Sunday, March 15, 2009

Some Teaching Ideas for Writing Classrooms, Part 1

I've been reading my students' latest work, and I'm amazed at how they've taken some simple ideas and run with them (or perhaps, blasted off towards other stratospheres).

We began by talking about list poems, and I brought in Wallace Stevens' "Thirteen Ways of Looking at a Blackbird," as an example of a more sophisticated list poem. Our classes meet for 3 hours at a time, so we had also covered the forms of haiku and tanka on the same night. Students made interesting connections between those Asian forms and the Stevens poem.

We did a bit of pre-writing (yes, even in a Poetry class we use those time-honored techniques from Composition class). I had them do an exercise that led to an interesting poem that a friend of mine wrote years ago: list everything that's in your purse, backpack, or pocket right now. That list could be transformed into an interesting list poem, I said, and the best list poems have some sort of order behind them. We read a Kamiko Hahn poem about her mother's smells (once I get to my office Monday, I'll come back to this post and include the title). We brainstormed some possible titles: "Thirteen Ways of Looking at ________________."

And off they went to write. And they came back with some amazing writing. And the funny thing is that I remember the classroom experience as being a tough night--lots of absences, several students in crisis, several interruptions throughout the night, plus, I just felt weary.

I'm often humbled by my teaching experience. It's always interesting to me how a particular class meeting that I don't see as particularly inspiring might turn out to inspire amazing work after all.

Back in my earlier teaching days, when I was stuck teaching lower level writing in the community college but yearned to teach Creative Writing, which we didn't offer, I would occasionally have students do the kinds of writing that I'd have them do (I imagined) if I was teaching Creative Writing. I was always happily surprised by the way that writing informed and improved their Composition writing. And parts of the above exercise seem to have much to offer the Composition teacher who needs something new to do.

The list poem exercise could lead Composition students to talk about the things we carry (and you could read "The Things They Carried," the short story by Tim O'Brien). What do they signify? How are they different from the things we used to carry, the things we hope to carry? They could choose one significant thing and write about it.

Creative Writing exercises are great ways to talk to Composition students about the importance of detail and how we get that detail. How can we see an everyday object in a way we've never seen it before? I often have my students write about life from the point of view of the object: how does your shoe feel about being on your foot? What does your television remote control know that you don't? Jane Hirshfield's poem, "The Button," is a great example of this. We see through the eyes of a button that loves the caress of your fingers as you dress, and at the end of the poem, Hirshfield reminds us that the button had a life before it was a button (when it was part of a horn of a great beast). I read that poem and looked at many of my belongings differently. My rocking chair was once a mighty pine tree!

Poems remind us of the importance of sensory detail and can lead to important work teaching students to use their five senses to drench their work with specificity. Most students rely on their eyes. Poems remind us that we have other senses too.

Poems are allowed to be subtle in explaining what it all means in a way that Composition students aren't. I wonder what would happen if we gave Composition students a poem, like Hahn's, where the implications of the list are left unstated, and we had them write some paragraphs explaining the implications, making the implicit explicit (and yes, they'd be making stuff up; I don't think I'd turn it into a research project, although I could see how that would be possible). Would that help them in their own writing? I like to think that it would.

I always tried to keep my Composition classes from becoming sheer drudgery: "O.K. class, today we're going to write a descriptive essay. Then next week, it's on to process. Then we'll peer edit, even though none of you has the foggiest idea of what an essay should be. And then we'll research and spend weeks on the minute details of documentation." Creative Writing exercises are a great help.

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