Wednesday, January 21, 2015

Where the crossroads of writing and teaching meet

Why one brown chair? And there's an escape route.
Sometimes teaching is like writing and other days, not even close.

I stand before my students and do all that I can to hold their attention. I don't know how to tap dance or tell good jokes, but sometimes I feel they would be good skills to have, so I can get a tight grip on my audience (yup, it is exactly like being a comic trying to make a cold room laugh) because sometimes writing is like teaching to a sleepy class of students.  Wait, usually they are a sleepy class of students. One will occasionally, actually nod off, but they are always apologetic and make an effort to remain awake. I am that soft spoken teacher who gently lays a hand on the student's arm and says, "You need to stay awake or else you are going to miss something important, and I hate to repeat myself which means you will have to depend on your friends, and you know what that will get you." I really need to learn how to tell jokes.

When I am trying to write the novel that is what the paying customer is out there searching the book shelves for, it gets like that disinterested class of students.  So a writer might get caught up in looking for the current flash in the pan idea that is getting all the cash flow. It's been werewolves and vampires, and dystopian warriors (my students now know what a dystopia is. I used to have to teach this, several times each year, but now they ask me if I read dystopian novels. I teach 1984 and Fahrenheit 451, but neither of these novels have beautiful girls jumping off tall buildings or fighting in coliseums.) Flash in the pan.  Wizards, remember those years? How about the scary (not scary) books of R. L. Stein or Little House on the Prairie or the juvenile detective series?

Teaching is like that. What is the current philosophy? Podcasts (never went that route, but teachers I know did), and interactive sensory experience to match the subject matter: burning hair to go with Wiesel's Night. I didn't do that one either, but a teacher I knew did. Now its the YouTube video. Okay, I do use that one now and then. My new mantra is if you don't know how, search for a video on YouTube; however, as a gambit for reaching the nodding off student, it is losing its bright shiny finish as well.  Rote memorization, group work, project-based assessments (one of my favorites), crossword puzzles, word searches (hated both of those and I wasn't even using them, but my daughter's teacher was. Can't tell you how many times I had to promise my daughter that the word was in fact in the torturous maze of letters she had searched for the last hour (after I had searched to frustration to find the word and finally did). I don't know what word searches teach, patience perhaps, determination, stress management.

Recently, my teaching cadre was told that we need to be more like what is holding the students'  attention according to a YouTube video: two minutes of intense trivia, challenging group competition and ringing bells, chasing gummies across a screen. I'm still not sold because colleges are not doing this and neither are companies that make widgets nor window and door plants or Virgin Galactic and SpaceX. They expect their employees to come to work, get busy, follow directions, produce what is requested, think it through and be respectful.

So this is about writing and how teaching is sometimes the same and sometimes not. Here's my big point: Teach what works and gets the results that will be useful to students who need to go out into the world prepared. And write, write what comes out of you naturally. If it's currently a dystopia, well bless your heart, you stand a chance. Or be like me and write time travel because that is what you like to write and what you like to read whether or not anybody else is reading it or writing it and selling it. But if you believe in it, they will listen (yes, back to students for a moment). There is someone out there whose arm you will touch and startle awake, who will apologize for not paying attention and will turn the page and by gosh learn something.

PS (Okay, so that the metaphor worked in this discussion of writing and teaching, I did fudge a bit. My students never fall asleep. Hmm. Okay, about once a month a student was up late and will want to nod off but won't. Hmm. Well, I do have one student who I regularly wake up, but they are the exception, not the norm. It was the metaphor that was important, so I had students falling asleep to make it work. And I do not "protest too much.")


No comments: