Convincing Beginning Poets They Are Makers: Or, Ways to Sidestep Pitfall #4

I found it very difficult to choose a Pitfall, since they all seem interconnected, and since I can identify ways in which I fall for or resist almost all of them in my teaching. However, I think Online Course Design Pitfall #4: Expect your students to consume knowledge rather than create it is most relevant to the hybrid course I’m developing: a beginning level poetry writing workshop.

Since students in a poetry workshop are asked to create things that never existed before, you would think the students would be the key knowledge creators.  Poems are as unique as fingerprints, and embody very particular characteristics of a person’s response to the world. However, I find that students put less emphasis on understanding and appreciating what they and others have made, than on whether they “got the assignment right,” whether I like it or approve of it, and how their performance compares to other students’ performances. In fact, the parameters of each poem assignment, designed to expose students to an incrementally more challenging set of skills, can result in paralysis; students simply don’t know where to start, second-guess themselves until they are completely exhausted, turn out poems that competently execute the required skills but are somehow not “alive,” or wait for the class (or my) “seal of approval” before they embrace what they’ve made and really commit to it.

Another challenge is that students come to this class with radically different levels of ability and experience. This means that there are often a few “stars” and a few students who really struggle, or feel that they do. It’s therefore quite difficult to make the workshop a noncompetitive zone. To an extent, I’ve developed prompts and assignments with basic parameters to level the playing field a bit. Each poem assignment requires a few key skills; for instance, the poem must feature a stanza structure, rich sound play, and must speak in a “voice” or persona different from the student’s own. This tends to ensure that students can execute at least one skill well. However, this approach can tumble into Pitfall #4, in which the professor is the task-master and chief arbiter of whether the student has mastered the skill.

One idea that I’ve been entertaining is giving them more control over some of the poem assignments or exercises; for instance, in a given unit that focuses on sound play, I might ask them to collaborate to create a menu of low-stakes poem prompts/exercises that feature sound play, which will allow them to select prompts they can better relate to, or which speak to their strengths. These exercises might lead, in fact, to poems that fulfill the basic requirements for the given poem unit. I’ve used this exercise-generation approach in graduate poetry classes, justifying it in part because these grad students do, in their second year, teach introductory poetry writing, and this approach allows them to “practice teach.” But I think it might be an effective approach for beginners, too.

I’m also interested in developing more of a “gallery” approach to workshop, in which students first submit their work in a way that is similar to a gallery display, even providing an “artist’s statement.” By doing this as a first step before actually workshopping or critiquing the poem, perhaps we can shift some emphasis to the simple but very important question “what did I make” (rather than “did it fulfill the assignment” or “is it any good?”). The students can experience what the class makes through a “what is it and how does it work” lens first, celebrating the work before turning attention to areas where it falls outside the parameters of the assignment or begs for improvement. In a class like this, where revision is required and thus there is an assumption of fine-tuning and adjustment, I think this approach would work well. And it will emphasize that the students are makers, first and foremost.

However, I have no idea what technologies are available (perhaps a blog is my best bet) to make such a gallery possible.  Does anyone have any suggestions? In my graduate classes, we often simply tape up poems on the classroom walls, especially if they are the result of a somewhat risky exercise or experiment, where the writer is trying something outside his or her comfort zone. But, as you can imagine, almost everything a beginning poet writes in outside his or her comfort zone!

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