Thursday, May 14, 2015

Day in the Life of a Visiting Writer

Yesterday I worked with two sets of New Hampshire high school students: a smallish class of sophomores who were studying English lit and a large combined group of juniors who were taking college-level composition classes.

Not surprisingly, I had more personal interaction with the smaller class. We spent the class period talking about Beowulf, which they had read (in excerpts) earlier in the year. The conversation was informal: my goal was to draw them out to speak thoughtfully but naturally about their reactions to the epic, and a number of students got very involved in the conversation. For instance, a couple of boys were working on a Beowulf video game project, and they shared interesting ideas about the necessity, in game design, of creating the illusion of choice. "Ah," I mused, "so you have to be Fate." Thanks to those boys, I am far more interested in the philosophy of games than I ever was before.

Thinking back to my recent rant about the importance of exposing young students to old, difficult, canonical work, I also asked the sophomores if they thought reading books such as Beowulf was a waste of time or useful to them in some way. I tried to make it clear that I wasn't leading them to say what they thought I wanted to hear, and I hope that's how they understood my question. Of course the kids who didn't speak at all might have had an entirely different opinion, but all the rest of them (two-thirds of the class were regular talkers) said they were glad to have the opportunity to read these kinds of works. One girl told me, "We've heard about these books for so long, and we used to think of them as too hard for us, but now, when we get the chance to read them, we find out We can do it!"

I spent about an hour with the sophomores, and then my workshop with the thirty essay-writing juniors took up most of the rest of the day. The workshop was intense, and exhausting. Between 9:30 and 2:30, these kids wrote five separate essay drafts--not complete top-to-bottom pieces but sizable beginnings that were each several pages long. Given the size of the class and the intensity of the task, we didn't have much chance to comfortably converse. Most of our talking time was spent on reading aloud essay samples, quickly discussing structural approaches, and then shifting into related writing prompts. All of the prompts focused on ways to generate material for personal essays or gave them tools to create useful organizational strategies for that new material. (If you're interested in seeing a syllabus, I'd be glad to share it.)

With so many kids and such a long work session, I did have to shift into teacher-voice mode, cruise the room with sharklike efficiency, employ the steely eye, and keep the discussions crisp. Carlene took over at the end of each exercise. She focused on synthesis, asking individual students to share and comment and pushing them to make connections with other classroom experiences. In other words, we worked as a tag team: I provided new content, and she tied the new content to previous learning.

This was not something we practiced ahead of time. We just did it on the fly . . . which is one of the things I love about working with good teachers. They are master improvisors. Jazz solos and great teaching have much in common.

Then, after this intense session, I wended my four-hour way through the White Mountains and back to Harmony--listening to the Red Sox not quite lose a game against Oakland, glimpsing a bittern standing frozen beside the road, following the progression of blossoms--azaleas, tulips, forsythia. In the midst all of this busyness, I'd learned that Same Old Story is a finalist for the Maine Literary Award in Poetry. It was a good day.


Maureen said...

Your experience with the two groups is such a contrast with the students at Columbia U, subject of a Washington Post article on the students' claims they need "trigger warnings" before being assigned reading of Greek myths. I posted the article on FB.

Dawn Potter said...

I don't get this "trigger warning" fad. It's normal to watch "Pulp Fiction" and distressing to read about Hercules strangling snakes? I'm sure the issues are more complex than I'm making them here--but I also remember being assigned Mishima's novel about ritual self-disembowlment. I found such scenes disturbing, but it never occurred to me that the professor should avoid giving me the opportunity to learn from them.