One question I get about my new textbook A Writer’s Craft is, how is it possible to teach poetry, fiction, creative nonfiction, and drama all in one semester? This post is a continuation of “How I teach 4 Genres in 1 Semester, Part I,” where I talk about the efficiencies of teaching 4 genres at the intro level and “Why 4 Genres?” where I talk about the benefits of teaching all 4 genres together. Today, I want to talk about one strategy for managing a class with this much content, and sometimes with 20 students or more: the Small Group Workshop.
Juggling student work in an intro class is never easy, and the traditional workshop model that allows you to talk about pieces by 2, maybe 3, students per day can quickly bog down. When I started teaching creative writing, I soon moved to a model where I have students work in smaller groups, usually of 3-4 students per group, for some of our sessions, especially early in the semester. It was a way to get more student work before at least some of the class earlier in the semester, so everyone got some feedback on their early work.
This model may seem familiar from the peer editing sessions often used in a composition class, though I adapted it somewhat. In comp, I usually gave my students peer editing worksheets with questions to answer about the paper topic. In creative writing, it made more sense to give the groups instructions for what to do, and this evolved into a pedagogical approach that’s a little different. Awhile ago, after a presentation at AWP, I posted some examples of the kind of steps and questions from these early small group workshops on my website.
One of my early frustrations with students in a creative writing class was that they were uncomfortable giving constructive criticism to each other. Even though I gave them guidelines for workshop comments, they still inevitably praised each other’s work and suggested very few revisions. They did this, even though they often begged each other for more thorough comments — at least they told me this in course evaluations, though they may not have expressed it to other students. Small group workshops became a way to train students to comment on each other’s writing in a non-threatening environment. This seems to work better than starting with full-class workshops for a number of reasons.
First, the work they turn in for these workshops is usually based on an assignment I’ve given: write a character sketch, describe a public place, write a memory, etc. This means that the students aren’t as invested in what they’ve written as they would be if it were their latest great story or poem. Everyone is at an early draft stage, and they’re more willing to comment on each other’s work and receive those comments. I also believe that it’s easier for students to write comments on each other’s hand-written drafts than it is to comment on something typed and printed, which looks more final, even if it isn’t.
Second, because I tell them what to look for, students don’t feel intimidated about pointing those things out. I usually stick to positive judgements, such as finding the most evocative phrases or the clearest images. If I ask them to point out potential flaws, I try to be neutral in the way I describe it: I may ask them to underline three abstractions, for instance. I always have students make suggestions, and I remind them that they aren’t saying what should be in the piece, but rather what could be in it. They are also liberated in making these suggestions because I told them to, so it isn’t an implied criticism of the other writer.
Third, I always have everyone read everyone else’s writing. Initially, I have them bring their work to class and exchange with their group. We have 2-3 steps to the workshop so that everyone gets a chance to read everyone else’s exercise. Then there is time for the group to discuss each other’s work. everyone gets a response from two or three other writers, and they compare notes on what they found.
That is where I really hear productive discussions taking place. Yes, I’ve led them somewhat by asking questions in the first rounds, and by giving them a list of questions to consider in discussion. But I usually hear the groups talking about other aspects of the writing, and often they point out the things they really liked about each other’s work. One student may bring an exercise they feel is terrible, and the group may find some very promising potential in it. Another student may bring something they think is fabulous and the group is confused but can either help make it clearer or suggest other possibilities for how to develop the piece.
Of course, for these early workshops assignments, students aren’t required to continue working on them. My goal is that they learn something about the topic (language, character, point of view, etc.), not that their exercise turn into a finished piece, though often a character or an idea comes out of these workshop discussions that the writer decides to use in a more extended piece.
By the time we get to the chapters on specific genres, I change my strategy somewhat. Now that students are used to giving comments on each other’s work, I can create groups in our LMS (we use Canvas now, but have used Blackboard) where students can exchange files. This allows the students to read and comment on their group’s pieces before they come to class, so we can work with longer passages — maybe a couple of typed pages instead of one hand-written page.
We do one small group workshop on each genre, so students write something for each. However, they still aren’t required to make that exercise work as an essay, story, poem, or play. They could ditch that idea entirely, if they have enough other work for their portfolios, or they could adapt the writing they did in one genre workshop to another genre. We usually talk about how a nonfiction piece could be adapted as fiction or poetry, for instance, or how a drama scene would work differently if written as fiction, etc.
These small group workshops eventually give way to full class workshops in the latter 40% or so of the class, and ultimately will lead to a final portfolio of finished work, but that sounds like a topic for Part III of this series.
By the time we get to the full class workshop, everyone has already discussed several early pieces of writing with some of the class. Because I change up the groups, everyone has gotten some feedback from everyone else, and they’ve developed a sense of a writing community, and everyone has written some drafts in each genre that we cover.