Throughout my life as a student, I was lucky to have had some amazing teachers. A few weeks ago, I got to teach for the first time. It was super scary, and also really great. This is a blog post about what I did during my lesson, and how I got there. It comes to you in two parts: The Lesson (where I go through what we actually did during the 75 minutes), and The Plan (where I discuss how the lesson came to be).
Disclaimer: I am not a qualified teacher. The two exercises mentioned here were appropriated from two lessons I was taught during my MSc in Creative Writing at the University of Edinburgh.
1. Um, hi guys
I started with an introduction round. The question I picked to jazz things up a bit (“Tell us your name, and why you like reading/writing!”) got a mixed response, and most of the students said they read for escapism. (Later in the day, I got the chance to attend another workshop, and the writer in charge chose to ask the students to name their favourite book, or a book they recently read. This question got a more natural response and seemed easier to answer without making the students feel self-conscious.)
2. Let’s talk about stuff!
Then I started up the projector and showed the students two beginnings of stories. I talked about the purpose the beginning of a story serves, and I mainly focused on three points: It starts a story, it introduces setting, characters, tone, theme, and it’s designed to make you want to read on. The two examples I chose were from “Oranges Are Not The Only Fruit” by Jeanette Winterson, and “The Cat in the Hat” by Dr. Seuss (because I am so quirky). I got students to read out those beginnings, and led a short discussion about the purpose those two beginnings serve, and how they accomplish what they do. I pointed out the implicit nature of both of those beginnings, and how, by focusing on the mother, the protagonist in the first extract implicitly characterises herself, and, in the Dr. Seuss example, how mentioning the absence of the sun rather than the presence of rain evokes an emotion and implies a wish, which an explicit reference to rain would not necessarily have achieved.
3. Group activity
I distributed copies of books to the students and had them read the opening paragraph and discuss it in the light of what we’d mentioned before. The books were “Jane Eyre” by Charlotte Brontë, “We Need New Names” by NoViolet Bulwayo, “At Swim-Two-Birds” by Flann O’Brien, “The Virgin Suicides” by Jeffrey Eugenides, and “The Road” by Cormac McCarthy. It was so amazing and exciting and scary to see them read the beginnings of these books that I love, and have them think about them! The groups presented their findings to the classroom after a couple of minutes, and I summed up the general gist at the end. There’s lots of ways of starting stories, yo. – or something along those lines.
4. Actual real writing
I had prepared a box of objects and set them on a table in the middle of the classroom. For mysterious reasons. After the Group activity was over and I’d collected all the books we used, I opened the box and took out all the objects. I explained what we were going to do – everyone was going to get an object, any object, and describe it. I gave the students 10 minutes to create a very detailed description of the object they chose; not just of what it was, but what colour, how heavy, soft/hard, what it was made of, etc. I set a timer for this.
After the ten minutes were over, I told them to consider the object again and imagine it in someone’s hand. That someone was their character, and I gave them 15 minutes to write a short scene where that character interacts with the object in some way. It needn’t be the sole focus of the scene, they could also just pick it up and place it back on a shelf, but it was a starting point. A BEGINNING. After the 15 minutes were over, I encouraged the students to read out what they’d written, but nobody volunteered and I didn’t want to press anyone.
Because nobody read any of their stories out loud, I was left with 10 extra minutes of class time. So I opened the floor for questions, reminding them that I’d just finished an MSc in Creative Writing and they could ask stuff about that if they wanted. There were quite a few questions, and we managed to fill the 10 minutes (and then some).
Here’s a list of things I did to prepare for the day of teaching. It’s here for my future self, for when I do this again, and also directed at anyone else who may find it useful.
a) I thought about stuff.
Like, What is the purpose of the lesson? I taught at a Creative Writing conference for Advanced Higher English students, 16-17 years old. This was the start of their advanced higher English class, which involved a Creative Writing module. I was told to focus on the process rather than editing, since they were at the beginning of the year. So I chose to do my class on Beginnings (like a lot of other tutors). This gave me a solid ground on which to plan my activities. An exercise on how to get started with a story would be significantly more useful to the students than, say, practicing line-editing.
The other stuff I thought about is when my lesson was; not just in terms of the school year, but also in terms of the time of day. My lesson was the first after a keynote speech, the first lesson of the morning. This led me to deciding to start with a lecture-based activity first, before jumping into actual writing.
Any excuse to make a spreadsheet, right? I used a simple formula to calculate how much time I would have – figure out how much time you have in total, then have a rolling new total time. Does that make sense? Maybe. The point being: I found out how much time I had, and then I planned my activities and saw how long they would take.
All in all, the timing worked out!
Thanks for making it through this long post (if you did)! This is the part where I ask for your help: Do you have any sage words of wisdom to offer for when I teach again? I’m still learning how to do this thing, so any tips or advice you can offer would be much appreciated.
Please leave any questions/comments/suggestions/things in the comment section below!
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