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.