Profiled by Andrea Boucher, a second-year MFA student in non-fiction.
Can you give a quick overview of what the course is and what it aims to do?
This course is for those of us who are interested in becoming teachers of creative writing, with a focus on learning how to conduct a writing workshop. I just completed the summer session, and it was well worth the time and effort. Much of the class is “learning by doing.” Hilene’s requirements for class were as follows:
- Lead a writing workshop in the genre of your choice.
- Read and review a creative writing textbook and go over its merits (or lack thereof).
- Present a favorite piece of work in the literary genre of your choice and discuss how you would use it to teach and exemplify good writing.
In addition to the above, we also had guest speakers and peer reviews. Because learning to lead writing workshops was a main component of the course, I’ll talk a bit more about that. For the workshop exercises, we chose from actual student pieces that had been submitted to Butler professors in freshman and sophomore level writing classes (names were redacted for privacy). When it was your turn to lead workshop, you assumed the role of “teacher” and your classmates played the students. Here was the fun part: Hilene wrote out various roles on strips of paper and put them in a vase. Everyone except for the teacher had to draw and play whatever he/she got. For example, one role was “rude student, disagrees with everything the teacher says.” Another role was “distracted, texting, doesn’t pay attention.” There was a role for the student who was infatuated with the writer, one who played dumb (and asked if Edgar Adam Poe was British), and another who went off on unrelated tangents. When I had my turn as teacher, it was a little intense to corral all of my rowdy students, but at the same time it was very fun and prepared me for just about every scenario.
I liked Hilene’s multi-faceted approach to the class because teaching pedagogy covers a lot of territory. We learned tactical “do this, don’t do that” rules while also learning how to handle the unpredictable situations that arise when you encounter the “psychodynamics of the creative writing personality.” (I lifted that from the course catalog description.)
Why did you decide to take “Teaching Creative Writing”?
The class was a logical step toward the goal of becoming a teacher. I was also intrigued by the psychological aspects the course addressed. Lastly, I am not comfortable in front of groups, which is at odds with being a teacher. I felt this course would help me overcome my insecurity by equipping me with some know-how.
What does an average session look like?
At each class, one of us presented our literary work of choice, another did a text review, and then someone else led a workshop. In a few classes, Hilene had arranged for a guest speaker to come in and talk with the class. Each of the speakers had teaching experience at the high school and/or college level.
What was the best day of the class?
The workshops were always a good time, and there was one in particular where it seemed that each of us drew a role to play that was opposite of our personality. We were really into the acting, and everyone had a lot of laughs. It was funny to see a mild-mannered classmate playing the role of “overly critical student” or someone who was typically a savvy and active participant playing the role of “confused, doesn’t understand story.”
The final class was also a great one, not just for the food everyone brought to the pitch-in (intellectuals tend to bring classy dishes), but also because Hilene passed out a list of the “nuts and bolts” of teaching creative writing classes, along with some basic guidelines. The handouts provided a nice summary of key points we learned during the course and led to a great discussion as Hilene told us some of her veteran teaching stories, which prompted many of us to share stories of teachers we’d had over the years. We’d become a tight-knit community of teacher hopefuls, and that final night capped a great semester.
I was a few days later in turning this in than I expected to be (sorry, Kaveh!), but now I can add some “real life experience” to this blog post. I’m doing a side project with a writing organization, and this past week, I sat in on several writing classes with kids of varying ages. And what do you know, all of the stuff I learned in Hilene’s class applied. For example:
- Teaching principle: When your students are creating or discussing a piece of writing, let them think and create on their own; don’t influence them with your input (or anecdotes, in my case).
In one class, the kids were writing an object poem after selecting a paper bag containing a mystery item. The girl I was sitting next to opened her bag and pulled out an obviously worn-in and used wooden spoon. I said out loud the funny association that flashed through my mind: “Oh hey, an old wooden spoon. That looks like the one my mom used to spank me with.” The student immediately grabbed her pencil and said, “I’m writing my poem about THAT!” I had to do some serious backpedaling to redirect her. I have a lot to learn. Hilene told us many times that what we say can shut down or impede a student’s creativity if we aren’t careful. (Although the student did find it very funny that my mom spanked me with a wooden spoon. She asked me if I ever got spanked while my mom was stirring a pot of soup on the stove, and if so, did I ever get soup on my pants, and if so, was it tomato?)
- Teaching principle: Cater to your students’ skill levels when providing examples of good writing.
The teacher of the class handed out a poem she loves, but it was fairly complicated and not really a good example for the kids and where they’re at with their reading and writing skills. She finished reading it (all on her own as several students looked around or made faces at each other) and when she was done, she sighed and asked, “Isn’t that beautiful?” The responses varied, but the gist was this: what does this mean?, I don’t understand, and that poem is stupid. Just because you love something doesn’t mean your students will. Also, make sure they can understand it. (But the teacher, to her credit, did not act defensive or overly sensitive, and in the end, she did manage to get the students admiring certain aspects of the poem.)
- Teaching principle: As the teacher, if you talk for the first ten minutes of class, be prepared to talk for the whole time.
In another class, the teacher talked quite a bit, and it was all relevant and important. But he relayed it all in one giant chunk at the beginning of class. Sure enough, the kids stopped listening. Eyes glazed over, cell phones emerged, and whispering ensued. Maybe one or two students were still paying attention. It took the teacher promising to play music while they wrote to get their attention back on the writing.
In closing, I am better equipped having completed Hilene’s class, especially after I saw many of her teaching principles illustrated in real-life scenarios. And despite the minor hiccups, I left each day thinking, “Yeah, I really do want to try teaching.” All of the clichés are true: I felt rewarded and invigorated, excited and hopeful. One shy student who sat in a corner not speaking wrote a powerful and gritty rap poem. Another student wrote a prose piece so tight and imaginative and vivid that I got goose bumps. And on my drive home from my first time sitting in with the students and interacting with them, I was struck by a startling fact: I hadn’t been nervous. At all.