Teachers at Work
A column about teaching
Y'All Want This Party Started, Right?
Teachers, are you having trouble finding a way to set the proper tone for an interactive writing class? Writing teacher Margaret Hundley Parker has tips for starting things off on the right foot.
Since an unresponsive class gives me the howling fantods, I force my students to talk on the first day. My college writing classes depend on student participation—I expect them to discuss assigned literature, read their work out loud, and ask questions. Lots of questions. So after a brief introduction, I have my students lie to each other in an interview. Yes, I make them fib.
The first day of class feels about as true as a game show anyway—we're all dressed up, searching for the right classroom. What's behind door number two? My writing class? No! Figure drawing, try again. I have taught college classes in labs where I couldn't see my students over the giant sewing machines on each desk, so you never know. When I had a piano in my classroom, I had fantasies about setting grammar lessons to song (like the class I'd love to take at UNC), but a teacher next door complained that we were too rowdy even before we took the cover off the piano. (I guess some classes do require quiet!)
My class is often the students' first of the semester, so all introduction-type activities are fair game. The interview that gets them talking is a variation on Two Truths and a Lie: I have students interview each other, tell one lie in their answers, then introduce their partners to the class and we have to figure out what the lie is.
This works with all kinds of students: the nervous struggling writers get to relax because I'm not bludgeoning them with cold hard facts (yet), and the professional-writers-to-be get to work on their interview skills in case Rolling Stone calls and asks them to interview M.I.A. And although some freshmen have already bonded during orientation via high jinx I don't want to know about, most of them don't know each other and are shy about discussing their writing strengths and weaknesses. (Although I do have other ways to get that info—I hit them with a diagnostic test after the interviews to make sure everyone's on the same page.)
For this interview, a few guidelines suffice. A more detailed discussion about interview skills comes later. For now, everyone takes a minute and writes down four or five questions to ask their partner, from the basic name, hometown stuff to quirkier questions like If you could have dinner with anyone living or dead who would it be and why? I advise them to skip bland questions like how many siblings a person has, and to not ask questions with yes/no answers, such as Do you like school? Yes. Bo-ring. Next question.
The person being interviewed tells one lie but doesn't reveal what it is to her partner. An example of a lame lie is My brother's name isn't David, it's Jonathan. That might seem hilarious to the person whose brother's name is Jonathan, but not to anyone else. I remind students that most of us know nothing about them at all—something to keep in mind when writing, too. Don't assume your reader knows what you know.
I give them about five minutes to awkwardly turn their chair to the partner I've given them and start asking questions, write down answers, then switch. When I first started doing this, if there was an odd number, I'd be someone's partner but I stopped that. I had to get out the sandbox.
I've tried the partner interview without the secret lie, but students often zone out during the introductions. With the lie, there's something at stake, so they tune in. Zealous teachers could keep track and award the person who identifies the most correct lies, but I haven't tried that.
Although one minute of silence in a classroom feels like eight days, it's important to give the students time to answer. It's very hard for many of us to let questions hang in the air, yet if we jump to fill in every blank, the students won't. In this case, I often have to wait them out, so when someone guesses that She has a blue car is the lie, I want to scream Do you really think she was a backup dancer for Lady Gaga?! But I usually hold my tongue and let the class suss it out.
This exercise won't necessarily transform a quiet group into a boisterous one, but at least I've gotten to know them a little better, which helps me remember their names. Practice identifying their lies can come in handy, too, around midterm when students' grandparents start "dying" in rapid succession.
Margaret Hundley Parker's work has been published in the New York Times Book Review, Time Out New York, Oxygen.com, Bust and performed at the North Carolina Literary Festival, CBGBs, and the 24-Hour Plays, to name a few. She has been an editor at FIT magazine and Road & Travel. Her book, the KISS Guide to Fitness, was published in 2002 by Dorling Kindersley. She has an MFA in Writing from Sarah Lawrence College. She teaches writing at the Fashion Institute of Technology, the Pratt Institute, and through the Teachers & Writers Collaborative.