I Can Teach Creative Writing with My Eyes Closed

As you may, or may not, know (or even care) I’ll be submitting my postgraduate thesis in a month. This is something that is a long time in coming, and due to necessary yet procrastinative activities such as work, teaching and blogging, I still have a lot to do on this thesis. 

When I mentioned that I’m teaching at Winter Words to my supervisor, he said in his stern manner (a look he really had to think about, because sternness doesn’t seem to be in his nature, and he always apologises after giving me an academic chastising) that I cannot get another extension, I need to get this finished, and I shouldn’t be taking on other projects at this moment. To this I stated, ‘Oh, I’m not worried about Pitlochry. I can teach creative writing with my eyes closed.’

Yes. I said that; I’m ashamed, and I’m using the blog as my confessional to atone myself of my teaching sins.

I would like to talk about why I said this, and how I shall rectify it.

Yes, teaching comes easy to me, which has much less to do with any sort of superior knowledge, but is due to the fact I can talk with (or talk at) anyone. I do not get nervous speaking to groups, and I’m fairly confident leading discussions. This is the biggest hurdle many new teachers need to overcome. (Incidentally, this is not always a good thing. Due to my inability to realise that I’m yammering, I often make a right pratt of myself. I have most certainly gotten in trouble for saying ‘the wrong’ thing in a particularly sensitive classroom situation. So, word to the wise. A fear of public speaking is sometimes beneficial.)

Now, onto the second part of teaching: preparation, preparation, preparation. As I’ve been teaching for over ten years, I have lesson plans and teaching materials on my laptop, in notebooks, sketched out on napkins, written on sticky notes pinned to cork boards, Xeroxed and crumpled in shoe boxes, and – unbelievably – in filing cabinets. While my organisational skills have much to be desired, I have the information necessary to teach just about any creative writing class that comes to mind. Plus, when Winter Words first asked me to instruct on the course, they requested an outline of each day’s activities. So, the general lesson plan is done and dusted. All I need to do now is find some of my old notes and papers, print out the plan I sent the Festival, and turn up.

Yet, one can argue the fairness of such an attitude. Shouldn’t each class be a new experience for both the students and the instructor?

Yes and no.

Let’s start with the ‘no’.

For example, in a five week course I was teaching, I used to include a lesson on the history of the English language which started pre-Roman and continued on through the Vikings, old English, Middle English, colonial English and ended with our current contemporary language. I did this in one lesson and my aim was to illustrate that English is a changing language with no real base, and therefore a wonderfully evolving tool for those who choose to write in said language.

It didn’t take long for me to discover that no one cared. I was the only person who ever found this interesting, and the only realistic outcome of the class was to put everyone to sleep. I quickly cut that entire lesson down to one sentence: ‘English is evolving, and includes hundreds of thousands of words, choose the best that works for your story. Now let’s move on to “setting the scene”.’

I have learned what works for an hour-long class, four day course and a year’s worth of tuition. I know exactly how much material can be covered, I know the pace that we should be aiming for, and I can usually guess in advance the type of questions my students will be asking. And this is a good thing. The students haven’t paid for a teacher who is ‘trying’ to get things right. (My past students paid for that privilege.) They are paying to learn.

So, ‘no’, certain aspects of the class should not be a new experience for me. However, if every class was the exactly the same, I’d be bored, and then so would the student. Which means that I do need to spice things up and take an active interest in each new course that I teach.

And this is why I am quite horrified by my statement, ‘I can teach creative writing with my eyes closed.’ No teacher should become blasé about their subject. There’s always more to learn, new ways to teach, and – more often than not – your students will have fresh insight into some old problems.

I have set some time aside today to rework my lesson plans for the Pitlochry Winter Words Festival. I’ve gotten some new stories for us to look at, I’ve down loaded some interesting new articles, and I’ve thought of questions to ask my future students that I may not be able to answer.

I am now excited about teaching this class. I’m looking forward to meeting the new students and finding out about their writing process. I’m glad I’ve atoned for my teaching sins through preparation and thought, because I’ve found a renewed interest in an old career.

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