Teaching in Tens

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Preparing to teach a class is a lot like preparing dinner for friends. Slightly nerve-wracking, more time-consuming than you expect, and each time, there are surprises, sometimes great, sometimes terrible. Always, you learn new things.  You can wing it and end up with a wonderful success.  Or, you can spend weeks preparing and still run into disaster. Is there a secret to planning?


In observing new graduate students teach creative writing classes, sometimes I see amazing instruction and other times I see a class period evaporate as student attention wanders. I’ve seen lessons that looked great on paper miss their mark completely and shy awkward teachers create terrific impromptu classroom experiences for grumpster teens at eight in the morning. 


These new teachers are spending a lot of time prepping their classes and sometimes it pays off and sometimes it doesn’t.  So, how do we make the most of lesson planning?


First, consider the three things that typically cause a lesson to go off the rails:

  1.  Busy. The lesson is about too many things. Too much material and/or not well-organized in teachable, learnable steps.
  2. Vague. The content that the teacher wants students to deliver isn’t completely clear in her own mind. It seems clear—she wants to teach characterization, and we’ve all read a short story, and we’re discussing it—but she doesn’t have a way to teach how to do characterization down cold yet. Her lecture is loose, rambling, unfocused. Student comments are all over the place. Mission creep.
  3. Static.  There’s simply not enough happening in the class. Students are passive. No lightbulb moments. We’re lost in dim light.


I’ve been thinking a lot about what it is we can do to prepare a foolproof lesson. And I offer this recipe, based on years of designing and teaching my own creative writing classes and watching others prepare and teach.

  1. Big picture. Read your class goals and learning objectives. What is it you are actually trying to teach students this semester?  Take a step back from the text and focus on exactly what it is you want them to learn, overall, and then learn specifically, today.
  2. Goal and objective. Come up with some words for what it is the students are going to know at the end of this hour that they didn’t know before they came into the class. Goal: What will they have learned? Objective: What will they now be able to do? Check in: is this goal and objective something that is possible to learn in an hour? Is it clear? Super clear?
  3. Vocabulary.  Make a list of the new terms they will learn--a helpful way to keep your lesson on track.


Now that you have a sense of how your hour fits into the flow of your overall course, and a specific objective for today, and an outline for your content, it’s time to think about the structure of the hour—the courses you’ll serve your guest.


You probably use some or all of the following approaches in your classroom—lecture, discussion, guided close reading, peer group response, workshop, quizzing, and in class writing. Instead of staying locked in a usual pattern, take a moment to step back and figure out the best way for students to learn this new concept you are bringing them today.  For example, if you are going over a short story in the textbook, hoping to teach characterization, and you typically start with “discussion”, consider what it is you really want students to learn.  Four ways of rendering character? How dialogue reveals character? How to create a composite character? Or are you really teaching close reading: how to read and understand subtleties of character?

    4. Chunk.  Think in terms of 20 minute chunks. Break your class into 20 minute sections—that’s about how long students can productively focus on one thing, processing, memorizing, learning. When you look at your goal for this lesson, how could you break it into two 20 minute chunks?  For a lesson on characterization, for the first twenty minutes, you could show them the three most important aspects of the technique, in the story assigned for that day, and then have them, in discussion, find more examples. Or, after you show them the technique in 10 minutes, they could write examples of their own in ten minutes.  For your second 20 minute chunk, you’ll need to build on this in a logical way. Maybe they’re revising a story from last week in class, incorporating the three new techniques.  If you teach a fifty minute class, this gives you ten minutes to sum up, review, and assign the next lesson’s homework.

Those four strategies—big picture, clear goal for the lesson, new vocabulary, and chunking—give you one model for planning class. There are lots of ways to design a wonderful class; these are just some principles. Take what’s useful.


One last thought. Recently, I took a screenwriting workshop with storied Robert McKee (it was life-changing!) and I was struck by how much planning a class has in common with writing a screenplay. In a screenplay, every ten minutes, something needs to happen. I’ve been breaking my class prep down into ten minute sections and noting in the margins of my lesson plan what the take-home is for those ten minutes. That gives me an at-a-glance “menu” for the hour, and I write that menu on the board, reinforcing the teachings and also keeping me and my students on track.

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About the Author
Heather Sellers (PhD, Florida State University) is professor of English at the University of South Florida in Tampa, Florida, where she teaches graduate and undergraduate creative writing in children's literature, poetry, and non-fiction. She won the student-chosen professor of the year award at Hope College, where she gave the commencement address. Her textbook for the multi-genre course is The Practice of Creative Writing, which will appear next year in its third edition. A recipient of a National Endowment for the Arts Fellowship for Fiction, she's published two books on creating an inspiring and happy writing life, Page after Page and Chapter after Chapter, as well as a children's book, two books of poetry and three chapbooks, along with Georgia Under Water, a collection of short stories. Her essays have appeared in The New York Times, The London Daily Telegraph, Reader’s Digest, Good Housekeeping, O,the Oprah Magazine, and The Sun, as well as Prairie Schooner and Alaska Quarterly Review. She's currently at work on a new manuscript of poems and a novel for younger readers, set in Florida, her home state. She’s an avid cyclist and kayaker.