Wednesday, July 27, 2011

When You're Stymied and/or When You're Planning Your Composition Classes

I know from reading blogs that lots of folks are starting to think about heading back to their classes.  My school is on a very different quarter system, set up so that we always end Fall quarter before Christmas, so we're in week 3 of our Summer quarter.  Still, I remember the end of July, August around the corner, the realization that soon Fall Semester would come crashing on our heads.  I always taught through the summer, but summer sessions always had such a different feel.

I was always on the lookout for good ideas for Composition classes, so on that note, I'll offer some.  These will also be useful for writers of Creative Non-Fiction and/or Memoir.  If you're feeling stymied by summer's heat, maybe these prompts will help.

One of my most successful innovations in the Composition classroom was to spend time talking about the ways that students thought life was different when their parents or grandparents were young.  I did this with a class of traditional 18 year olds, just a few weeks before Thanksgiving.  I had them write about how they thought life was different, and then I had them create a list of interview questions about life in the olden days. 

Their assignment when they were home for Thanksgiving was to interview a relative or someone at least 20 years older than they were.  They had to ask interview questions of their own and some that were on the list that others wanted to know.  You had a wide range of choices, from food to jobs to sexual practices.

They came back bubbling over with what they'd found.  In most cases, the conversations were very valuable.  Students had recorded all sorts of family memories.  And they discussed them with each other.  They were amazed at how different life was from what they thought it had been like, from what TV and movies told them it had been like.

They wrote the best comparison/contrast essays about what they'd learned that I had ever seen.  They wrote the best essays of the quarter.  They honed their interview skills.  They learned how to talk to family members.

Here are some other ideas (you can be you, the writer, or you, the student):

--Imagine a future researcher is writing an article about you. What will be the most remarkable incidents in your life? Write about one of them that’s already happened. Then write about it from a different angle.  For example, I have a friend whose father died and then less than a year later her mother died a rather gruesome death from cancer, and all by the time she was 27 or so. When she can bear to do it, that framework will make a remarkable story. Plus, she could approach it in so many ways for so many audiences: heartwarming story from a daughter’s view, dark humor, medical horror story, an article that tells what families should be doing now to get ready for these times.  For those of us teaching Composition or other types of writing classes, this exercise might be a good one in imagining different audiences and different approaches to the same story.

--Research a particular item or a color or a symbol. For example, choose an animal and find out everything you can about it, including how it’s functioned in mythology, and how humans have used it, and how we see it now. Can you turn your research into an essay of some sort? Maybe just a collage of what you’ve discovered.

--Interview someone. Some day, your older family members will be dead. What will you wish you had asked them? Can you conduct an interview in writing? Is there anyone else you can interview about them?

Another fun possibility: in this day and age, it can be fairly easy to find people (writers, artists, musicians, politicians, etc.) who have inspired you. Reach out to them. See if they’ll do an interview with you.

Don’t neglect the charm of interviewing the normal people whom you meet on a daily basis. Ask a key question every day. What’s a key question? Well, what interests you most? I’d ask people about their view of God, or what they most hope will have happened in 50 years or when they were seven years old, what they most wanted to be when they grew up. You, of course, have a different set of interests.


Hannah Stephenson said...

I love all these ideas! It's great to have students doing research that applies to real life.

Justin Evans said...

Thanks! I am going to try these ideas.