01 January 2014

Creative Writing Goals: Smarter Not Harder

Teaching Creative Writing was dangled in front of me once before: 8 years ago, in fact. I immediately started formulating a vision, setting goals, developing plans ...that I never got to use. This year, a spring Creative Writing class was proffered once more, though I dared not get my hopes up too high. That is, until my principal stopped by my classroom with a proposal the day before classes started in August.

Now my first semester as a Creative Writing teacher has nearly ended.

I had some ideas that I definitely wanted to work in like journals, writers' workshops, and real-life publication. I got those all in there to some extent, but I also got a lot more work than I'd bargained for. It was a small class, under 20, so I thought I could handle rampant revision and daily writing checks.

It was handled, but not nearly with the, shall we say, alacrity that I had anticipated.

So I find myself between an ideological rock and a pragmatic hard place. I have to be able to do right by my students and survive another semester. I want to help them as writers and critical thinkers, but I also have some implicit instructional responsibilities as well, as my clientele this time around is largely those who, for one reason or another, have been deemed unprepared for the college class they were supposed to take according to the Early College Plan that ends with an associate's degree.  I'm not repeating my COMPASS Lab class, per se, but I have to sneak in some COMPASS-like preparation in hopes of getting them back on track after this unscheduled elective stop. And then there's the district "Grade Composition":

65%   ≥ 2  major "test" grades
20%   ≥ 4 "quiz" grades
15%   ≥ 6 "daily" grades

Now I had been doing weekly journal checks for the daily grades, pieces before and after workshop--with comments for the "test" grades, and pieces that they continuously revised based on my feedback for the "quiz" grades.

That was a LOT of commenting on my part, especially with my natural novelists. Don't get me wrong: the novel chapters were actually good stuff. But let's just say I'm surprised my feedback spreadsheets survived. And my poor brain was stew after marking up a set of submissions, just for the sheer acrobatics it required to keep up with 1) what some students were trying to say and 2) how it could possibly be clearer.

Now I've heard some suggest dividing up the feedback: round 1 is say, organization and paragraphs; round 2 is support and elaboration; round 3 is sentence structure; and round 4 is style and voice. But honestly, that system seems entirely unfair to me. My brilliant novelists would get almost zero feedback until round 4, and my struggling artists would feel punished by the comparative number of re-do's they had to do. So it looks like the intensive high-wire feedback will remain a fact of life. Now how to cut back without cutting corners?

Here's the plan:

Daily Grades
Journal checks
Workshop comment contributions (constructive, consistent, specific)
Grammar spreadsheet corrections

Quiz Grades
2 workshop submissions
2 post-workshop revision

Test Grades
Genius Hour submission draft
Genius Hour revisions

Basically, I cut back on the number of different pieces students would submit and give them credit both for the before and the after. And instead of me giving feedback over and over again on six different pieces, this way the minor ones just have to demonstrate 1) they completed the assignment goals and 2) they improved their piece using suggestions from classmates in workshop. This means fewer rounds for me but still copious feedback for them. 

Furthermore, some comments I got from end-of-course reflection letters suggested that students have more time between practice pieces (ie "quiz grades") to work on them. I'm halving the number of pieces required for submission, but I'm upping the revision focus by giving revisions their own grade. I'll set the requirements for the "quiz" assignment completion, but I'm thinking I'll have them create their own checklist rubrics for their revisions based on the comments they received: pick 10 things they need to change, and I decide if they've met those goals. (Maybe the rubric creation should be its own grade? Or just a conferencing matter? We'll have to see how that plays out.)

Also, I added Genius Hour. That's right, it's not just for the target language any more!

I found that the publications were a bit rushed at the end, and that the goals students set out at the beginning of the course did not exactly...come to fruition. I think several took the easy way out, and the ones that had the most satisfying results in the end were ones that worked on the same project over at least two grading periods. So if I give them an hour a week to work, and at one free scrap-it card if they don't like where their project is headed, surely they'll have something we can all be proud of in the end.

This means I can focus my intense commentary on one piece per student per grading period, which will surely be less overwhelming for them and for me. They will have to tell me what their goals are for a Genius Hour submission (e.g. exposition chapter, slam poem about beauty), and if they do what they said they'd do, full test grade! Then it's up to them to polish their piece as far as organization, elaboration, style, and mechanics until it is publication-ready!

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