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!              

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