and discuss. Good to prepare a handout of excerpts from published works in both past and present tenses to read out to further support the discussion. There's no right answer, it's just... how does it feel? what does it convey? is this the effect you want? have you considered the effect?

A variant or addition is to have students transcribe (transmute? timeshift?) the published excerpts into the other mode; again -- to sense the effect on the reader. Effect on the writer might be considered too -- some people love to write in present tense, some hate it, some can only flow in classic past-tense storytelling, some feel paralyzed by it.

Hmm, all this and I didn't even get to past-perfect, otherwise known as the had-hads.

Thursday, 17 March 2011

Support for creative writing teachers

Today, an alert on the wider world of support for creative writing teachers -- an alphabet soup: NAWE, UCU, IfL.

First, the good news. Writers in Schools Skills Sharing Day on Saturday 21 May 2011. Organised by NAWE -- National Association of Writers in Education -- for writers teaching in primary and secondary schools. Of 16 workshops you can attend 4. Some titles that call to me are Classroom Management, Working with Teachers, Maintaining Your Identity as a Writer and Digital/Interactive Writing [no suprise, that last one, as some will know -- see blogs of 16 & 23 Feb, Technologies in Teaching Creative Writing].

If you're a NAWE member already you'll have had the notice on this, and know you get a discount. If not -- what are you waiting for? Good stuff, and membership includes liability insurance. ALSO I see that if you are not there yet, but interested, that a September workshop is planned for those who want to get into the writers in schools game. Here's the link. Deadline 29 April.

Now the rest. You are probably aware that nowadays everyone who teaches/trains in government-funded further education (FE, community, prisons etc) by law must now be a member of IFL -- Institute for Learning. It's a professional body and Good Thing, the professional body offering support and information. However, the government originally paid the membership if you were teaching... but now says you have to pay it yourself: £68. You don't pay, your college/institution can't hire you. Info,

Deadline for the IfL is 1 April, BUT it's a hot topic. UCU -- University and College Union -- is the union for teachers/lecturers in further & higher education, another Good Thing, offering support and information and political clout with employers, gov't, media. And UCU is fighting hard to see that employees do not pay this... they believe this is injustice, and ask members not to pay the IfL membership until (if) the union goes to bat over this. It's rather fraught. So you may want to go to UCU's site and sign the petition or at least read more about the issue and possibly join the union.

Whew. Not usually my thing to be political, but it is wise to be aware of the wider aspects of our world of teaching creative writing.

Meanwhile... my compassion is with Japan.

Thursday, 10 March 2011

Mixing newbies & returner writing students - part 2

Continuing the theme of mixed levels of students (how're you doing, Helen?), last week I expanded about gentling in the new-to-creative writing students and asking tolerance from the old hands for hearing some of your same jokes and tricks. This week, a bit more attention to the loyal returners. Or: your fan club.

Even without newbies, a classful of students coming back... and back... and back can be a challenge. Details now on the solution mentioned last week. Here's the bad news -- well, not so bad, as we are creative teachers, and passionate, too -- you do have to come up with some new material. However, it's not too painful when you simply think of it as fine-tuning and variably focussing what you are already doing. It all began with the title... and arose in part for administrative reasons.

Let's say the course was originally called Creative Writing. The new tweak was subtitling. I devised two further course names to make a 3-year cycle, so after the first (unsubtitled) came Creative Writing: Narrative Devices. Then Creative Writing: Structure, Pace & Voice. Three years is a good long time to have held (taught? entertained?) a student; if he/she comes back a fourth year when you repeat the cycle, it will have been so long ago -- and they will have grown so much -- that it will feel new again.

The secret is that of course you are teaching narrative devices, structure, pace and voice all the time... but now you and your students are shining a spotlight on them, focussing. And this is what provides the new angle for your returners. Dialogue, character development, setting etc still are present too, and all of this is fine for the newbies, so long as you start off with gentle, fun, freeing exercises (see last week's blog).

Here are the Learning Outcomes I devised for the Narrative Devices subtitle:
  1. Identify a variety of narrative methods
  2. Recognise person point-of-view
  3. Describe the uses of various person points-of-view
  4. Recognise storytelling angle point-of-view
  5. Define verb tenses and their effect on narrative
  6. Generate, submit and engage in writing with awareness of narrative devices
If anyone out there wants my breakdown of these into Criteria for Assessment, please ask and I will put them in future blogs.

Two big supports for these new angles -- add the reading of a book or selected contemporary short stories to the class. I did one novel per term but it was a pretty advanced class. Maybe one or several short stories is better for starters. We are NOT doing lit-crit here, but READING AS WRITERS, to notice and discuss and then try out the points above.

Other one: make it a regular workshopping class, with readers scheduled ahead, committed to reading out. Make this a 20 or 30 min slot per person -- 10-15 mins to read (about 2,000 words), the rest for feedback (developing constructive critical abilities in all). [more on this in The Matrix book]

Oh, yeah, you still have to go to a book of exercises like mine or your big shelf of 'how to write' books and find exercises you can turn into class exercises... but with the above elements, at least not soooo much of this.

Thursday, 3 March 2011

Mixing newbies & returner writing students

Woop woop, I have just noticed that this is the 101st blog entry -- astonishing!

'How do you handle it when you've got both 'returners' and newbies in the same class?' Helen asks. She's started a new course with some who've done one term, some who had a first session before course cancellation, one with her for 18 months and a bunch of students new, possibly even completely new to creative writing.

Yes, big challenge. A compliment to your teaching when students come back for more more more, AND who can ever finish 'learning creative writing'? AND... the returners help to keep the numbers up, so that there can be a class at all. So, congratulations to Helen.

Sometimes as well as this, there's a management extra: at one time, my writing course had an external accreditation (so that it attracted some government funding... financial mysteries beyond my remit and now defunct). After a year or two, the organisation would no longer allow the same course title with students (and me) completing the paperwork for the same credit --- even though they were progressing their writing and writing new stuff each year. So my helpful boss and I devised a solution, which could work for anyone in the 'repeater' situation.

But Helen's other problem is the newbies mixing in with old hands, so I'll address that first. I'm running into the mixed level challenge (but students all new to me) in my current teaching -- but still, that's different to the knowns-and-newbies medley. So what do I suggest?

First -- be upfront and human about it. Warn the (what shall we call them? I'll stick with:) old hands that they will be hearing some of the same jokes, and doing some of the same exercises, and you hope they'll bear with you. Add that As they ARE CREATIVE, and as each piece of creative writing is new, it is good and useful to repeat the exercises.

eg, if it is Character Profile, or even Profile from a Postcard, Monologue, Stimulus Object et cetera -- of course they will be doing it with a different character. So... the writing will be different and they will have exercised even more than before. Similar if the goal is to write a short story or several poems by end of term: of course they need to be new stories/poems, even if from similar starting point. That's what creating is all about. Assure them there will be new content too (subject of next week's blog, to do with solution above).

Then -- you need to gentle-in the newbies as you would with an entirely newbies class, with your (my?) starting creative writing basics -- Bubbling and Chaos Writing (freewriting) (see Matrix book if you don't know what I mean). By using a different stimulus word on the board, and using your pack of word-start index cards/slips of paper, it will still be fun and useful for the old hands.

In the first session or several, don't ask for whole-group reading out. Instead, put people in pairs or threes to share their writing -- much less intimidating for newbies. Try to put old hand with newbies to avoid cliqueiness, and enourage support and new bonding. More next week! BUT ALSO SEE THE 9 FEB BLOG ABOUT FLEXIBLE ASSIGNMENT SCHEME.

Wednesday, 23 February 2011

Creative writing & technology, I did it

Interesting to experience the trajectory of critique. We writers ourselves know about it from personal experience of workshopping our writing and getting feedback, or getting rejections on submitted work (if we are so fortunate as to get feedback instead of the routine 'no thanks' slip).

Here's the pattern:
Oh, no! Wrong-wrong-wrong-wrong-wrong. Sulk a little. Time. Weelll, maybeeeee... okay I guess I could consider it. Oh well, grumble, how the hell can I... oh! (light bulb) I can think of a way! And then (later), hey, it works!

And our scene, dialogue, chapter opening or whatever (in this case, next teaching session) is, by incorporating the critique IN OUR OWN WAY, indeed improved. Exhilarating, actually.

So here's what I did. Instead of a verbal reprise to the class at the start of the session, and reminder of the overall 'map' of the course, I used the Interactive White Board (known as IWB) flip chart, and had the students call out and direct me on the Hero's Journey. This way they were reprising themselves - Hero, Ordinary World, Threshold, Mentor (a few prompts from me of the 'what else' sort), etc.

This map of the journey goes along Aristotle's incline of dramatic tension (3-act play) which they have seen throughout the course. (It's in Creative Writing: the Matrix, and lots of other places.) I quickly ran out of space so, presto, a click of the light-pen and on the map went to the next clean page, and then a third. Okay, it could have been a normal white board or flip chart, but now we are in 21st c technology mode.

So the students took me on the journey, we did it together. Much better than just verbally reminding them. Better too than standing up front and putting them on the spot by straight out asking them to recount. And being electronic, no waste of flipchart paper or need to erase felt-tip marker.

Also, at the end, I projected the college's website to (a) show up-coming creative writing courses, (b) show how easy online course evaluation is.

Thank you to the comments in support on last week's moan. And may I add woof-woof. (Think dog, old, tricks, yes you can.)

Wednesday, 16 February 2011

Technologies in teaching creative writing

Yug. Got some crit on my observation report. For one thing, can I ask YOU,

how much or in fact HOW do you use interactive white board and projector I.T. in teaching creative writing?

And the above question particularly in the context of short courses, two hours per week, with no exam or qualification on offer nor of interest to the self-selected adult students.

Myself, I think writing in class, bouncing creativity off each other, and getting feedback from reading out and/or from tutor are chief methods in the writerly mode.

Wednesday, 9 February 2011

Increasing student production rate

Jury's out on my observation. I await the feedback appointment. Unfortunately the observer came for the Shadow part of the session -- always a sticky subject.

Meanwhile: wrapping up our marking creative writing topic with the related issue of getting students to write outside class and hand writing in. Remarkable how so many do not take advantage of getting feedback, who do not use the stimulus and goals to get on and write. I can completely understand a writer not wanting to use precious time and energy simply doing homework for teacher -- we are not in that kind of teaching. So I devised a flexible scheme to cover several levels of writer. It's the Alpha, Beta, Delta assignment.

For the details I refer you to the whole actual description from Creative Writing: the Matrix, which is this term's tutor tip on the book's website at A freebie.

Here's another link to look at, with a freebie of sorts. It's the Institute for Learning, which is, as FE tutors, our very own organisation -- very big, recognised and official on over 18 AND UP, UP, UP learning. You kinda-sorta-gotta join if you are teaching in a publicly funded institution (community, prison, as well as FE colleges), because we all have to be registered nowadays. And we have to do CPD -- Continuous Professional Development.

That's where their freebie part comes in. Turns out that simply reading their monthly emailed On the Agenda news bulletin can count towards your annual CPD requirement. How easy is that!

Wednesday, 2 February 2011

Can you mark creative writing? Part 2.

I was going to tell you about my secret grade scheme, for my files and institutional admin only, having talked last week about feedback on students' creative writing.

But also I ran into the how much do you criticise issue. And How can you best help a writer to improve without squashing? As a professional writer and self-editor I have to force myself to ignore, or give only slight mention to, grammar and puncuation and spelling errors. I mean, not if they are really really bad -- then I'd have to take the student aside and see about getting help... or... what? So much depends on the level of the course and the students. Even little errors, even typos... I do make a few marks in the margins -- but I let some go by.

My perfectionist editorial self really objects! But I have to tell it/me -- this is a creative writing class, the students are not here to be perfect at grammar but to begin or continue to tell stories, or make poems, convey a mood, create a character etc. However, if their language skills interfere... the skills are so interwoven, ugh, I'm getting a stomach ache just writing this: I feel torn!

So I will leave you with that, and move on to grading, and am very curious to hear from you how you do this. Because I have made this up for myself. In the coursebook, to satisfy any management who look, I put
1 for excellent/very good/hardly any weaknesses
2 for good, some weaknesses, satisfactory
3 for some competence, but many weaknesses
4 for weak, but made an effort
0 for made no effort
It is still a matter of very personal judgment and the student's own level and the course expectation. But at least it's got a number on it for those bosses and computers who can only think in numbers. And guess what, I am being observed as part of the regular cycle tomorrow night, so we shall see if my secret scheme meets with management's approval. What grade for me?

Tuesday, 25 January 2011

Can you mark creative writing?

Do you get pressure from your management to give an 'assessment' -- that is, a mark -- for each student? Most institutions insist on it; and no, it cannot be a little statement [brilliant characterisation but needs to improve language]. It has to be a number or letter to put in the box so that the computer or observer can see instantly that the student has been assessed.

A whole 50% of my lovely keen class, in week 2, completed 'homework' (polishing up one of the exercises we did in class) or, per my invitation, gave me something they'd written previously. I have often had classes where hardly anyone gave in writing, which is a shame. Students aren't getting their own money's worth if they don't get feedback.

So I had a busy day yesterday prepping for class and reading and giving feedback. So how do YOU give feedback? I would never-never-never put a grade on a piece of creative writing -- far too specific and potentially devastating to a tender writer. No, I just put comments on their pages.

Obviously this indicates to you that I do not accept emailed writing from students. I spend enough time at this screen on my own stuff... as well as ink and paper. No, I tell them that publishers and competitions have their rules, and so do I. I want them to Make the Effort. Also, to practice proper layout.

I use pencil, not pen, because it looks softer, kinder. I adopted something that I liked from feedback I have received... tick in the margin and/or bottom of page. Shows I like something, or at least it looks like I have actually read the page.

Except for very small comments I put all my feedback at the end of the writing. Yes, I do it sandwich style: a positive, enthusiastic sentence or several, then some critique (I give page and para numbers, or sometimes in the margin of the section in question I pencil a squiggly vertical line). Then end with some upbeat encouragement.

It is all handwritten on their work. Gracious me, if I got into typing out my feedback I would spend far too much time and perfection on my comments; I know, because I have tried it once or twice, that I tend to get too far into explaining why something isn't working. As in writing this blog, I think and type simultaneously... and always find things to say. In the case of feedback, too many things.

Handwritten feedback is more personal, too. AND, I am famous for my illegible handwriting (though for students I try harder)... so I apologise in advance and say it brings me closer to my students: if you can't figure out something I wrote, come and talk to me!

Then there's the challenge... how much do you criticise? Where do you rein in your perfectionism, where can you best help a writer to improve without squashing? Hmmm, think I'd better continue this next week. And I do have a secret grade scheme, to keep management happy.

Monday, 17 January 2011

Wordstarts exercise

Well guess what? The querying student did enrol (see last week's entry about managing student expectations). Surprise, surprise as to what his genre is: graphic novels. Interestingly, out of 17 students, another is also writing in that genre.

It is a form that I know nothing about -- however, a story is a story, and at the end of the session the original enquiring student said this had been a really useful class and that the whole course would work for him. I thought it would. Synchronicity: this week's Sunday Times Culture has an excellent mini-review for a children's graphic novel.

Wordstarts exercise: Exercise 22 (actually called 'I remember...') gives your students a structure for freewriting. It is something you can use just once, or use over several weeks or longer. Used one way you can also turn it into a self-editing project.

At the start of each term I give away a new exercise and new tutor support tip on the website for my book of exercises and ideas. So this blogweek, tune in there for your teachingcreativewriting goody.

Wednesday, 12 January 2011

Managing student expectations

First week of term! Yes, I do have a class, enrolment has met the required number. Maybe by now, exceeded it. I will go in early tomorrow to check the numbers and to be sure to get in the photocopy queue with time to spare. Also, to pick up whatever admin bumpf the college has devised over the break.

A prospective student emailed me via the college -- will The Hero's Journey teach him to write a true adventure?

Hmmm -- depends on what he means by 'teach him to write', by 'write', by 'true' and by 'adventure'. In just about every new class, someone arrives with the idea that he/she will have written a book by the end of the course, or end of the year. If only!

But this is just a 5 week course, so in the first instance I said that this would give him the tools with which to start and to continue to write a story (by which I mean story or book-length story). The same answer actually also applies to a full year course.

So that's the gentle disillusionment you have to deliver if a student arrives with that goal. Let alone the student who says he/she will write, get published and be rich and famous by the end of the course. But we cannot shatter and trample upon dreams and motivation: gently, gently.

I hope I didn't sound too snippy when I said I was sure he must already have looked at the course outline online where I explain the elements of the course.

But then maybe he was talking about genre? So I explained that the course does talk in terms of heroes and dragons, mentors and Shadows... the stuff of fantasy and sci fi, Star Wars and Lion King. BUT my exercises and lectures are about the psychological power in the hero's quest -- power that works in every story, on a domestic or a galactic canvas. Pride and Prejudice, The King's Speech, Peter Rabbit -- these too have a hero's journey template. But I don't know if his query stems from wanting fantasy or from an aversion to it. Or maybe, by 'true', he meant a real-life adventure, like the 127 Hours story? Hero's Journey can work for that too.

Interesting how so many people can't bear fantasy novels; some students insist literary novels are the only thing, and hate popular fiction of the chic-lit or crime sort. I know of one class that was nearly wrecked by one such student. On the other hand, the few (in my circles) who love fantasy/sci fi are rather lost souls in the world of creative writing classes and I believe in supporting them as well as the others.

I encourage genre tolerance -- we can all learn from other genres, even if we don't like them. Whatever the genre, it has readers or it wouldn't exist. The most important thing: beginning, middle, end -- and getting it written!

I wonder if he will join the course...