Friday, 28 December 2012

Glorious Fridays

Most of my teaching has been on Fridays Semester 1 academic year 2012-2013. I’ve been taken even further out of my box because I’ve been teaching on a different campus and in a building where I’ve never had a regular class before. The building is modern and pleasant and in the corridors we frequently bump into porters wheeling along models of interesting body parts. Yes, I’m teaching creative writing in the School of Nursing. No school owns rooms anymore. So, actually, anything can happen.
Some interesting routines
I don’t have to get up early when I’m teaching there. This campus is the right side of the dreaded congestion on the A6. If I left the house at my old time and I’d arrive at this campus a little earlier than I used to arrive on the other one. It’s actually a little closer to home anyway.
There’s a handy Costa outlet at the bottom of the building. That was a good excuse to buy a coffee and a bottle of water to keep my voice lubricated through four hours of teaching. More often than not I’d meet a colleague from our School, similarly marooned here. We’d often have a good chat before her class started at nine.
I found that I had this teaching room to myself all day, so I’d spend the first hour and sometimes lunch times catching up on emails.
At about 9.45 I’d make sure I was ready for my first class, a first year creative writing one, checking over notes and making sure I’d got all the files open I wanted to show them on the data screen. The first students to arrive would help me get the room ready – we’d arrange the tables to form a huge square. Later when this group filled in an evaluation for the module, several students said they liked the layout of the room. In the afternoon my third years grumbled about having to put them back but even they admitted they would much rather not stare at each other’s backs.
Lunchtimes were spent either with a colleague who had a similar two classes, chatting to people I know who are permanently in this building or even using the opportunity to see some of my personal tutees, all of whom had a class one to two or two to three with me or two of my colleagues. The building next to this one, a couple of minutes’ walk away, has the advantage of a decent canteen serving real food on real plates and providing real cutlery with which to eat it. It also has a very good salad bar.                  
More often than not, after the second class was finished, I would go straight home and carry on working form there, maybe just stopping to chase up any non-attenders via email first.
Nobody can touch you in the classroom
Whilst you’re teaching you can’t be worrying about the emails that accumulate in your inbox. You are there, in the classroom, absolutely focused on the knowledge you are sharing and the people with whom you are sharing it. This is one of the main points of what we do.  
My two classes on a Friday were totally different. The first one was a first year class for creative writing. These students had done little before. The first half of the semester we concentrated on poetry.  For the second half it was script-writing. They had had a lecture earlier in the week.
The second class was a third year workshop with students emailing each other work two days before which we would then critique in class together. It could be quite intense but I was pleased that my students were so professional about it.   
That Friday feeling
Fridays were tiring but very satisfying. They went by quickly. A lot happened whist I was away from my desk. But then a lot of it couldn’t be dealt with until the following Monday and by then some distance was gained. The students seemed as well to have this relaxed Friday feeling. They still worked hard but didn’t seem to be as hung up on the details as they did earlier in the week.
Yes, I really enjoyed my Fridays last semester.    

Friday, 14 December 2012

Coping with the dog in the classroom

The real dog in the classroom

It really did happen to me once, during my former existence as high school teacher. It was actually what every teacher dreads. It was particularly bad this time as I and the local teacher advisor / inspector were watching my licensed teacher teach with a view to confirming her status as a qualified teacher. And she had Year 9 Set 3 for French at a time when it was not compulsory for students to carry on with a foreign language beyond Year 9.
To their great delight, and no doubt encouraged by them – mainly boys - the dog, also enjoying the lark, followed Set 3 into the classroom.
“Where did he come from?” said the teacher.
“Just followed us miss,” replied the loudest.
“Well take him along to reception and see if they can find his owner. Then get back here as quickly as possible. You can catch up for a few minutes at the end of the lesson.”
So, she did it. Handles the situation firmly and got the students back on track with minimum disruption. She was probably less fazed by it all than I or the inspector would have been.
This particular teacher always used a degree of common sense. She was a mother of teen boys and a scouting leader so had a heap of experience to draw on.  
Teachers need that. They must always be able to deal with the stray dog that comes into the classroom.

Other forms of dog

We really need to assume that our lesson will never go entirely to plan.  Most of the time, though, we are fortunate in that we deliver a close approximation of what we intended. We should note though that even when we repeat what we think will be a class identical to another it probably will not turn out exactly the same.
Different times of day, different personalities, the teacher’s own experience or boredom with the material and the atmosphere created by the physical space all affect what happens. These are all within the scope of what a teacher might normally expect.    
Then there are the surprises:
They’ve heard in the lecture what you were going to do in the workshop.
A student argues against one of your most dearly held principles.
The students insist on talking about the assignment when you actually want to teach them some more before they do the assignment.
The IT lets you down.
The students have not read what was required for the seminar.
The students have produced no work for the workshop.
A good teacher has to react to all of this positively and remain in control. You can’t let the dog win. You actually have to create a win-win solution.
Getting the ego out of the way
I’ve actually noticed that I often teach better when I’m less focussed on getting my lesson across. More learning sometimes takes place when the teacher focuses on the needs of the people in the room. I know I’ve taught better some days when I’ve been ill, when I’ve had to abandon my PowerPoint, and often when I’ve changed the lesson at the last minute.
I’ve seen an award-winning teacher just talk to a group. Technically, you could say he talked for too long, that he did not use enough visuals and he certainly didn’t project his voice. He did, however, speak softly and kept us engaged for a good hour. He understood what we needed and responded to real time feedback. He was interacting with us in a genuine way.
So, I go back to the dog. The students needed a little fun out of the situation.  They got it. But it wasn’t allowed to interrupt for too long. In fact, it then became the focus of the lesson: “Un chien est arrivĂ©.” I’m pleased to say that my licensed teacher gained her qualified status.           

Saturday, 24 November 2012

Contact Time - how important is it?

Higher fees
Tuition fees in Higher Education have risen 100 – 200% recently. The six to seven hours a week, 22-24 weeks a year, students spent in direct contact with lecturers – i.e. lectures, seminars and other classes - have seemed even with lower fees not to be good value for money. Of course, there is other contact – emails, meetings and one-to-one tutorials for example. We also alert them to all sorts of opportunities and we direct their reading. For the 168 hours they spend in our company students are expected to spend about another 1000 on self-directed study.
If to become a writer, as many say, you need to practise your skill for 10,000 hours, by the time our students leave us they are about a third of the way there.  Except: some of their work is literature based. And oddly, a significant proportion of them are published before they leave us. Is this because latent talent is being exercised or because we’re teaching well? Hopefully it’s a mixture of the two.
Increase in contact time
We’ve increased our contact time by just over 30%.
This has its own repercussions:
More constraint on the timetable, so more early starts and late finishes, and less chances of finding suitable rooms for every session  
Staff are less likely to be able to take a research day.
Students are less able to fit in part-time work – and may have to drop out because of financial reasons.
Student attendance
Where I work we have hesitated about insisting on attendance, except in those interactive classes that only work with a good number of students there – e.g. creative writing workshops. We do, however, rigorously chase up non-attendees because we want to know that they are still with us and still on track. More often than not good attendance is reflected in good results but there are some who rarely attend who do well. Academic freedom after all? There is a deeply-seated conviction that we should allow our students to work according to their own learning style and some students – actually particularly creative writing ones – prefer to work alone.
Teaching quality
We have another conviction that if we insist on attendance we have to offer excellent teaching matched to individual learning styles. This is actually impossible – many a school teacher has burnt out trying to achieve this – you just cannot be all things to all people. Blended teaching styles are a partial answer. The research-active university lecturer is all about a pool of knowledge that is to be passed on and most students regardless of the fees involved will recognise the responsibility they have in making the most of what happens.  That does not always translate into attending class. We’re some way away, however, from what existed fifty years ago and before that: dusty old professors reading out dry old texts from which students were supposed glean the magic themselves. With fees the way they are we’re expected to provide the magic directly.     
It seems surprising then, that the very same students who have made noises about wanting extra contact time do not turn up to class when it is offered. We might worry that what we have to offer is not enticing enough. Or maybe life and work happen to the students. Probably it’s a mixture of all three.
Prompted to some extent by a remark from one student in one of my classes I sent out a quite an assertive letter to my final year students this week. I had been a little disappointed the week before by their attendace – 40% i.e. four out of ten. It was assignment week. More normally I get 70%% to 90%.  I expected them in class unless they were on death’s door and I expected them to contribute to the workshop. Six pieces of work were submitted; I was expecting three. We had an intense workshop but I nevertheless asked myself how much they were getting from it. Could they manage without me? Possibly. They were pretty clued up.  Was the insistence on attendance necessary?
How to recognise a good teacher
Recently we had a colleague who had had a teaching award talk to us. He didn’t use PowerPoint, nor any other visual aid and he gave out no hand-outs yet he held out attention. He made the point that one good lesson is better that ten mediocre ones. We need to inspire our students to want to go and find out more for themselves, not just fill them with information. Why was his talk successful? Because of his sincerity and his professionalism in telling us exactly what we need to know. He was interacting effectively with the people in front of him.  
I try to make my classes content-rich and question-rich. I hope I’m managing it.                            

Sunday, 28 October 2012

The Narrator’s Voice

We have so many choices when it comes to the narrative voice for a piece of fiction.  Should we use a first person narrative or a close third person? Can we have one point of view or should we include several? Is it still all right to have an omniscient narrator or has that totally gone out of fashion?
There is no simple answer and there is a sense in which each text needs the voice that is most appropriate to it. The art is in recognizing what that is and the craft is in getting it right.
In some ways the first person and the close third are more straightforward. They are reasonably easy to keep under control. We know fairly quickly when we’ve drifted away. It’s not too difficult getting them back in line. The voice of the piece will easily represent the viewpoint character and will have his or her personality.
“Who is seeing this?” I sometimes write on my students’ work.
This puzzles them. “The omniscient author, of course,” they reply.
But who is that? And how much will s/he reveal to the reader? How much does he or she actually know in any case? Rarely is the narrator actually the writer of the story.
The omniscient author can be intrusive or neutral. They can be distant from or near to the reader. They can have an overpowering personality or they can be unfathomable to the reader (but never to the author.) But the creator of the text needs to know exactly who it is. They also have to have a fair idea of who the reader is. A consistent voice will then emerge as the writer keeps both narrator and reader consistent.         

Sunday, 21 October 2012

Students behaving well – and making the most of the creative writing workshop

I’m impressed and delighted by students this semester. I’ve been running three workshops and my students have really entered in to the spirit of what we are doing.
Workshop general principles
The general idea is that students write, then share their work and critique each other. Each workshop is run slightly differently and we put together sets of rules that every member of the group agrees with. There is the proviso that these can be revised at any time that the group members or the lecturer in charge thinks they’re not quite working.
Two general rules that really apply to all workshops are:
We are always critiquing the work and never the writer.
We should avoid the word “like”. This implies that what is said is just the opinion of the critique. However, we can’t help using it. In reality it is fine as long as this word is justified.
Writers’ Workshop
This is a Masters course and most of the participants have already visited several workshops either as part of a BA or as an aid to putting together their portfolio of work if they have been admitted to the course with less conventional qualifications.
The members of this group have been very efficient in emailing work to each other in advance of the class, annotating the work in depth, and giving positive criticism as feedback. Each member had much to say and we easily fill the session up with 25-30 minutes per script.
We encourage the person being critiqued to remain silent, though we do not make the rule too hard and fast. We had originally intended to go round the class in turn but we found this rather formal and less productive.  We now have an open discussion. It is the “chair’s” job to make sure that everyone is involved. To date the chair has always been the lecturer. However, students are encouraged to chair also.
I’m delighted too that many of them are working on the type of text they have not tried before.
Final portfolio
These are third year students. They know each other well. I know them quite well also. They too are very good about emailing work in advance. They also have much to say about each other’s work. At times I feel that I’m not actually needed in the group. The conversation keeps going.
Students don’t always bring annotated texts. They will bring a list of notes. However, they will annotate the electronic copy and email that to their classmates.
As undergraduates, many of them also have to work and can’t always make the work shift avoid the class. Illness also happens of course. They are very good about letting me know and will send feedback to their peers even if they can’t attend the class.
Often students will bring an idea rather than a finished piece. This is very useful at this point in the semester as they may not be sure what they want to do for their portfolio pieces(s).  
Creative practice

Students bring work to this class. We spend the first half hour of our two hour class looking at what they have produced in response to what they learnt in the lecture and discussed in the seminar the previous week. Each week I ask two or three student to share their work. They never hesitate and often have it on a memory stick so that we can show it on the screen.
They are beginning to comment usefully on each other’s work.
Later in the class we’ll do a creative writing exercise. They then share this with a partner.  Again, there is a lot of willingness and little hesitation. In fact, then some are happy to go to share this rather raw work with the rest of the class.
How I prepare for the sessions
I annotate in detail the texts I receive electronically. I use “track changes” for this and always correct formatting, spelling and punctuation, though I don’t discuss this later in class. I use the comment function a great deal also. Many of comments appear as questions.
At the end I’ll summarize what is good about the text and identify what is working less well. I’ll make a suggestion about what they might do to improve the text.  I don’t overwhelm the students at this point – I try to identify what will make the biggest difference to their text.
They all know that if I have to spend a lot of time on nitty gritty – punctuation and such – I’ll have less time and energy to identify the bigger issues.
In the workshops the students are willing to go first.  Often the points I have to cover have already been made. I’ll just add a comment or two or emphasize one already made at the end. The students do seem to appreciate me “rubber-stamping” their opinions but they don’t actually need it. Their work is solid.
No wonder I’m pleased!