Teaching Writing

I have been researching the strategies used to teach writing at the MFA level. I am a high school writing teacher and a single mom, so, despite how much I would like my own writing to support me, getting an MFA to help me with that is out of the question. I am both relieved and saddened by this, so I have been reading a lot about exactly WHAT more privileged MFA students learn.

If you did not know, there is a certain disdain that ‘professors’ hold toward those of us who teach at secondary schools. No, I do not hold an MA in creative writing or English, but I hold BA’s and/or certifications in English, history, communications/theater, and teaching English as a second language, so my credentials are varied and none too shabby. I would argue that two decades of teaching English to young students would more than gain for me an equivalent level of education regarding writing to that of a post-graduate degree, but that is not how it works in academia.

So, in an effort to learn on my own, and to compare how my professional knowledge for teaching writing at the high school level compares, I have been perusing recent articles and books about teaching MFA students.

What I have found is that techniques do not really differ, rather what I lose not enrolling to work on an MFA is tri-fold: the dedicated time to write, the resources that would be at my fingertips as an MFA student, and the support of fellow creative writers. Those things DO make a difference, and would be great, but I would argue that I already possess the knowledge taught to MFA students. Indeed, I feel like I would spend part of the time discussing and debating the practicality of differing methodologies!

What this research has really done is to inspire my own teaching. Certainly, a vast portion of what I write is curriculum. I am always writing and revising and publishing; it just happens to be professionally-based and not the creative stuff that I would rather make a living from. But there are new movements sweeping the MFA world and they are the same ones I find myself turning towards.

When one teaches writing, no matter what level, one usually finds focus from technique rather than content. Over the years, I have developed a technique that teaches grammar built upon an over-reaching understanding of the structure of sentences rather than grammar as a series of unrelated rules and exceptions. I wrap this into actual writing: generally forms of nonfiction followed by fiction.

In addition to revisiting grammar from this new perspective, I also revisit literary devices, format, style, and archetype. I cover classic examples first, then follow that with group and individual assignments. My goal has always been two-fold. Firstly, it is to convince students that writing well is not a big mystery, but a natural evolution of understanding grammar and style. Secondly, that understanding the archetypal underpinnings will help students the most in their pursuits of understanding what they read and being able to clearly write related pieces.

While there is a lot of merit to this methodology, I have recently begun to feel that it is falling flat. Apparently, even MFA professors are feeling similar methodologies falling short. From what I have read, I feel that many of us, from every level of teaching writing, feel that we need to involve more content with technique. After all, what REALLY drives a good poem or prose piece? Content, of course! I think that most of us will swallow any format or style if the content digs its way into our thought and shakes us up.

I am exploring several methods of incorporating more THINKING and less DOING into my instruction. I am working on workshops and peer discussions that will go beyond the bounds of traditional cooperative or Socratic means. I am playing with models that meld students ways of thinking more clearly without sacrificing exploration of form.

There is one huge difference that I feel has honed my skills as an educator to a sharper degree than MFA professors: choice. MFA students CHOOSE to be there and they will work hard and read extra to soak up what they need whereas my students have NOT necessarily chosen to be there and may not make the choice to spend extra time getting what they need. I work with less mature and much less skilled students, but my goal is still the same: make adults who will be good writers. Maybe my students will never write creatively, but they will write and they will be paid in their professions for writing SOMETHING. I should still have the same advanced ideas in mind, but I must also have ways in which I can pare it down and scaffold it.

I have never seen a book with the grammar methodology that I use and I have never seen one that workshops content in the way I am beginning to envision a high school version of a comprehensive writing program; therefore, I am planning on building these things into a series of books. It isn’t what I want to be known for publishing, but it is still very much a part of one thing I love: teaching potential writers.

I know that I have veered too much into technique and not enough into content, just as MFA professors seem to be admitting. I think that many educators get wrapped up in methodology, thinking our students can figure out content, while forgetting that the handling of content is a HUGE part of the game that we hold many keys to handling. It is time we all re-opened our eyes to new ways of integrating thought!

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The Psychology of the Crowd

I should preface this by saying that I am NOT a psychologist, but as a lifelong reader and an educator who voraciously studies anything associated with history, anthropology, and sociology, I am not exactly a neophyte regarding human behavior. After all, what better way to understand how humans think than to read hundreds of books from a plethora of cultures and eras?

So when I recently watched several documentaries about human behavior and the concept of political protest, bells went off.

I protest as often as possible. I do it because it is an outlet for my frustration, I meet like-minded people, and I have always believed that even if a protest doesn’t literally and immediately DO something, it does set an example and shows unrest. It turns out that ANY form of protest, even social media soap boxes, may make a big difference.

I think that most of us get that we are a social species. Early hominids grouped together for protection, but we continued that trend long after we had abolished competing predators. Even I, a person who loves going out to dinner and to movies ALONE, like living in an urban setting, surrounded by my own species even if I don’t always want to be WITH them.

Recent studies are apparently revealing that not only do we band together, but we also follow each other. Anyone who pays attention to fads, particularly those that tweens and teens jump on every year, already gets how this works and how integral it is to our socialization. Advertisement agencies certainly get this: bandwagon is THE MOST common form of rhetoric used to sell products, ideas, and politicians. So, yes, the idea of trends is not a new one, but the idea that a handful of people can use it by example to gradually change an entire social landscape is a newly proven notion.

In particular, middle-class, white Americans will flock to a new idea once they have seen it repeated enough times. It may seem like I am picking on these American snowflakes, but, let’s be honest, of all the groups in America, these are the followers. Watch the television for thirty minutes and at least 90% of the advertisements will be targeted to this group. How do you think organic became such a big thing? It was heavily marketed in upscale grocery stores to American suburbs. Why do you think lawn maintenance and home repair became SUCH a big ticket item? What do suburbanites do every weekend of every summer? And really, it’s a LOT of energy and money for practices that damage the environment.

So, the idea is that if enough of a targeted group is exposed often enough to a new concept, they will eventually follow it, even abandoning pre-conceived notions they become convinced must be wrong because they directly see groups acting differently.

For those of us involved in protest and saving the environment, this is HUGE. It means that if we do NOT stop what we do and we remain vigilant with our signs and green habits and speaking out (particularly with catch phrases and slogans rather than the ranting I am probably most known for in my social circles) we WILL inevitably MAKE a difference. The idea is that every time ONE of us speaks up, another who was on the fence about things speaks out. Gradually, the ideas of equality and affordable health care and saving the environment will become the ‘in thing’.

It is already happening; it just needs to be expanded into the suburbs.

The key, of course, is that WE DO NOT STOP. In whatever neighborhood in which we live, we buy vehicles that do not use gas, we put up solar panels, we stop killing our grass and go to natural landscaping, we welcome diversity, we post ideas about individualism and equality and we frequent farmer’s markets and buy locally, we never use language that is racist or sexist and we say something when someone else says these things….WE KEEP AT IT…we do not give up…we ban with like-minded individuals.

Eventually, studies show us, everyone else will not be able to resist jumping on the bandwagon even if it

Speaking Up

By 2030 the point of no return will have been reached.

By 2100 humanity could be facing anything between forced migration or mass extinction.

It could be sooner, but it will not be later.

These things will directly affect everything in the lives of our children.

Maybe the idea of climate change sounds cliche. We have certainly heard those two words, or at least something like them, for over four decades.

But the truth is anything but cliche.

Because I am a writer, I am reader, and I have been reading up on the new expectations regarding climate change. It reads like a science fiction dystopia novel. I don’t think that any of us take the environment seriously enough and I don’t believe that we ever have.

Indeed, in middle, white America, our whole way of life swaddles us in layers of safety. Middle class Americans fled to the suburbs decades ago where everything seems safe and secure. Middle class, white Americans water their lawns, shop at grocery stores charging extra for ‘organic’ produce, fill up at gas stations that offer price discounts for car washes, and hit the local Starbucks on the way to work via a busy, but well-maintained interstate. Middle America cannot even comprehend what it would be like to suffer ecological disasters and they are FAR too comfortable to admit their lifestyles are a direct cause of the impending disasters that will swallow entire nations whole.

One of my co-workers even went so far, when queried about her feelings on climate change, to say with a giggle, “Well, I guess it’s time to move to the mountains!” The new equivalent of ‘let them eat cake’ without batting an eye and this from an EDUCATOR.

The harsh reality is that THE DAY we, as a world society, went down the path of fossil fuels full throttle, is THE DAY we signed the fate of this world. I remember reading McCaffrey as a child wishing passionately, even in those years of the early eighties, that our world had followed a similar line of ecological reasoning (her key fantasy world of Pern was settled by scientists who were very careful to protect the environment and to keep technology 100% friendly to the natural ecological systems).

Today, many of our corporations, and their bought politicians, deny climate change because they cannot bear to face the reality that THEY ARE the cause of the end of the world as we know it. Now it is all about making money before everything crashes and fuck the rest of us who will suffer.

After all, to white America it is obvious only people of brown skin will suffer the most. That is right, if you had never realized it before, environmental causes are about race too.

It is the responsibility of writers to speak truths and to expose things we do not want to look at but must see with eyes wide open. It is time we spoke out more. It is time we shout it from the rooftops in every form of writing and in every language, but most especially in American English. Of all of the nations in this world, our very own will most likely be the one that destroys us all.