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!