Fantasy a No Go with This Years Students

Back in January, you may have seen my post about using novels instead of textbooks for my ENG101 and RWR090 classes. Two of the novels worked out okay, but one was a disaster.

Feed by M. T. Anderson

This semester’s 101 students weren’t as enthusiastic about Feed as last semesters, but after a rocky start, they did get into the book. The romance plot hooked them. They engaged with the book when characters made bad choices. Most importantly, it made them think. They saw clear connections between the book, the articles we read, and the TED talks we watched.

When it came time to write essays, they dug into topics like consumerism, dependence on technology, and social media. They succeeded at finding ways to narrow those things down, and while some struggled to balance all the different sources, most of them did assert and support an interesting thesis.

For now, I’ll continue to use Feed.

Shadowshaper by Daniel José Older

As much as I love this book, using it in class was a nightmare. I had thought that my students would like it because they could “see themselves” on the page and use things like the snippets of Spanish dialogue and description of familiar food to connect to the book. This backfired. I was being stupid, letting my white, middle class privilege influence my thoughts.

Yes, some students did like the descriptions of Caribbean food and connected to the relationships the characters had to their family members. Some of them had even lived in the neighborhood the story was set in. It helped a little, but mostly, they were indifferent to it or bored.

The supernatural elements were what tipped them over the edge. The idea of characters controlling and summoning spirits disturbed them. Some couldn’t understand the magic system but more found it to be too real. At least one or two students believed in spirits. One said their pastor told them not to read it, because that kind of thing “opened doors” for bad spirits to come in. Another said a friends aunt claimed to be able to control spirits and use magic to bring people good or bad luck.

The combination of being bored with the setting, disturbed by the magic, and annoyed by the main character meant they complained about the book non-stop. It didn’t help that I was out with a concussion for a good part of that unit.

When it came time to write, they trudged through a character analysis, wrote reviews for extra credit, and celebrated when it was over.

Love, Hate, and Other Filters by Samira Ahmed

This is a book I will again for RWR090. My students did seem to enjoy it and learn a lot from it. They could relate to the experience to some of the experiences the main character had balancing American culture with her parent’s culture and loved learning about Indian and Muslim culture.

Their essays were thoughtful explorations of concepts that came up in the book, and with no small amount of hard work, they found articles about those concepts and connected them to the book.

I admit I didn’t do nearly as much with it as I should’ve. I feel like I barely scratched the surface of it, and there is tons of untapped potential to explore in a new semester with a new group of students. I think I was a little drained or burn out from the rougher portions of the semester. However, with time to reflect on and examine what I did and didn’t do, I can make much better use of it next time.

Comments?

I’m interested to hear if any one else has used novels in a first year writing course – one that isn’t specifically geared towards literature. What did you use? How did it go? Will you do it again? Why or why not?

 

Replacing Textbooks With novels in First Year Writing

For the past five years, I’ve taught first year writing at community college and state universities. I assigned textbooks and/or trade books based on what other teachers used or what seemed like the kind of book college students should read. It didn’t work out so well. Now, I’m using books I get excited about.

The first books I recall assigning were writing textbooks like Curious Researcher or Axelrod & Cooper’s Concise Guide to Writing. While these contain good information about writing and some useful exercises, they didn’t engage students. Half the students didn’t even bother reading, and the ones who did complained the book wasn’t worth the $50 or $60 they paid for it. 

As I got more experienced, I realized that most of the material in the textbooks could be conveyed through discussions about writing and having students reflect on their own writing and/or other people’s writing.

I stopped making students buy expensive textbooks and started assigning one or two trade books. Additionally, students would read assortment of articles they could access for free online or through the library’s databases. This works well for a lot of teachers.

While I did manage to find a handful or articles and essays that engaged my students, I couldn’t seem to find a book they liked.

The Mind at Work by Mike Rose held their attention for one chapter. The Boy Who Harnessed the Wind by William Kamkwamba was a neat concept, but they got bored with the amount of detail in the story. They liked some of the “facts” in Modified by Caitlin Shetterly, but were easily confused and claimed she kept getting “off topic” and wound up hating the book. They claimed Dwellings by Linda Hogan only needed to be a few pages because it repeated the same message over and over again.

The first book I assigned that more than one student seemed to enjoy was Feed by M. T. Anderson—a novel.

It took a while, but I finally figured out what my problem was: I really don’t enjoy reading book length non-fiction. I know it is sometimes necessary, and that a lot can be learned from it, but it always feels like work.

I don’t get excited about it, and that is a huge problem.

Students have very sharp bullshit detectors, so they know when I’m faking it. If I’m not excited about the book, why should they get excited about it?

Feed was the first novel I asked students to read. It also happened to be dystopian, YA, and science fiction – a combination of genres I love.

Because I was so excited about it when I introduced it, they gave it chance. Because they gave it chance, many of them got pulled into the story and enjoyed it. A few loved it. One student told me it made him want to start reading novels again.

Sure there were a few who didn’t like it, but since books are so subjective, that is to be expected. Enough liked it. And enough wrote thoughtful, sourced based papers because of it.

I’ve learned my lesson. Unless the department requires it, I won’t teach a book I am not passionate about. And novel’s can get students thinking just as much as non-fiction, and the questions those novel’s raise can prompt students to do research for essays.

So this semester, I am using novels all around. Comp 1 is reading Feed again and writing a sourced based paper about the issues the novel raises. My reading class is going to read Love, Hate and Other Filters as well as Shadowshaper.

I’m still working out the details of the assignments, but I am confident these books will go over better if I can express my confidence and excitement when introducing them to the students.

I’ll post something later in the semester about how it worked out.

A Review of Love, Hate & Other Filters

Love, Hate & Other FiltersLove, Hate & Other Filters by Samira Ahmed

I received a free copy of Love, Hate, and Other Filters from NetGalley in exchange for a fair and honest review. I rarely read contemporary YA, but thought this might be a good book to use in one of the classes I teach at community college. Reading this book did not feel like work. It felt like “I don’t want to go to work because I don’t want to stop reading this book.”

At first, as the narrator pointed out in a well crafted, self-aware manner, it felt like Rom-Con, where the geeky girl has to choose between two boys. However, things got more serious as tension grew between her and her parents, and they got a lot more serious when a terrorist attack happened in their state. Here, the book ceased to feel like rom-com and became more literary. Then there was a twist that I absolutely loved and made me think, “yes, this is a book for today, and it is a book so many people need to read!” The end was bittersweet, giving choky feels that only a good book can give.

I love that this book made think while it kept me turning pages. How the excerpts at the beginning of the chapters left bread crumbs for the twist but didn’t fully give it away. I enjoyed how the narrator was a little self-aware, but it didn’t really break the fourth wall because she was a filmmaker and it just felt like how she thought.

My only complaint is that there was one scene when a girl was being attacked by a boy, and another boy saved her. From a romance plot point of view, I can see why the writer chose this. It doesn’t stop me from wishing either the girl saved herself, or her female friend kicked the assaulter’s ass.

I learned a lot from reading this, and I had a lot of fun while doing it. I hope it becomes a bestseller, because it is a perspective so many American’s need to learn to see from.

View all my reviews

Why Bullshitted Papers are Underrated

Why Bullshitted Papers are Underrated

By Sara Codair

It’s the last day of class before finals. While some students have their notebooks and netbooks open, ready to take notes, others are glancing at their phone, counting down the minutes until I give them permission to leave. They’re all exhausted. Most have been working all day, yet they still showed for this last class, hoping to learn something, or get the extra-credit for perfect attendance.

Phrases like “C’s get degrees” and “Night students just want to get their A’s and get home” float through my head as I try to focus on framing the wrap up discussion.

I don’t remember how it began, but the bookworm in the back row declared that every essay she ever wrote, from elementary school through my  English Composition II, class was completely bull-shitted.

I stared for a minute, mentally rereading her essays. She was one of the strongest writers in my class, and an avid reader. She’s someone who, if I met under different circumstances, that I could have been friends with, and I don’t say that about too many people. We could read and talk about books for hours if life didn’t make us do other things.

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Goose thinks writing is snack…

I smiled. “Isn’t all writing bullshitted?”

 

The class stared at me, probably thinking I had lost my mind.

“What’s a novel?” I asked. “Isn’t it just stuff people made up? Isn’t that bullshit?”

And she thought about, and tried to explain that novels are things people are passionate about. Yes, they are made up, but they are crafted and polished before they are sold to people who live for them.

I asked her about her last essay, one exploring and defining dystopian young adult novels. She admitted she actually liked that essay, so she spent more time writing it

I smiled again. “Well, writing is better when you care about your topic. I wish all essays were open topic, but unfortunately, that doesn’t happen.”

The debate went on, growing from the concept of “bulshitting” essays to the kind of writing we do in college and its usefulness, or lack thereof, in the “real world.” While no one won it, I hope that the students left with a few insights.

The students who claim they bull-shit their papers do not give themselves enough credit. They can sit down, and think, and make words appear on the page. They can generate four or five pages of half-decent prose a couple of hours. Believe it or not, that is a big deal.

 

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Writing might be easy for the students who are over 21…

The most challenging obstacle I often face when teaching writing is getting students to
actually write. Many will stare at the screen, agonizing over each word and sentence, afraid to make a mistake or just unsure how to convey their ideas.

 

I told my students that if they could bull-shit a paper, then they had taken the first step to becoming a good writer. In order to write, first, people need to be able to dump what they are thinking onto the page. Second, they need to shape into some kind of genre or convention. In the case of the students, they need to revise their ideas into an introduction, thesis, body paragraphs and conclusion. Third, they need to edit it and make sure it follows the format their teacher wants.

They are generating ideas inside and putting them outside.

While I didn’t go into any gross details in class, I often compare writing to bodily functions. When I say writing is shit from bulls, I take the metaphor quite seriously.

 

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Horses are good at eating and shitting too.

We consume information like bulls consume grass. We digest it, just like they digest grass. We break it down and use it up. We excrete what is left in the form of words.

 

In a more advanced class, one filled with people who were there because they wanted to be, not  because they were required to take the course, I might get into the nitty gritty details of crafting sentences and fine-tuning arguments. However, in a first year writing course, I am happy if my students leave with the ability to put ideas on the page in a coherent manner, and follow guidelines when they turn it in.

When students get an A’s on bullshitted papers, it’s not because they fooled their teachers. It’s because they weren’t censoring themselves like the students who agonize over every sentence. Getting words down on paper is the first step to developing as a writer. Being able to bull-shit a paper is a sign that  students are already halfway up the mountain.

I can’t make someone a master writer in one semester. What I can do is give them the tools to get words on the page, and empower them. I can help build a grain of confidence.

I can  plant seeds in their bullshit, and hope that one day, there is enough shit their to make the soil fertile so their ideas grow.

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©2017 Sara Codair

Framed by Flash:Eliminate Fluff and Teach Transfer

As the summer rolls on, it gets closer to time when us teachers need to start thinking about the start of the next semester. Here are some thoughts on how to use Flash Fiction and Flash CNF in your classroom.

Framed by Flash: Eliminate Fluff and Teach Transfer

By Sara Codair

Flash fiction and micro essays can teach students to write tight prose where every word carries meaning, they can eliminate the presence of “fluff” or “bullshit,” and they teach students to be ruthless editors.

Last year, one of my colleagues showed me an assignment for having her students write 100-word essays. Thinking it would be a great way to lessen the onslaught of questions like “is my paper long enough?” or “How many words should it be?” I followed the outlined steps myself, promptly adapting and expanding it to better suit my courses and teaching styles.

Now, I frame my first-year composition courses with flash fiction.

We start the semester by reading a selection of essays and stories from 100wordstory.org. The students analyze the pieces both for meaning and structure, noting how they were put together and how the smaller pieces contribute to the meaning.

Next, they write their own 100-word essay or story. At first, they complain about having to hit exactly 100 words.

“Can’t it be like, 102?” they ask.

“Exactly 100,” I say with a smirk.

“I can’t even go one over?”

I shake my head.

Then they do it, revising, editing and incorporating feedback until they have a polished piece that is exactly 100 words. They write a reflection about the skills they used and the value of concise language, and then they move onto to longer, more traditional college essays.

They remember the process and strategies they used in their flash, and through both discussion and trial and error, they learn to apply them to longer essays. The result? Their essays are tight, concise, and contain minimal fluff. They also practice the art of transferring skills from one task to another.

That it isn’t the end of flash in my classroom. After they finish their long research paper, we return to flash. By now, they’ve gotten a good handle on their writing process, so we focus on analysis and editing.

I’ll give students a 500-word story from the Mash Stories Shortlist, usually one that has a strong message, and have them analyze it. I’ve used my own piece, “Above the Influence” and a 2nd place winner, “Playback” by Conor Yunits.

Students examine the language, structure, plot and imagery and use that to make an argument about the meaning of the piece. Next, they write their own piece.

It reinforces the skills they started with earlier in the semester and practiced throughout, but since it’s a shorter piece, they can more or less zoom in and really focus on skills. And since they have used and adapted the same methods for different genres of writing, they have practiced transferring a skill from one genre to the next, and hopefully, they will be able to continue this act of transfer as they progress through their college careers.

 

 

Four Lessons About the Writing Process I Didn’t Believe Until I Started Teaching

“I’ve spent like, a total of 12 hours on this essay and my instructor wants me to revise it again! This is the third draft! It has to be good!”

-anonymous student

Four Lessons About the Writing Process I Didn’t Believe Until I Started Teaching

By Sara Codair

As a professional tutor working in a busy community college writing center, I often find myself repeating the same bits of advice to students over and over again. However, even as I am telling students “be specific” and “don’t procrastinate,” I am wondering if I follow my own advice when writing fiction.

After some careful, end of the semester reflection, I not only realized that the writing advice I doll is applicable to fiction writing, but also that many of those insights emerged from my experience working with students, not the workshops, MOOC’s and traditional classes I’ve been taking since middle school

13012832_10100946589234875_2760158947002530692_n1. You have to start somewhere

Many developing writers stare at blank screens for hours wondering how to begin. They type the first line, delete it, type it again, delete it, and repeat this process all night then show up to class the next day with nothing.

There is one student I worked with regularly throughout the fall semester. His process is something like this: Write a paragraph, ask the tutor if it is good. Write another paragraph, ask the tutor if it is good, repeat.

Others like to free write stream of consciousness style, make a few changes and turn their paper in, think it’s gold then turn it in.

The ones who get A’s are somewhere in the middle. The do the stream of conscious free write, then revise like crazy before letting someone else look at their essay. They get feedback from their peers and from a tutor, then turn the essay in.

Don’t let anxiety stop you from writing, but also make sure you revise before you let your friends and critique partners read it and revise more before you send anything out to publications.

2. Time is your friend. Procrastination is your enemy.

There are two common breeds of college student: the ones who wait until the night before (or morning before) the paper is due to start, and the ones who start it the minute it is assigned.While those who start early always write better than the procrastinators, starting early doesn’t guarantee an A, or in my case, publication.

My novel is on its 8th draft, and I’m still not happy with it.

I revised “Above the Influence” close ten times before submitting to Mash and getting shortlisted. Even then, my feedback report revealed the judges still found problems. Of course, that doesn’t mean it’s terrible, just that I may have needed 11th or 12th draft in order to have a winning story.

Revision takes time. You have to write the story. You have to let it rest. You have to revise. Let it rest again. Repeat. If you put off starting the story, or wait until a few minutes before a deadline, then you are not going to get a good draft.And even if you do all this, it still might not be good enough. Or maybe it might be good to you and your critique group, but not so good to the slush goddesses, because after all, writing is subjective. What works for one person may not work so well for someone else.

3. Your story is yours. Don’t write what you think people want you to say. Write what you want to say

One mistake I have seen students make over and over again is just writing what they think the teacher wants to hear. I get it – they want a good grade – but it doesn’t work.

Fiction writers do this too. They wonder if their story is marketable, and make the mistake of writing what they think their readers want. Let’s face it, we all want to get published and make money, but if we just write what we think other’s want and don’t stay true to ourselves, our craft will turn into our crap, almost literally, if you really think about it: consume suggestions, digest them, excrete them.

Your story should be your baby, not your shit.

A story I wrote called Costume Connection got six rejections before getting accepted by Centum Press. Two of those rejections came with feedback. The first feedback report had some rather helpful suggestions that helped the piece grow into the version that got accepted. The second had some comments that just didn’t make sense to me. I decided that the piece just didn’t work for those people, and I wasn’t going to change it because of them. I’m glad I trusted my gut, and am looking forward to seeing a story of mine published in a tangible print book

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Stories need naps, just like kittens.

4. Let it rest, leave time to proof read, let it rest, cut clutter, let it rest.

Your draft is detailed and specific. You’ve revised several times. You are happy with the content and think you have caught most of the grammatical errors. Other people have read it, possibly more than once and most importantly, you are happy with  the result.

You are note done.

You are note done.

Put it away.

Hide the file.

Just don’t look at for at least 24 hours. Try to leave it alone for a week if you can.

When you just can’t stay away from the thing any longer, that means it is time to edit and revise. Catch all those grammatical errors. Make sure you are showing, not telling. Restructure your sentences so you have minimal glue(words that don’t carry meaning). Replace as many adverb/verb pairs as you can with specific verbs . You don’t have to get rid of them all, but just remember a strong verb kicks ass.

Leave it alone for a few days. AGAIN.

Read it with a fresh eye. Make any changes you think of whether they are on the sentence level or the story level. Let it rest again. Revise again.

Whenever I talk to teachers who aren’t writers or English teachers, they seem to be under the impression that college students can’t write. This isn’t because the students can’t compose good essays. It’s because they don’t have time to let the draft rest. When they get a paper back they haven’t seen in a week, they could revise without seeing half of the instructor’s comments.

Even a night of rest would have made the difference between an B and A. There have been plenty of times when I have sat down in the writing center with a more who printed the paper out at night, and brought it to me in the morning, a couple hours before it is due. As we are reading through the paper, the student see’s all the sentence level errors she missed when she did her 2 a.m. proof read.

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While different genres of writing follow different rules and styles, the process is more or less the same whether you are writing a college research paper, an article or a short story. Once you understand the style and structure of your genre(s), you can continue to improve your writing by studying and improving your process. Be mindful of what you do. Practice metacognition. Journal about your process. Read what other writers have written about heir process and compare it to what you have written about your own. Revise the process accordingly. Write on!

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Finals Week and Chicken Soup

As the semester comes to an end, it can be hard to remember to eat at all, let alone eat healthy. This was true for me when I was a student, and still is true now that I am a teacher. Since women cannot survive on chocolate alone (though we often want to), I believe it is critical to make sure that I do not let the stress get to me.

No matter how chaotic it gets, I need to eat and I need to take time to make sure I don’t burn out. Writing, cooking and taking pictures are often therapeutic for me, so before I dive into the grading this morning, I am taking some time to make food and a blog post.

Friday night, I was too tired to do much cooking, so my husband picked up a rotisserie chicken from a local grocery story, and I boiled some Jasmin rice.  We barely ate half the chicken, so I decided to save to rest for soup.

I started with vegetables:  Half a large onion, a quarter of a bell pepper, one large carrot and one stick of celery. I cut them up and sautéed them with olive oil, thyme and parsley.

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Next, I added the left over Rotisserie Chicken.

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More dedicated and experienced cooks would use the whole thing to make stock, but I have a very limited amount of time allowed for writing and cooking this morning, so I just ripped off some white meat and threw it in the pan. I didn’t use all the leftover meat, so I put it back in the fridge in case my husband (who is a much better cook than me) wants to use it for something.

We did have some jasmine rice left over from Friday, maybe a 1/3 cup, so I added that to the pan next.

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I stirred it, letting it all simmer for a few a minutes, then added a box of organic chicken stock.

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I’ll let it all simmer while I grade. At noon, when I need  a break, I’ll have a bowl of soup, giving my body some veggies, protein and grain to help it power through the next round of papers. I’ll put the left overs in the fridge and take them to work for lunch on Monday and Tuesday, guaranteeing that I will have something healthier than cookies to eat between my classes.

©2016 Sara Codair

The Final

 

The Final

By Sara Codair

It was too late to turn back–for all of them. The test had begun. They would either collaborate and score at least 75% and become wizards, or fail, get their minds wiped, and live out the rest of their lives in a factory.

Gretchen didn’t want to spend her life as a mindless soap- manufacturing drone, but no one would focus. Unfortunately, collaboration was essential. They each had a different piece of the equation to solve on the Physics of Potency exam. Jack was so busy ignoring Ricardo that he missed an important variable, meaning that by the time Gretchen arrived at her portion, she had to redo his before she could answer hers. Felecia was distracting Pi; he messed up his portion. By the time the answer was put into the crystal proctor ball, it was wrong.

“You’re all idiots,” muttered Gretchen, but no one heard her.

“Just focus on your task,” she shouted, and they still didn’t hear her.

When they got five consecutive questions wrong, she lost it. It was statistically impossible to pass now, but she wasn’t going down without a fight. She’d prove she was a capable mage, one way or another.

Enraged as she was, gathering power was easy. She wrapped it around herself like a flaming cocoon. Equations danced across her eyelids; she solved them effortlessly. The numbers translated to words as she spoke, sending flaming energy out from her fingers to her classmates. It twined around their bodies, contorting their forms and until they were just a herd of baaing goats.

The exam board materialized. They were all grinning.

“That’s a pass if I ever saw one,” said the headmaster. The deans all nodded in agreement.

©2016 Sara Codair

An earlier draft of “The Final” was posted on last week’s Cracked Flash competition. It was the honorable mention, so it received some feedback from the judges, so I made some changes and posted the final version here. You can enter this week’s competition at http://crackedflash.blogspot.com/

Write What You Know (or not).

“Write what you know” is a saying I have heard from many different people. I don’t usually agree with it, and find I prefer to use writing as a tool for exploring what I don’t know. The internet and library data bases can tell me almost anything I want to know about any subject. Writing about the unknown is the best way to motivate myself to do research and come to understand the research by writing about it, whether I am incorporating it into a novel, blogging, or writing academic prose.

As much as I like to think of writing as a tool for inquiry, I will not deny that it is easier to write about things I am familiar with. This month, I was reminded of just how big an impact knowledge and confidence can have on a person’s ability to write coherent prose.

There is one student who has been coming into the writing center on and off for a couple years. Lately, I have been tutoring him at least once a week. I’ll call him Bob for the purpose of this post.

Bob is a very good writer, lacking more in confidence than skill. Last week, I was working with him on a beautifully organized essay about business etiquette in his home country. Since English isn’t his first language, he needed help with the grammar, but little else. The essay had a strong voice, specific purpose and clear organization.

Today, he brought me an essay his instructor asked him to revise. To be honest, this essay seemed like a different student wrote it. The ideas were all over the place and some sentences were very difficult to decipher. If I hadn’t been working with him for so long, I might have suspected that the previous essay had been plagiarized.

As our session went on, I came to understand that he knew almost nothing about the topic prior to starting his research. He had been thorough with his research, but his lack of knowledge was having a major impact on his writing. He was disorganized, jumping from one topic to the next before he was done explaining it. There were missing sentences, missing words, and errors with tense and punctuation that I knew he had mastered last year. He was so focused on making sure he got his facts straight in both the writing and revising process, that he failed to organize the paper in a coherent manner and missed dozens of grammatical errors. His level of knowledge really effected what he was capable of.

While its fine for an experience writer to throw rules like “Write what you know” out the window and use writing as a tool for research and discovery, beginning or developing writers do much better when they are familiar with their subject.

It is good to let students write about things they are familiar with and gradually move them into using writing for inquiry.

When writers are taking their first adventures into fiction, they might want to start out by writing stories set in places they’ve been with characters doing things they know a lot about. Once they get a good handle on the craft (organization, detail, plot, structure, character, dialogue and grammatical control), then they can branch out to the unfamiliar.

I love to use writing to explore “what if” scenarios. If I am curious about what it is like to be exist as a hispanic teenager, an overweight man or a trans woman, I read, I watch, and then I write. When I get bored with my world and cease to appreciate it, I make up a new world that is far less comfortable than my own. Through writing, I experience thing that make me appreciate the privileges and comfort of my own life.

I used to just write what I understood. Now, I go out of my way to write what I don’t.

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©2016 Sara Codair

A Fun Run for the Developing Writer’s Brain

Creative Writing exercises are my favorite thing to do in class. However, I used to think there wasn’t room for them in a first year writing class. I couldn’t have been more wrong. Teaching any kind of writing without creative exercises is like a coach who doesn’t encourage his or her athletes to run or weight train.

Whether you are training to improve you skills at soccer, crew, or baseball, running is one way to progress. Or, if like me, you are not a fan or competitive sports, you can run to make your body stronger and healthier. I run because it eases my anxiety and keeps the copious amounts of cookies I consume from sticking to my hips. One could say the same thing for pushups, crunches and weight training. They improve your body so you can use it more effectively.DSC_0394

Creative Writing exercises are like running or doing push ups. They strengthen the brain and its ability to translate thoughts into words. It doesn’t matter if a person’s goal is to write copy for a website, a lab report, a short story or a persuasive essay. Doing writing exercises on a regular bases will strengthen the parts of his or her brain that translate ideas into sentences and paragraphs.

This is a realization four years in the making for me. When I first started teaching English Composition or College Writing, I thought that since my goal was to teach academic writing, I had to use traditional academic methods. At the time, I believed that mean brief lectures about essay structure followed by discussions on nonfiction texts.

There is nothing wrong with having students read and discuss texts that follow a similar style to the ones they plan to write. However, a college writing class can be much more than that. Boredom, Breadloaf and a slew of academic articles have convinced me that I can and should teach creative writing in a class where the end goal is an academic research paper.

It shows the students that writing can be fun while enhancing their ability to efficiently translate their thoughts to the written word, it facilitates skill transfer proves to the students that they have something to say and that it doesn’t take too long for the first draft of that idea to be born on the page.

One of my favorite creative exercises to do with my students is the never-ending story. Here are the directions I give my students:

  • Take out a blank piece of paper.
  • In a few minutes, I am going to play a song. When the music starts, you are going to start a story. The story can start with a character, a description, action or some combination of all three as long as it is inspired by the music.
  • When the music stops, pass you paper to the right.
  • Read what is on the paper that was passed to you.
  • When a new song plays, continue that story. However, you should let the music inspire how you continue it.
  • We will repeat this process eight times.

I play a variety of songs, ranging from Lindsey Sterling’s Crystalize to Drake’s Hotline Bling. A large variety in genre and style will wield hilarious stories and an interesting discussion about what kind of music facilitates writing and what kind interferes with it down.

The reflection and discussion that follows can’t be skipped. This is where students realize the activity was more than just a way to destress at the end of the semester. If you can get them to name the skills or strategies they used when composing on the spot, they can put those aside as tools for when they get stuck on an assignment. If the students get can make a connection between the kind thinking they did during this process to the  kind of thinking they did when doing other kinds of writing, they will begin to understand that skills do transfer from one genre to the other (something some academics think doesn’t happen in first year writing classes).

On the surface, the never ending story and other creative writing exercises may just seem like “fun” ways to fill time in class. However, they are actually valuable strategies for encouraging metacognition, skill transfer and team work.  They encourage students to think quick, reflect on how music or sounds affect their writing and asks them to participate in a non-verbal collaboration. They focus more on the process than the end product. Most importantly, the have fun while they are learning something.