Sunday, April 22, 2012

The Ten Things I’ve Learned from Teaching a Writing Workshop

As some of you know, I’ve been teaching a writing workshop to 5th through 8th graders at a local private school. It’s my very last task on the path to earning my Master of Fine Arts degree. Initially, I thought this would be a fun-filled romp through the creative process with eager, motivated students. But my experience thus far has taught me…well…

1.      Students at this age are often reluctant to voice their enthusiasm for any topic, particularly to the person in “authority” whose job it is to teach it to them. And especially if they happen to be among friends at the time. Let’s face it, most of the time it’s not cool to like school.

2.      Students at this age have no problem expressing their apathy, or complete hatred, for an academic topic—even to a nervous, brandy-new teacher—as discontent is always cooler than enthusiasm.

3.      Students at this age like to eat. If you want them to be creative (and even moderately enthusiastic), feed them.

4.      Much like giving instructions to a preschooler, specificity is key. Just like you can’t tell a preschooler to use the potty without including the instructions to a) wipe, b) flush, c) pull up your pants, and d) wash your hands—e) with SOAP—you can’t expect your students to write creatively without some sort of direction. In fact, the more direction you give, the cleaner the results. (Just like with the preschooler.)

5.      Even reluctant talkers become chatty when they get on a topic they truly love. I’ve found orcs and zombies to be of particular interest to my group.

6.      Students at this age (or any age, really) aren’t so big on take-home assignments, no matter how fun you make them sound. I allow time at the end of each workshop for in-class writing instead.

7.      As a novelist, I had grand plans for my students to chip away at large writing projects during our workshop, crafting characters, settings, and plots over the course of several weeks. Surely they’d be just as interested in creating epic stories as I am! Not so, actually. Short, quick-hit assignments work best.

8.      When you’re dealing with reluctant writers, throw out the criticisms for the time being. Tell them all the things they’re doing right. You’ll see smiles emerge, chests inflate, and fervor grow.

9.      Imagination in students at this age is boundless. Encourage them every way you can to unleash it.

10.  Students can be taught to love writing. I didn’t always believe this to be true, but it really is. Teach kids how to have fun with writing and they will respond with gusto.

We’re only halfway through, but already I feel I’ve gleaned a semester’s-worth of knowledge from these students. I can’t wait to see what other discoveries emerge in the coming weeks.

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