My friend Tricia, a veteran teacher, says she’s always nervous starting a new semester, and if you’re nervous you’re doing it right, because that means that you care. All the same, I knew she was trying to make me feel less nervous, and it didn’t really work. As I went into my classroom in the beginning of spring 2015, all I could think about was the fear I felt, gnawing; anxiety, gnawing.
I was a graduate student in fiction writing at a large university in the Midwest, and the class was introductory creative writing, only the second I’d ever taught. Still, I thought I’d have some idea of what I was doing this time, or at least have picked up a thing or two teaching composition the previous semester. But here I was at the steep edge of the learning curve all over again. This is supposed to be my field, I thought frantically. What if I mess my students up and they hate creative writing forever? The first class got off to a rocky start, and the second wasn’t much better. No one was participating in discussions. I wasn’t expecting genius, but their first poems were so bad I thought they were all goofing off. I got the flu for a week. I got in over my head with other commitments. My students were still incredibly quiet. During one-on-one conferences, some of them looked positively tortured. A graduate instructor friend lamented, “It’s hard to tell if they’re learning anything in creative writing.” As much as I disliked what she was saying, I had to agree.
But there was one thing that helped – writing about it. After our third class, I sat down and made a list of things I wish I’d known the week before. (It’s okay, I told myself, that you’re only learning them now.)
- If you are really, really stressed out, something is wrong. The solution is not to stress out more about it. Instead, talk to someone. They can help you.
- “You have to let them see you’re human.” –Fellow instructor Samiah
- Do introductions again, slower. Thanks, fellow instructor Lauren, for reminding me of the prompt to share one thing someone wouldn’t know about you just from looking at you. I also let the class ask each person one follow-up question, which was what really broke the ice.
- “You have to get them to invest.” –Samiah again. Her very good suggestion for creative writing class was to do in-class writing prompts and then invite people to read theirs aloud. (I, who until today considered such things a waste of class time, am now a believer. What matters is that you’re doing it together – not what gets written. Also, we make music in music classes, act in acting classes, and play sports at sports practice. Why should writing be a weird exception?)
- Play music during in-class writing so it doesn’t feel like the SATs. (I, who usually can’t work if there’s any sound at all, found myself concentrating a lot better to Taylor Swift than last class’ dead silence. Also, I made a teaching moment about enjambment from “Shake It Off”!)
- Don’t freak out about what music you should play. Let students volunteer to DJ. Just because you’re the teacher doesn’t mean you need to be responsible for every single thing.
- If you are really, really stressed out, don’t take it out on your students.
- It’s okay if you had a bad class last time. You can always come in and tell your students you want to start over and do things differently. It is surprisingly easy to laugh about a bad last class in front of, and to some degree with, them.
- Thanks for that, students (you aren’t seeing this, but I’m thinking of you). I really enjoyed being with you today. It was unexpectedly and wonderfully the happiest and least stressful 1.5 hours of my week so far. I hope we keep going this way.
When you’re a teacher, you never stop learning. It’s much more of a two-way street than I’d thought. The students may be here for what I supposedly can teach them, but I have a lot to learn from them too – even in ‘my field.’ Such as: sometimes the greatest writing comes about when it’s done for fun (or at least in that state of mind) – with joy, freedom, and spontaneity. Sometimes it’s the teacher’s job to set goals and expectations, and sometimes it’s to create an environment where all those things can fade away.
Teaching is important to me, and I want to do it as well as I possibly can. For one thing, teaching writing has made me a better writer. It’s true, you only really learn some things once you start teaching them to others. But there’s another reason. It occurred to me that the work I do as a fiction writer and poet may never see the light of day, and even if it ever does, odds are it will die with me. Not so whatever time I spend with students, which really might make a difference to someone’s life, however brief or small.
It’s true that the impact my teaching has may be incredibly brief or small. As we were told at orientation, unlike you, your students are not lying awake at night mulling over what you covered in class. Or as my mom, who teaches young children, says: They forget almost everything!
Still, I need to do everything I can to remind myself how lucky I am to be doing this. And in the previous semester, I’d stumbled upon the best way I know how.
During the first week of that fall, my Facebook feed was full of statuses by my fellow instructors. “Thoughts after viewing my class roster for the first time: every one of my students looks older than me.” “Friends, I love teaching.” “Reader, they tolerated me.”
I didn’t often compose Facebook statuses, but now the gauntlet had been thrown. Still, I didn’t want to feel like I was talking behind my students’ backs, just because they wouldn’t see what I wrote. So I pictured myself addressing them, saying some of the things you always think to say a minute after you’ve let them go. “Dear students” was how I always began.
The statement I wrote after our third class proved to be a turning point:
Dear students, we spent a long and incredibly fruitful time unpacking just the title of today’s reading, “Is Google Making Us Stupid?” You made great points about how the question automatically picked a fight with an Internet giant, that Google acting on ‘us’ meant we were under attack, that ‘stupid’ was an emotionally charged word. I love that you’ve got a fight in you.
I’d put a quote by E. M. Forster on the top of their syllabus: “How do I know what I think until I see what I say?” Rereading my own words, I felt something change in me, unexpectedly. Suddenly I wasn’t just lost in a sea of my own ignorance and fear and insecurity anymore. The students were less of an opaque unknown. I knew exactly what I thought of them in that moment, fixed it into words.
I love that you’ve got a fight in you.
It was news to me. I might not always know what I was doing, but I did know I was on their side.
So I wrote Dear Students reflections for the introductory creative writing class that following spring as well. Looking back over what I recorded – the mistakes, the experiments, the surprises – I really can see the improvement we made, together. Here are a few:
Dear students, I know that today’s material, sound in poetry, was not the most enjoyable thing you’ve ever done. It’s hard to make the jump from just circling assonance and alliteration to describing the effects those devices have. But I hope there’s payoff for you, eventually. Thanks for cracking a few smiles when I taught you about mind rhyme in Frozen. [“Let it go, let it go, I’m one with the wind and sky” – but in your mind, you hear the rhyme of snow.]
(I had started the class by bringing in a quote by the musician Lights – “You have to enjoy what you’re doing in order to do something good”. As much I was trying to make class more fun, I also remembered how my pedagogical instructor, Anne, had taught me not to conflate fun with enjoyment. Which was fine by me: fun was never really an objective in my own education, and I don’t believe that everything has to be ‘fun’ so students will ‘like’ it. What Anne helped me see was that you can in good conscience encourage students to enjoy learning, even when it’s difficult or unpleasant, for the payoff of understanding, and the satisfaction that comes with that.) (A/N: What Anne described as payoff, C. S. Lewis also calls a proper reward, as a fellow author mentioned in her recent Kairos post.)
Dear students, here are things that have come up in our two poetry workshops so far: what we like or find interesting, sounds effects like alliteration and consonance, metaphor and simile, whether something is redundant or concise, line breaks that are dramatic or suspenseful, places where something’s unclear. These concepts feel like tools we can use to probe what’s going on. Today I think I didn’t ask enough what the poems were “about” and “also about” – and given that today’s were a little less clear, I really should have. Probe probe probe!
Dear students, in general you’re turning in better work for fiction, and writing more for each assignment than I’d expected. There are so many possible reasons for this, but I’ve definitely noticed that I designed more specific exercises for fiction: “Describe five different characters taking off their shoes” yielded great writing, “Write a poem about a place” was terrible. I wanted to give you more freedom in poetry, but now I see some of the pitfalls (so many poems about your dorm room). Onward!
Dear students, I just figured this out today: maybe the key to ‘teaching’ you a story is to be very clear ahead of time about 2-3 aspects I want to cover, esp. to clear up problems I see in your writing, and then march you through them. For example, we read aloud the first paragraph of Z. Z. Packer’s “Brownies” and together made two columns on the board of how the girls were Similar (white) and Different (complexions a blend of ice cream: strawberry, vanilla – etc.), the lesson being that even when people are in a group, they’re distinct (vs. something you might draft, like “They were typical white girls…”). Maybe by the end of the semester we’ll get to more organic conversations, but today we had our first passable large-group fiction discussion, so that’s progress.
Dear students, today you briefly tried rewriting one of today’s stories in a different point of view in order to change the story itself. More than one of you suggested “The Emperor’s New Clothes” from the swindlers’ perspective, giving them more humanizing motives (or one great subplot about how they worked for a rival emperor who was jealous of the other’s clothes), and we discussed other contrasting effects (Lorrie Moore’s “How to Talk to Your Mother” became less of a dressing-down in the first person, etc.). I don’t despise first person stories about college students (indeed, I am still writing them), but look how good you are at inhabiting characters who are quite unlike you! (I am humbled by how my students just knuckle down and write something in a fifteen minute stretch, and are willing to read or discuss it afterwards (I’m sure one or two don’t take it too seriously, but overwhelmingly the rest do). And here’s me, making all kinds of excuses not to write.)
Dear students, well, we groupworked through Character, Time, Dialogue, Symbolism, and About & Also About in a story, and it was really dull. Thankfully one of you asked a question that led us to discuss the differences among Relating to, Investing in, and Liking a character. Remember that, not the tortured hour preceding it.
Dear students, because the ‘litany’ stories you turned in last week were surprisingly good, we spent some time in class discussing how you wrote them. I am so happy that you’re getting to learn your writing process: some of you said this assignment helped you sidestep things that usually get you stuck, like focusing on big plots or spending a long time choosing characters’ names; some of you said the structure, repetition, and models gave you an entry point to an idea or incited you to think of how you’d deviate or craft your litany differently. I also heard good things about how you chose to write litanies in a “voice,” or to show a character’s state of mind. Dear students, you are creative writers!
Those students turned in their final portfolios to me around the same time that I handed in my thesis. In that way, we really were in this together. I was thrilled to hear that at least three of them intended to keep writing and taking creative writing classes, but that was never my main objective. Instead, I told them that I wanted them to ask themselves three questions: Why creative writing? What does this practice teach us to value? And how does it make us into a community that values those things?
The first question was one I had dreaded getting since I was their age. I knew my reasons, but I’d never been able to articulate them satisfactorily, even after I started my MFA. The next two questions were borrowed from James K. A. Smith’s Imagining the Kingdom, a book that greatly helped me think through what I was trying to do pedagogically – which turned out to be more or less what I was trying to do for myself.
What I’ve always loved about reading and writing, I told my students in our last class, is that you can get to know another person that way – someone whom you might never meet, or who might have died long before you were born. They might live in a different country, or speak a different language, or be otherwise very different from you – it doesn’t matter. If you get to read something they wrote, that’s a piece of them, just as everything you write is a little piece of you. In writing, we get to know ourselves better too. Learning how to be with yourself isn’t a narcissistic or trivial thing. And when you share your writing, you are sharing a piece of your soul – which is a silly thing to say unless you absolutely believe it, which I do, as the mentor who said it to me did too. I value writing so much for how it helps us know ourselves and one another – and to care about them, hopefully, the way studying science and math should help you care more about the universe, economics and history about people. I’m glad you chose to make this part of your college education. I hope you keep writing, no matter where you go next.
Thanks for a great semester – I really enjoyed reading what you wrote, and being here with you.
Right now, it’s nearing the end of summer 2016. I’m preparing to teach another section of composition at a new university in California this fall. I am, predictably, nervous.
But I do know I will be writing Dear Students again. It feels good to have one certainty in this unchartered territory. And it feels good to remind myself to care; that no matter how tired or anxious I get, I still love what I’m doing. It is love, after all, that makes any of this possible.
This is a guest post! Inez Tan will soon be moving to California to start an MFA in Poetry. She’s currently spending the summer in Singapore visiting family, borrowing books, and drinking lots of bubble tea. Recently she’s been reading Dietrich Bonhoeffer, Nigella Lawson, and Troy Chin. She also works with the Augustine Collective, a student-led network of Christian journals on college campuses.