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Experiments in Teaching Writing #4: To teach is to fly

Co-written with Douglas Adams: "Life, the Universe, and Everything", copyright 1982

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I haven’t published anything in a couple of weeks. The last thing I wrote about was learning from failure

I haven’t finished anything since, so I thought I’d tell a tale of success and for that I go back to my “Experiments in Writing” series…

Might have been at my best ‘teacher-artiste’ today because the ‘teacher’ got out of the way and I was just being helpful me…

The Hitchhiker’s Guide to the Galaxy has this to say on the subject of flying. There is an art, it says, or, rather, a knack to flying. The knack lies in learning how to throw yourself at the ground and miss. The first part is easy. …

How do I conduct this class and miss the boredom?


Dogme, DHT, CLT, CLL, Behaviorism, TBL, Process-genre writing: It’s all good and it’s all useful… and it all depends on the moment.  Don’t we all pick and choose from our repertoire? Aren’t we better with a bigger repertoire?

It was 1:05. I had less than hour to prep my writing class today, which is just how I like it. Ugh. In-previous-semesters dreadfully dull “persuasive paragraph” course module. Googled back over to readwritethink for their handout. Boring as this module was, it was essential for success on the standard end-of-year exam,  I just needed a topic for them to be persuasive about. Typically students go through practice exam topics, but ugh. So old.

Most people fail to miss the ground, and if they are really trying properly, the likelihood is that they will fail to miss it fairly hard…. Clearly, it is the second part, the missing, which presents the difficulties. One problem is that you have to miss the ground accidentally. It’s no good deliberately intending to miss the ground because you won’t.

I don’t do ‘boring’ anymore. Largely due to my prior experiments with Twitter and a class blog, and a commitment to keeping the writing as communicative and genuine as possible, I had accidentally gotten these guys to take to me, and I figured there was some other way to spin this — I just couldn’t sort it. I was printing the Persuasion Maps at 1:20 when a colleague emailed me: holidays would wipe out the next week of classes after today. Huh. “University Foundation Day”. How ironic. In honor of the University’s birthday, we’ll deprive everyone of their classes that day. Oh well. makes my days next week lighter. Then I found some persuasive paragraph topics, adapted them slightly, and put two of them on the class website as an assignment to be done during the extended holiday. 1:45. Headed out for class across campus. We only had fifty minutes to make the form clear, generate a model, and send them home able to be reasonably successful with a first draft of the homework.

I arrived three minutes early. Empty classroom. Fired up the computer and downloaded Chrome (don’t ask), opened the blog and the readwritethink link above. Greeted students as they came in. We arranged the furniture to our liking. Wrote “Persua/de/sion /sive on the board. Head kinda foggy. I distributed the handout. Looked around. Asked them to tell me the good news. One or two of them, caught on, mentioned Buddha’s Birthday. I asked them if that was all. They looked at each otyher, trying to make sense of what I’d said. Eventually one of them mentioned university birthday. Smiles all around. They had just realized they had two holidays in the next week. Then it came to me, and I threw myself at the ground.

You have to have your attention suddenly distracted by something else when you’re halfway there, so that you are no longer thinking about falling, or about the ground, or about how much it’s going to hurt if you fail to miss it.

I told them we were having class on the Foundation Day, because I was worried about their chances of passing the exam if they missed so much class. I sold it. Did my best Ah-nold. They protested, some thinking I was serious. I told them if they could (gesturing to the handout) persuade me, I’d cancel class next week. They needed to come up with three good reasons.

And we were flying. I could see the penny drop.  Several had mentioned the exam in their emails to me. I mentioned that this kind of writing is one of the exam tasks, and it can always look the same. We glided back and forth between pairwork, freestyle, and whole class formations. Flapped our wings through the same old topic, reasons and details structure, tied in linking devices. Strengthened and developed their language offerings… but pretty much everyone soared over the topic and paragraph form for the rest of the class…one graceful flock.

When you have done this a few times you will find the moment of distraction rapidly becomes easier and easier to achieve. You will then learn all sorts of things about how to control your flight, your speed, your maneuverability, and the trick usually lies in not thinking too hard about whatever you do, but just allowing it to happen as if it were going to anyway.

Can’t we just agree that it’s all about the conversation?

The point is, the conversation was great. It was current, relevant, and we all shared responsibility for it, mostly in English but occasionally with Korean asides, and yet academic and part of the plan, exam/syllabus-focused. It was ENTIRELY based on emergent language, and looking back in my head I still see 10 of 14 students volunteering ideas and improvements. With each offering I pushed them deeper, challenging them to locate more appropriate or developed phrasing. Nearly all of them were genuinely interested to improve on what they were producing, and they were engaged in the struggle to come up with three good reasons to skip class on the Uni’s birthday. I used a handout from an education website to help them visualize the organization of an otherwise fairly alien paragraph form. We stopped for a moment and did the hands-as-mouth pronunciation drilling technique from another post because we were having trouble producing the final “s” in “insists”, due to the tongue/teeth coordination issues.

So again: Dogme, DHT, CLT, CLL, Behaviorism, TBL, Process-genre writing: It’s all good and it’s all useful… and it all depends on the moment.  Don’t we all pick and choose from our repertoire? Aren’t we better with a bigger repertoire? Just before the end of class we looked at the homework together, saw how the writing tasks provided opportunities to recycle writing skills and forms we’ve already practiced in this persuasive form, and left renewed. All of us. Seriously. And no, I don’t need to conduct a survey (this time) to confirm that. Might have been the best class of the year.

There are private flying clubs you can join which help you achieve the all-important moment of distraction. They hire people with surprising bodies or opinions to leap out from behind bushes and exhibit and/or explain them at the critical moments. Few genuine hitchhikers will be able to afford to join these clubs, but some may be able to get temporary employment at them.


Experiments in Teaching Writing #4: To teach is to fly

Comments (4)

  1. It’s really cool when this happens and I believe it’s a result of having a large repertoire AND experience, which you didn’t mention.

    Thanks for sharing! Glad to hear GEP is fun again.

  2. Getting them to actively be rhetorical is an awesome strategy. I like to do it at the end of the semester specifically. When they petition me about grades I tell them that they have to use the principles of rhetoric they’ve learned throughout the semester to convince me to give them whatever grade they want, and they either try really hard or give up because they know they have missed the point of the class. It helps them understand why rhetoric is useful in real life though.

    • Hi Corinne, years and years ago I asked high school students to negotiate grades with me, and it was one of the best things ever. It’s a bit tougher to imagine in my current context, but I’m trying to move things more in that direction. Thanks for reminding me of this. I would love to come at it one days from rhetorical skills practice angle.

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I'm in this for the dialogue :-)

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