Thursday, December 14, 2017

What My Students Taught Me

Zestful Blog Post #242

As you may know, I’ve been teaching short story writing at Ringling College of Art and Design. Fall term is over; I’m calculating final grades for my class of second- and fourth-year students.

It often happens, and I feel it should happen, that a teacher learns from her students. I certainly have learned a bunch from the private writing clients I’ve worked with, so I expected to come away with lessons from these 16 young people. Here are some:

·       The students at Ringling seem to be more mature and self-directed than the ones at other schools who get bad press with their public tantrums about political and social issues. I believe this is because the Ringling application process is pretty grueling, meaning they really have to know what they want. They want to develop their talent concretely and specifically, and they want to explore other possibilities, with the intention of making their independent way in the world. While they care about political and social issues, their focus is on the business of getting an education.
·       Students whose first language was not English were, at first, worrisome to me, as they were unfamiliar with the Western literary canon, idiomatic American English, and indeed large swaths of American and Western culture. I was concerned that their relatively limited experience with English would hamper their expressiveness. I was happily wrong. Their storytelling skills were no worse, in general, than the native English speakers. Their grammar and vocabulary weren’t very advanced, but they made up for it by tapping into their own culture and language structures, with the results being, often, beautiful, poetic, and unique. At times their work was even more inventive than native English speakers, because they figured out word, phrase, and sentence constructions on their own:
o   A dog leash is a ‘pet rope.’
o   The moon isn’t at its apex, it’s ‘right at the top of the sky.’
o   A frightened man isn’t pale, he ‘looks like a peeled onion.’
o   ‘Her eyes swallowed ashes and spitted death.’
·       When you’re standing before a class of art students, talking and writing things on the board and answering questions, you realize that sometimes they’re taking notes, and other times they’re sketching you.
·       And sometimes they’re making other art, as in the photo below. “My parting gift to you,” a student said.

[The Florida art school version of ‘an apple for the teacher.’ Thank you, FC. Photo by ES]

·       In writing their stories, some students wanted to go big, and they wrote outlandish ideas that didn’t connect. I realized that going deep with your characters first is the only thing that can lay proper groundwork for big splashy drama. Because if readers don’t know the characters deeply, all the gunpowder in the world—or all the supernatural outer-space mind control in the galaxy—can’t make them engage and care.
·       In spite of their talent, there was a lot about story my students didn’t know, and a lot about how to read stories that they didn’t know. If I teach this class again, I’ll spend more time helping them interpret what they read.
·       Making art and commerce work together, i.e. doing what you love, developing it, and coaxing it to pay well—that’s a fine outcome for these students to strive after.
·       And for us writers too, no?

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  1. Thanks for sharing what you learned from your students. I plan to really focus on digging deeper into who my characters are for my next novel.

  2. What a wonderful post. The writing you shared from your students is striking and gorgeous. Peeled onion...oh my heart. And thank you for giving insight into what it was like to teach artistic people, who are constantly making as they take in and process information. The discipline and desire they show are inspiring. -- Vicki


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