I love it when students surprise me

In my Comp 1 class last semester I made a wonderful discovery…

One of my students, Taylor, was a doodler. I noticed right away that she was always drawing something… everything was inspiration for her. By the end of our very first class meeting, her copy of the syllabus was covered with little scenes taken from snippets of conversation and discussion during the class.

In September I assigned a reading in class on the World Trade Center. The accompanying worksheet came back with a wonderful illustration of the NYC skyline  – sketched out in pencil and blue ink. I began to look forward to every homework assignment Taylor turned in, and we had more than a few conversations about her artwork and interpretations of various images, discussions, and texts.

I was very happy when I saw that she signed up for my Comp 2 class this semester.

Our first unit of the semester was on poetry. Technically, I’m not a fan of giving comprehensive exams in a writing course – I find them counterproductive in a class that is supposed to be based on writing. But it’s required, so I make a bit of an adjustment to the typical “Unit Test”.

I treat the exam as an extensive Homework assignment. I give them a week to complete it. A few multiple choice questions, but mainly short answer based on analysis of poems from the text that we did not go over in class. The danger with this approach is that the students simply use the internet and don’t actually think about the poem they are writing about. They let themselves be led by the nose because they are, as HS has taught them, concerned about being “Right.” Personally, I don’t care about “Right” and “Wrong” when it comes to interpretation. I care about “Supported”, “Unsupported”, and the “Expression” of their interpretation. Remember, this isn’t a Lit course. It’s a Composition course.

To combat the internet problem, I have taken to giving the students an unpublished poem with no author credited. I’ve used poems of friends, but mainly I stick with something that I’ve written without telling the students I wrote it. Typically I ask students to, in paragraph form, first paraphrase the poem and then analyze it. This semester I used a sonnet that I wrote a dozen years ago or so.

Now, I don’t consider myself much of a poet. I use poetry as writing exercises to help me focus on specific elements and devices for my fiction and non-fiction. It’s fun, and exhausting, and intensive, and – most often – infuriating, and I think it makes me a better writer even if I’m not very “good” at it.

Below, with Taylor’s permission, is what she submitted with her unit test. I was – AM – floored.

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It’s a wonderful interpretation. It’s unique. It’s creative. It translates some elements of the poem while adding new elements missing from the text of the poem.

It’s inspiring.

See how that works? This is what I try to teach. Inspiration breeds inspiration. Creativity breeds creativity.

If you allow yourself to be affected, you will, in turn, affect others.

A bit of a brag…

So today, for the first time as a “playwright”, I sat through a private cold-reading of a play I’ve been composing off-and-on for about 3 years. A colleague arranged it with a couple of actors from the school.

I was terrified. I don’t think my hands stopped shaking throughout the entire reading. And when it was over…

I was exhilarated.

For months I’ve thought it was missing something, but I could never put my finger on what that something might be. I was right. It was missing someone’s voice aside from my own. All that shaking and terror and gut-churning were laid to rest when, during the little question-and-answer session afterwards, one of the actors turned to me and said…

“I want this role.”

And just like that, my weekend was made. Hell, my year was made!

A huge thank you to the actors for agreeing to come in on your own time to read (since they are students, I am hesitant to put their names up here – thank you FERPA – but I’ll edit them in when/if I confirm it’s ok to do so). You were gracious in your criticism and spectacular in your reading. And thank you to David LeMaster for arranging the whole thing, as well.

Next step, a few edits, then find a director for a staged reading and more critiques!

Sunday Sounds

This entry is part 1 of 15 in the series Sunday Sounds

Anyone who’s spent more than 10 or 15 minutes with me knows that Rush is my favorite band – always have been, always will be. They’re coming to town in a few weeks, and I’m just a wee bit excited. It’s been roughly 25 years since I’ve seen them.

So perhaps it goes without saying… I’ve been on a Rush kick for the last 30 days. I set my alarm to play the opening of Tom Sawyer every morning. I’ve built about 4 different playlists on the iPhone comprised of nothing but Rush tunes. I’ve set the MacBook to launch into a randomized list of every Rush track I own – 234 MP3s. So many I don’t have (insert dreamy and slightly dejected sigh here). And right now I’m listening to one of their albums on YouTube.

Yeah, I’m crazed.

It’s tough to think of which song to share. A classic that everyone knows, like Tom Sawyer? Red Barchetta, one of the greatest story-songs of all time? And I can’t forget about 2112, the SciFi themed rock-opera phenom from the 1976 (and perhaps my favorite album of all time), or Rivendell, their oft-criticized nod towards fantasy-themed art of all types.

I know… I’ll share one that I think not many of you will know. It’s one of my favorites off their  1996 album Test For Echo which hearkens back to their sound of the early and mid 80s.

Hope you enjoy!

Aaaaaand they’re off! NaNoWriMo gets underway

National Novel Writing Month kicked off today, and, once again, I am not participating. Instead, I send out hearty cheers and unending support for my many friends who are going for the gold. If you’ve ever thought you have a story in you, now is the perfect time to commit to getting it out there. The community is terrific, supportive, and eager to help you on your way. And even though they have “winners” (those that complete the 50,000 words over the course of the month get a shiny badge for their website), I’m of the opinion that even just attempting it is a significant accomplishment. I’ve done it a few times in the past (the first time I tried I failed in a rather spectacular fashion – I think I gave up after about 10,000 words), but I’ve learned that being a teacher and trying to write 50,000 words in a month does not make for a happy Robb. And an unhappy Robb means 137 unhappy students which makes Robb even more unhappy. And we all want a happy Robb, especially Robb’s 137 students, who will have as many as 4 writing assignments being graded this month. By Robb, of course, which means very little time to throw 1300 words a day onto a page with any semblance of creativity or structure.

Plus, I have a writing schedule anyway. While it’s not what I do full-time, I do consider myself a professional writer so I keep a fairly strict schedule of when I do and don’t write. Granted, since the cross-country relocation in August for a full-time teaching gig it’s been more “don’t” than “do”, but I’m still writing when I can and letting other things fall by the wayside – like eating and sleeping… you know, those things that just get in the way when you have 26 hours of work to cram into a 24 hour day.

That said, I do think the idea of NaNoWriMo is a fine thing, so I’ve decided to modify it for my own uses. Rather focus daily on my current WIP (which has been relegated to weekend work while I figure out my new schedule), I’m going to focus on the blog, which was one of the first things I let fall by the wayside while I tried to get settled into my new digs. I suppose we could call it Robb’s Blog Month, but RoBloMo sounds kind of dirty, so I just think I’ll call it “Blog Today, Dammit” on my schedule.

In order to squeeze it in, I’ve cut out a number of other things, most significantly the time spent with various social media outlets. I’ve got a whole post planned about that, though, so suffice it to say for now that I’ve all but eliminated everything except G+ from my daily routine. That should free up at least 30 minutes to an hour a day for your reading, and my writing, enjoyment.

And there you have it… the first 501 words of RoBloMo! (yeah… I really need to find a new acronym)