Friday, February 19, 2016

Experiments in Teaching, Part 2

The workshop is a staple of writers growing into the literary craft. Writers submit complete works for scrutiny and dissection by their peers and mentors. It's a time-consuming process, though, because the discussions for some pieces can be quite involved. So how do you fit all of that into a single classroom hour?

It's not so much a problem if you have less than ten students, but if you have twenty-five? (Luckily I didn't have to handle the usual full complement of forty-five.) Very difficult to do. For one thing, it's hard to keep all twenty-five engaged, and even if they were, the comments would pretty much devolve to more of the same. Again, this falls back to the problem of the one-hour class session, to the stricture it imposes.

I got around this problem by dividing the class into two. For one week, I would meet with only group. The other group I told not to show up. Then the following week, swap places. Not exactly a kosher solution because it violates the holy rule of the almighty contact hour, but I wasn't planning on telling (then) and neither were the students. The checker usually just checks if the instructor is present, not how many students are in the classroom.

I like to think the experiment worked well. With the smaller groups, the students were more engaged and more open with their comments. Everyone got a chance to participate because in a small group it's harder to hide in the anonymity of the crowd.

Other experiments in creative writing class: parlor games, those oriented towards wordplay and role-playing. In Balderdash, also known as The Dicitionary Game, the game master picks out an uncommon word and the players attempt to write the most convincing definition. In Werewolf, the players assume the roles of townsfolk besieged by werewolves among their neighbors. Paranoia and fast talk ensue as the townsfolk try to identify the werewolves and talk their way out of the lynch mob. Talecraft, a storytelling card game, is great for eliciting stories.

I gauge the success of these techniques by how my own students adopt them in the classes they teach. For at least one former student, Talecraft is a staple of his writing classes. I have also heard of regular Werewolf gaming sessions, complete with variations.

Are these related to the lessons at hand? Tangentially, but one can make a convincing case for including them. After all, role-play and make-believe are important in writing. But really, the main reason I put them in was because they were fun.

Speaking of fun: instead of meeting for two weeks, I asked our department chair if the class could meet for one entire Saturday. We would start at 9AM and end at 5PM. The activity: movie and TV series marathons (and to stay relevant with the lesson plan, some discussion about the merits of each episode.) That is how there are more Doctor Who fans in Ateneo now.