This is How You Do It: Require a Process Blog

Teaching

I want to get back to my series of posts about how to do it: concrete ideas about how to change the default setting of the creative writing classroom so that Big Things can be brought to the table.

I want to highlight this post from a former student of mine, creative nonfiction writer Amy Whipple. She talks about her experience in my workshop Spring 2010, a semester in which I tried a variety of things to help my students to move from “story” to “book.”

Idea: require students to keep a “process blog.”

Yep. That's the gang sign for "blog."

As Amy says:

“We kept a class blog where each of us posted our project proposal and charted our progress and our process. (This alone was great.) And then I got to see how it went over to get fifty pages of a classmate’s work in a classroom setting.”

You can read the rest of her post here. And if you love television the way Amy loves television, then you should follow her blog, too.

Thank you, Amy. I look forward to reading your big thing.

FAQ

Teaching

So Cathy, what happened? How did your students do?

I’m so sorry it’s taken me awhile to update you! The end of NaNo is also the end of the semester, a busy time, as I’m sure you know.

Okay: FINAL RESULTS.

15 students

12 reached 50,000 words. Four of 12 started October 1. Everyone who started October 1 finished. Eight of 12 started November 1 and also finished. Most spent the month/s writing toward the novel they planned to write, but a few students started writing towards another project when one idea petered out.

Three did not reach 50,000 words. One came within 5,000 words. Another came within 12,000 words. Another stopped generating new words at the midway point and started revising.

So did the students who failed to reach 50,000 get a bad grade?

No.

The 12 students who reached 50,000 words got full credit, 100 points. The students who did not reach 50,000 did not get full credit, but still received 90 points, an A-.

When I created the syllabus, I made “NaNoWriMo Completion” worth just 10% of their grade. I wanted their NaNo performance to be about something other than Writing for the Grade.

However, I did not reveal how many points they would receive out of 100 if they “lost” NaNo either.

Honestly, about midway through the month, I expected the students who were falling behind to pin me down on this. “Professor Day? If I don’t reach 50,000 words, how many points will I get? If I only get halfway, will you give me 50 points? Zero points?” But, to their credit, they never asked me, so I didn’t talk about it. I just kept saying, Keep trying. Keep going.

Did they write from scratch, as NaNo encourages?

Yes and no. It was up to each student. Some students started from absolute scratch, others wrote towards ideas and plots and characters that had been germinating for awhile. One student said,

I pulled out a stack of short stories I wrote in high school. Each was short, no more than five pages double-spaced and they concerned a high school student living in California with her lawyer mother and her socialite aunt. Since I was already familiar with each character, and since a novel concerning the three had been marinating in my head for years (I even based a half-finished screenplay on my stories once) I deemed this a feasible world to write about.

What kind of novels did they write?

One wrote a novel of psychological and aesthetic realism, akin to What’s Eating Gilbert Grape and The Outsiders. One wrote an epistolary novel akin to The Perks of Being a Wallflower (which we read as a class) and Go Ask Alice (her favorite book). The rest wrote some form of genre fiction. There were many speculative, science fiction stories about time travel, the mind and identity, dystopian futures. There was some fantasy. There was mystery and suspense. Two students ended up writing toward nonfiction projects rather than fictional ones: one student worked on a memoir, an account of a trip he’d taken to another country, and the other wrote worked on an immersion memoir, an account of her November preparation for a very important qualification exam.

So, how well did they write? Did they cheat?

On December 1, each student sent me the Word doc file that contained all their NaNo writing. I opened each file, scrolled around a bit to make sure that all the words were legitimately theirs-not cut and pasted text from Wikipedia. All of it was legit. The quality varied widely from somewhat unreadable, very rough (my own 50,000 words could be described as such) to very readable, very decent prose, which is incredible considering how fast they were going. This “readability” quality seemed to depend on how much thinking/planning/writing they’d already done toward the project, but ultimately, readability and writing quality were not the desired outcomes anyway.

So, if you’re not grading the quality of their writing, what the heck are you grading?

Here’s the breakdown:

Process Blog : 20%
Book Report 1 : 20%
Book Report 2 : 20%
Participation : 20%
NaNoWriMo Completion : 10%
Revision of NaNoWriMo piece 10%

What is a Process Blog?

Simply, it’s a class blog where students chart their progress transparently. They don’t just talk to me. They talk to each other. Over the last few years, I’ve been introducing emerging media technologies into many of my classes. This has been a significant ongoing project: integrating into my teaching practices the lessons I’m learning as a working writer in the 21st century. Blackboard allows me to create a closed social media environment that builds camaraderie and community, a fertile environment for risk taking among students. You might ask why not use Blogger or WordPress so that you could “follow” our process discussion? Interesting in theory, but I think asking students to post to an open blog rather than a closed one might change what they say, what they write about, what they’d be willing to share.

From my syllabus:

Imagine that each of you has requested to work with me on an independent study project, a Big Thing. I want you to write a description of your project, a faux independent study proposal, and the Process Blog is a virtual meeting place, a transparent journal, a think space where you’ll post, update, and maintain information related to your project. Every week or so, you will be required to check in with the process blog and take stock. “What did I do this week toward my project?” The process blog is the place you go to talk to me (and everyone else) about your project and your process.

What is a Book Report?

These reports were worth a combined 40% of their grade, and thus, much was expected. Each report involved a four-step process in which students create their own learning activity.

  1. The first step: Identify the technique you want to study, something you struggle with and know you need to focus on. Creating emotionally complex characters. Transitioning between scenes and chapters. Structuring a plot over X number of days/weeks/months/years. Creating suspense which leads to a “surprise ending” that actually works. Grounding dialogue so that it’s organically integrated into the scenes.
  2. The next step I call “Taking Note” in which you don’t just passively read the book, but also take notes as you read-in the book or on your own. It helps you notice things you don’t always notice while “just reading” and helps you identify and mark patterns, rhythms, recurring motifs, echoes, chronology, the passage of time, the introduction of characters and ongoing subplots, themes, conflicts, characters.
  3. Next, they write what I call a craft analysis (3-6 pages) that responds to these prompts: What did I learn about X from reading this book? How can I apply it to my own writing or to my reading of the work of others? Why did the author approach X this way and not another way? How would different narrative decisions produce different effects?
  4. The last step is to produce a visual aid, an artifact that represents your physical interaction with the book. An outline, storyboard, collage. A transcription to get the “feel” for the style or voice. You should do whatever you think will be useful. This is shared with the class-because what you find might help someone else, because what you find might help us read your work better

What books did your students read?

Haven Kimmel, A Girl Named Zippy

Haven Kimmel, Something Rising (Light and Swift)

Stephen Chbosky, The Perks of Being a Wallflower

Jack Kerouac, On the Road

+ one book of their choice

Haven Kimmel is a native Hoosier and a Ball State alum, and so it was really amazing to have her visit campus right before NaNo. A Girl Named Zippy provided a good model of a non-linear narrative, a way to write a novel as a collage rather than as a straight line. I chose the Chbosky book because the subject matter is “relatable,” it’s got a discrete timeline (one school year), and it’s got what my colleague Matt Mullins calls “Two Plots,” the suspense plot (the scenes that dramatize Charlie’s life and build tension) and the emotional plot (the internal character arc, the change Charlie undergoes). I’ve already talked about using Kerouac here.

Also: each student was allowed to pick a book that most directly matched their particular needs for their NaNo project.

What did your classroom look like day to day, week to week, month to month?

We spent most of September and October discussing the assigned books. If you had walked past my classroom on most days, you would have thought it was a typical English class. But I set aside a few class periods as “Studio Days,” time devoted to students working individually or in small groups on their Book Report or NaNo Prep. On some Studio Days, I provided focused prompts and we typed, generating character profiles and short scenes. Some days, we simply “sprinted” just to gauge how fast or how slow we tended to write, depending on the circumstances. Studio Days helped us acclimate to writing in that room with each other.

During November, the class became a writeshop. Students signed the attendance sheet, checked in with me to update their word count, listened to my announcements, and then spent the hour typing furiously. Once, I surprised them and asked to see the words they’d generated that day, which they sent in an email. But for the most part, I removed myself from their writing process. I wanted them to turn off their Internal Editor, that pesky voice in your head that leads to writer’s block. I wanted them to write for their own pleasure and edification. I did not want to be a voice in their head until December.

On December 1, they turned what remained of their energy toward producing a good first chapter or excerpt of 10-25 pages. They gave this excerpt, along with a novel synopsis, to their peer group (three people) and spent time “workshopping” each other’s novels and talking about what to do next. I read over all these excerpts very quickly-two days with about 150 pages-and provided one or two suggestions about how to polish the excerpt further.

Now what happens?

Tomorrow, December 13, 2010 at 4:30 is their scheduled final exam. They will post these synopses and excerpts to the Process Blog. The process isn’t over. They haven’t written novels yet, and they understand that. But those polished pages do represent a milestone, and as anyone who has ever written a novel or run a marathon can tell you, milestones are pretty powerful things.

Next post: “No More NaNo.” Why I won’t be “doing NaNo” again. Not officially, at least.

“Workshop” to “Writing Group”

Teaching


I love what Peter Turchi has to say about workshop here. This and Madison Smartt Bell’s introduction to Narrative Design have really informed my thinking about how I teach workshops.

When I’m teaching a workshop in which students are sharing “big things,” I ask them to read Turchi’s essay, especially this part:

The first step in preparing to discuss another writer’s draft is to try to identify the work’s intention. This is much more challenging than it might sound. It’s difficult to truly suspend our own tastes; it’s also difficult to identify with any confidence the intention of a work that isn’t fully realized (especially since the author might not have a clear intention, yet). But we need to try; and we need to be patient in doing that before we start talking about any specific scene or character or line of dialogue or description. (Far too often, workshop discussions are devoted to a few details at the expense of the whole.)


How do we recognize the intention of a work in progress? When students are workshopping stand-alone short stories, my mantra is: The story must speak for itself. But when students are workshopping big things, I think it’s okay (and necessary) for the author to speak on behalf of the manuscript. Not during the workshop itself, which causes much awkwardness, but before class, outside class.

Idea: require students to use the Blackboard learning environment to create a process blog about their big thing. Ask each writer to articulate the larger goals of the project, its structure, the character’s overall arc, the possible chapters to come, where things are going.

Another idea: require students to turn in their pages presented like a book manuscript: cover page with title and contact information, table of contents, epigraph, even maps and photographs, if they wish. I teach them to use the abbreviation “TK,” the printing reference that signifies that additional material will be added at a later date. If they think their book will be comprised of eight stories, but they’ve only written two and a half and the other five are still in their heads, I tell them, yes, it’s okay to give us two and a half stories, to give us placeholder titles, maybe even short synopses of what is “to come.” Basically, they need to teach us how to read their book. We need to know: are we reading stand alone stories, related stories, or a novel?

This approach often shifts the default setting of the class from “workshop” to “writing group.