Thursday, May 6, 2010

Why We Must Learn to Teach

Many writers - many writing teachers, in fact - fail to realize how different writing is from effective teaching.  Teaching online in particular carries many challenges.


As writers we are often driven to teach.  Some of us do it out of love for students, and others because it is the only way to pay the bills through creative writing (at least until we make it big).  For MFA students in particular, teaching an undergraduate course is often a requirement for teaching stipends and graduation.  But this is the nature of study in the humanities.  Because it may take years - or even decades - to produce profitable publications, we turn to teaching as a way to stay current in the field as we develop the skills and experience to succeed as professional creative writers.

Yet very few writers actually take courses on how to teach.  Unless you seek some form of teaching certification, it's doubtful that you'll receive more than a few weeks of instruction on how to convey the key components of writing.  It may take years to learn to use deep characterization in our writing - for myself, I still remember the long struggle to develop real conflict in a story.  But now, as a teacher, I face the challenge of helping others who face these same difficulties.  I must always ask myself what it is they need to know.  I have to figure out what it is my students are missing.  It falls to me, as a teacher, to determine how best to share this information.

In this regard, I've found that my own shortcomings as a writer often become my greatest strengths as a teacher.  Often, the critiques I hear of my own stories in workshop become the weaknesses I am best able to diagnose stories submitted by my students.  And this is a natural phenomenon.  Hearing a weakness in our own own stories and poems instills an innate desire to understand the shortcoming.  After I wrote a story without character thoughts, the feedback from my peers led me to examine the balance of dialogue, setting, and internal motivation in the stories I graded.

Because of this, teaching the art of writing is one of our best tools for learning how to write better.  By teaching the basics of sentence structure, plot, and meter to our students, we solidify our own understanding of these techniques.  Although the quality of student work may vary from excellent to not-so-good, each piece can teach us something more about the art of writing.  The worst pieces in particular alert us to issues we may not have been aware of before.  Take run-on sentences as an example.  We all know that they're bad.  We understand that they confuse the reader.  But it isn't until we read sentences like this that we fully understand what to avoid:
Run on sentences, as an example, are bad in the way they confuse the reader, and understanding what to avoid requires us to read them because we won't know what to avoid until we're made aware of the problem.
As writers and teachers, then, we have an obligation - both to ourselves and to our students - to learn how to teach.  And since we often must learn this without the kind of guidance provided by a writing workshop or a traditional classroom, we must take the effort to find necessary resources.

In terms of perspective, our fellow teachers are the best source of reassurance.  Veteran writing coaches know very well the important aspects of writing that students must master - just as importantly, they can tell you which areas to let slide.  As I've slowly found, it often doesn't pay to give too much attention to writing feedback for every aspect of a student's writing.  Instead, we need to focus on the critical areas.  For example, students won't learn the proper arc of a story if we distract that feedback with pages and pages of red-ink line edits.  We need to pick out the most important areas for students to work on and then provide them the general lessons for improvement.  But it took me two semesters of teaching to truly learn this - even now, I need to remind myself to focus on what's important.

For general tips on classroom management, few experiences can match the challenge of teaching to a corporate standard.  I once applied for a job working with a test prep company - although I didn't pass the training, the feedback I received from those weeks serve me well even now.  Learning the right way to use the chalkboard (talk to the students, not the board), watching fellow classmates learn to direct the energy of a room (lean in toward your students.  Call on different people.  Give as much attention to listening to the answers as you do to asking the questions.) - these are critical skills for any educational setting.  But you don't necessarily need to teach the GMAT to aspiring business students to receive feedback on your teaching style.  Many TEFL certification courses offer similar training, with the added bonus that they'll help you find employment teaching English abroad when you're done.

Finally, the most important part of learning to teach is listening.  In particular, listen to your students.  The questions they ask will tell you what they need most.  And don't just listen to the words - listen to the way they ask.  Are your students confident?  Or do they seem nervous around you?  A student's body language can tell you their comfort level with the material and the comfort level with your teaching style.  But don't rely solely on their questions - listen to the answers your students give.  Provide them opportunities to really talk about the material, to talk about how they understand the art of writing.  Often, you'll find that they have ideas (very good ideas) that you haven't considered yourself.  Sometimes, you'll find that they've missed something, or that you've neglected to mention something important.  Use this information to adjust your teaching accordingly.

Overall, my hope is that you'll see teaching a tool that works both ways, benefiting both the instructor and the student.  It's challenging, yes, and filled with its own particular frustrations, but it can also be extremely rewarding.  It deepens our understanding of the art and reveals another side of the human experience.

3 comments:

Anne Willkomm said...

Ryan - You said this sooooo well. I can't even begin to tell you the number of times I have seen my own weaknesses in my students' writing. It is a true "ah ha" moment. The clarity that comes with such a revelation is incredible, and the satisfaction of helping your student overcome that weakness early in their writing careers is an awesome feeling. Teaching is truly the gift that keeps on giving.

This piece should be read by all writers who want to teach! I'm going to post it on my FB page in hopes that other writers will read it.

Anne

Ryan Edel said...

Hey Anne - Thanks for passing this on. I have to agree, teaching is the gift that keeps on giving - I think it's one of those hidden gems that so many people just never try.

Ryan

Bird said...

Hi Ryan:

You stopped by my blog a bit ago and I thought I'd return the visit.

Will you continue teaching as an adjunct? Or look for something more reliable, stable?

One thing to consider: the more courses you teach, the more difficult it becomes to carve out time for your own writing. I sometimes think I would be better served slinging hash instead of grading papers - hahaha! But I don't teach Creative Writing - I teach expository essay-writing, primarily to remedial college students. Colleagues and friends who teach CW have a slightly less workload than I. Now and again I teach an upper division course and am in heaven - always a few solid writers in those courses.

Your blog is very interesting and I hope to visit again soon.

Best,

Bird