Monday, 22 April 2013

Lesson plans, writing, what’s the difference?

A short answer to that is very little. So, is teaching a good idea for a writer? It seems sensible.  I am paid to be a writer and to pass skills and craft on to other people. It may look like a good combination.
A career path for graduates with a degree in English and Creative Writing
I often propose to my students that they are in an ideal position to take a PGCE and teach at any level. Graduates leave us having a good knowledge and understanding of English literature. They know how to write. As a visiting writer to schools I’m often astonished at how little some teachers understand about getting students to write. Our graduates would know differently. However, there is a big BUT.
Not recommended for people whose main purpose is to write
Teaching, particularly in the early days, takes a lot of energy and in particular a lot of creative energy. There is little left for one’s own creative projects. I had been teaching in high school for almost twenty years before I found I had enough creative juices left after all the school work to write fiction. And then only in the holidays and at the weekends.  
Teaching as a creative act
This doesn’t mean that teaching is a barren, unfulfilling career.  There is so much about lesson preparation that is like writing. You have to get points across convincingly and in a way that keeps the learner engaged. You use a similar process in designing a lesson arc as you do in designing a story arc. There is a similar feeling of satisfaction when you think you have it right. You get feedback quite quickly and you sometimes learn that you hadn’t got it as right as you thought you had.  Often, though, your students do learn and thereby conform that your design was appropriate. At least here you have 25 (primary) to 250 (secondary) guaranteed “readers”.
A concrete example
I’ve just been getting ready for a class I’m giving tomorrow. I’ll be meeting twenty-three students and we’ll be working on “showing, not telling” and dialogue. I’m armed with three creative writing activities in case they’ve brought no work to share in the workshop part of the lesson. We’ll also do some close reading of some of the set texts to see how those writers show and tell and how they use dialogue. I’m going to talk about their assessments and I’m going to get them to bullet-point a reflective piece they have to provide and then talk to partners about this. I’m confident I’ve more than enough material – always better to have too much rather than too little.  I’m looking forward to the class. I have a parallel one on Wednesday – so preparation has actually been for two classes.
Constant cycle of action research
Action research consists of defining a problem, thinking of a solution, trying it out, evaluating the outcomes, and proposing a new solution based on the evaluation. We do this constantly as we both write and teach. If we regard the text to be written or the lesson to be given as “the problem” it is easy to see that both teachers and writers are engaged in this cycle continuously.  Both are reflective practitioners. Teachers and writers who take part in this cycle carry on growing.       
Creative writing in the academy
Perhaps it is slightly easier for the writer who is an academic than for the schoolteacher writer. We have less contact time, even if the time in the classroom is a little more intense. We teach for fewer weeks a year. We’re expected to research and research here can mean writing though a critically reflective element would also be expected. We juggle teaching, admin, conference visiting and writing, the latter dividing itself into creative and critical, and often also community engagement and academic enterprise. We work long weeks. Yet we perhaps have left over a little more brain space and a little more creative energy than our colleagues in primary and secondary education.
I do feel very privileged to be allowed to call part of my job what I would probably do even if I wasn’t paid and that I used to fit in at weekends and school holidays.          

Saturday, 6 April 2013

Option choices

On Monday our students will be choosing their options. We’re using a new electronic system – they’ll be doing it for the first time on-line. Fingers crossed it all works well. I’m away from my desk for about three hours on Monday. The rest of the time I’ll be watching my email very closely, ready to trouble-shoot.
Higher Education has been hit by cut-backs, particularly in the humanities. Fees have had to go up to cover costs because of the lack of grants and because other channels of funding have also been cut. From a student point of view it may look as if we are offering less and charging more.
There may be some material sense in which that is true – fewer books in the library, fewer support staff, and maybe the fabric of buildings deteriorates. Yet the lecturers remain, teaching the same material – even if we’ve had to call it something different. Last year we planned a massive upheaval, to be implemented this academic year. This is something we have to do regularly every few years. As per our institution’s regulations, courses that could not guarantee thirty students had to be cut. But for the most part, we’re still going to be teaching in groups of between fifteen and twenty. For creative practice courses, received wisdom says that groups shouldn’t be larger than fifteen.  A group with twenty on the register will generally have about fifteen attending – and not always exactly the same fifteen – on a weekly basis. As we have different lecturers teaching each group, we can offer specialist sessions according to the expertise of the lecturer.
Higher Education works differently from other levels of education. Even at undergraduate level students very much learn what their lecturers research. For instance, I teach about writing prose fiction, in particular for children and young adults and also about children’s literature.  I also teach about “being a writer”. I find out more about that myself every year. So I have new information to pass on to my students.  It will overlap with some information form other institutions but some of it will be unique. There is no national curriculum at this level. Year on year, however, we’re disseminating what we’ve learnt and increasing the knowledge database.
I’m responsible for three creative programmes. The biggest looks as if it offers a lot of choice. The other two have more core modules. Yet in fact the choice is roughly the same. The core modules offer much choice within their schemes of work. The “option” modules are more linear.
I’ll be glad when Monday’s over. There’s bound to be a lot of questions. But we’re not capping any modules so everyone should get their choices – unless some modules don’t recruit enough and have to be closed. I’m hoping that won’t happen. I hope my module will run and that it recruits two groups not three. Fingers crossed.