Simple Techniques for Student Engagement in a Writing Workshop

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Without student engagement, not much in the way of learning takes place in a workshop. With engagement comes enthusiasm, minds receptive to learning and a relaxed learning environment that promotes involvement. I knew nothing of this when I first started teaching my Writing Hurts Like Hell workshop over a decade ago. I offered mostly lectures and take home assignments. It was boring and the dropout rate was high until I caught on to what I was doing wrong. I was distancing my students from what I was trying to teach them. I was talking at them and stalling off any active involvement until they were home, by themselves, without any classroom interactivity.

This continued throughout the first year until it came to me in a brilliant flash of enlightenment: I needed to make the workshop more interesting. I needed to engage my students. I spent an entire summer redesigning, reworking and rethinking. It was worth it. My workshop became popular, the dropout rate dropped to practically nothing and my students were actually writing and enjoying it. These are some of the strategies I worked out:

Get them into it right off the bat and make them feel in control. In the first class I had each student tell their name, explain their personal reasons for taking the workshop and tell a little about themselves. Not until they were familiar with each other did I say anything about myself. This put them first, me second, giving them a sense, no matter how faint, of student empowerment.

Encourage open discussion even it if runs off topic. This turned out to be one of the most important facets of the workshop. In order to facilitate it, I sent out detailed notes after each class so that, if a topic wasn’t completely covered, it would be covered in the notes and any questions about it could be asked in the next class. Initially, only a few students would take part in the discussions, but, as the classes progressed, the silent majority would start speaking up. One of the key things I learned here was to let the discussion be based on questions from the students rather than questions I brought up for discussions. Again, the sense of empowerment, the sense of owning where the instruction is going.

Unless they’re going to explode if they don’t, tell the students to not take notes. As I said, I sent out detailed notes at the end of each class, not bulleted lists or topic titles. I wrote these up as if they were pages in a book (which they eventually became). They included in-class exercises and assignments. I know that some people insist that taking notes is a good way to reinforce the learning. Well, maybe in a class, but not in a workshop, especially not in my beautiful new interactive and engaging workshop. The problem with taking notes is the time it takes to write something. I that time, the student might miss an opportunity to ask a question or respond to a question because their focussed on something that happened a moment or two ago. Also, and this is important: If the student isn’t off somewhere in Writing-All-This-Down-Land, they’re fully present in the class and more apt to engage immediately in discussions. I don’t have research studies to back this up…just my observations.

Introduce them to mindless writing. I love mindless writing. You sit with pen (or pencil) (or laptop) (had one student do it on his iphone) in hand and write for several minutes without stopping to edit, correct spelling or re-phase. You just write without thinking, letting the subconscious spill over onto the paper or screen. (Actually, this works best with pen or pencil because you engage the mind more deeply with tactile senses.) I make my students do this in the first class and then I use it in almost all the in-class writing exercises throughout the workshop. What makes mindless writing so effective is the spontaneity of the exercise. Whatever the student writes is correct, even if they wander off topic. Again, it gives them a sense of being in control of their learning and it certainly leads them to feel that they’re not being controlled.

(Want to learn more about mindless writing? Read Dorothea Brandt’s Becoming A Writer.)

Everyone reads what they’ve written. OK, some people simply will not do this. At least not right away. And take it from my experience: death threats won’t work. Generally though, everyone will come around as they get used to each other. Reading aloud is not just a confidence builder, it’s another empowerment tool because it’s the students moment under the sun and they can say whatever they want to say: the reading is based on mindless writing that might go completely off topic and they’re not being graded. They own the moment. I’ve had students who wouldn’t read aloud for the first few classes no matter how often I called them up in the middle of the night and threatened them, but once they did…they liked it. These were almost always the ones biting the bit each class to read what they’d written. BTW, the readings included the assignments (the class starts with these readings) and the in-class exercises.

Everyone applauds. This is the follow-up to reading aloud. After each student reads what they’ve written, the rest of the class applauds. I can’t stress too much what a powerful tool this is in building confidence and engagement in the workshop. It gives the reader a sense of achievement and pride and it gives the audience a sense of group participation. Once a student has read aloud and received that applause, they’re hooked. My workshops were almost always held on Monday nights. I was told repeatedly by my students that Monday had become their favorite day of the week. Talk about a powerful tool for engagement.

BTW, take a look at the image accompanying this article. Look at it for a few minutes, put it aside, pick up a pen and some paper and write about the image for five minutes without stopping to correct or change anything. Just write whatever comes into your head. You might be surprised at what you write.

 

Biff Mitchell is the author of Writing Hurts Like Hell: How to Write a Novel When You Don’t Have Time to Write a Short Story, based on his 10 years of teaching writing workshops through the University of New Brunswick’s College of Extended Learning, The Maritime Writers’ Workshop, the FogLit Literary Festival and the Muse Online Writers’ Conference. Biff is the author of five novels and has managed to trick numerous online and literary magazines into publishing his short stories and poems. He’s also a regular contributor to the award-winning Twisted Tails Anthologies. You can visit Biff at www.biffmitchell.com.

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On Following Your Characters

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Started my next novel six years ago. Still hard to believe it was that long ago. Spent almost two years researching, building characters and scenes and a story board. Then, I broke all the rules that I’ve been teaching my writing students for 10 years and wrote myself into a brick wall. Took a few years off to study photography and almost gave up on writing altogether, except for a few short stories and some poems that I managed to trick a few editors and magazines to publish. (HINT: Pretend you know how to write…they fall for it every time.)

Something strange happened during that time off, something that I tell my students will happen. And it happened. Regardless of me writing the story on my laptop, the story kept writing itself in the back of my head. Last fall, I started going to a local coffee shop (Reads) and came back to the novel. I managed to salvage one short chapter from the initial attempt and tried to follow the original story board. But, like I said, the story was writing itself in the back of my head…by the characters. And they started writing the story on their own. I just had to move my fingers across the keyboard

It was kind of cool. I didn’t have a clue what I was going to write each evening. I just followed the characters and let them go where they wanted, do what they wanted and say what they wanted. They had a lot more story in them than I did. Their words flowed like turkey gravy into the manuscript. Night after night was surprise after surprise.

One problem..

…I had no idea how it was going to end. That was the problem with the first attempt. I never write even the first sentence until I know how the story ends. It gives me something to write towards, even if I change the ending to match the journey towards it

But, in this novel, I was dumbfounded when it came to how to end it. There were so many possibilities, but none of them worked in a way that would bring the story to and end that would make sense and be fair to all seven main characters. Yep, seven main characters telling their own stories surprise after surprise, and me wondering how the hell they were going to end it

Well, this week, they did it. They showed me the way…and what a surprise that was. It was complicated at hell and I almost ran into another block, but I kept if going…trusting that the characters knew what they were doing.

And they did.

I sat at Reads today and finished the first part of the ending. Remember now…it has to end for seven people in such a way that it ends sensibly and well for all of them. But the first part just threw up a thousand more questions. I went home and ate something. No…wait a minute…I went home to eat something but I didn’t. Instead, I opened myself to the characters and went back to Reads and wrote the second part of the ending. And everything fell into place. Everything made sense. I know exactly how to finish this novel. It’s going to be another ten or so pages. The page and word count at this point don’t mean a thing. I know how it’s going to end.

I should have this novel finished within the next week or two. Well, the first draft. And then the real writing starts.

To the characters in this novel, thank you for leading me through a wonderful and constantly surprising experience. I love you folks.

Oh, I’m a photographer as well, so this post is accompanied by a gratuitous image of a purple plant. If it were growing out of a piece of pavement, it would be related to this novel, but it’s not. Gratuitous.