Today’s guest post is from Christina Gil, a veteran high school English teacher who recently left the classroom to follow a dream and move her family to an ecovillage in rural Missouri. Christina believes that teaching creative writing helps students excel on standardized tests, that deeply analyzing and unpacking a poem is a fabulous way to spend an hour or so, and that Shakespeare is always better with sound effects. When she is not hauling water to her tiny home, she can be found homeschooling her two kids or meeting with her neighbors about the best way to run their village.
One of my defining moments as a teacher happened sometime around 2004. Another teacher in my department who was retiring that year said that she would never let a student make a fool out of her in her last year as a teacher.
And I remember thinking that my willingness to make a fool of myself on a daily basis is probably my biggest strength as a teacher. If I can laugh at myself, then I am comfortable with my own faults, and I also get to know my students better when I open myself up to ridicule this way.
But it’s not always easy to incorporate humor into what we are actually studying–if you don’t get Jane Austen, you think it’s 300 pages about people going for walks and drinking tea. Getting students to write funny pieces is even harder, unless they are naturally funny, but most kids don’t feel comfortable making themselves vulnerable.
And of course, exposing some part of yourself to your reader is the key to meaningful writing.
Three years ago, I was teaching a composition class, and I had already had some success with students writing about themselves. We had already done a personal essay and a descriptive essay, and I was starting to get to know them fairly well. But when it was time to write a process essay, I was gearing up for a boring few weeks—essays about how to change a flat tire or how to make a peanut butter sandwich may be important, but they’re not exactly personal.
We were going over a few examples of process essays, and one of them was called “How To Escape From a Bad Date.” I read it out loud to my classes, and they thought it was hilarious.
And then I thought, what if we write humorous essays as well?
I had been following The Onion for a while, and occasionally sharing especially pointed or relevant essays with my classes. We looked at a few more examples together, discussing the format as well as the social commentary of the pieces. A piece, titled How The College Admissions Process Works went over well, since the class was made up of seniors. And a video that had popped up on my Facebook feed the day before called How To Be Gluten Intolerant was lots of fun. Because I had a fairly sophisticated class that year, they also thought that Lorrie Moore’s short story “How to Become a Writer” was the greatest thing they had ever read.
I have since done this assignment with three more classes, and I follow the same process more or less.
For the prewriting, I instruct students to make two lists. The first is of trivial things that annoy them—people who chew with their mouths open or kids who walk slowly in the halls or when people call their cell phones instead of texting.
The next step is to make a list of bigger issues—things like people who are inconsiderate or a lack of freedom in schools or, as with one student last year, the way that kids are overmedicated for ADD symptoms.
At this point, students are usually extremely engaged and ready to start writing.
Then they start writing the ironic process essay. The essay is written as a how-to, with second person instructions as if it were a straight recipe or guide to building a treehouse. Except that all of the instructions are actually the opposite of the desired behavior. So, the first step to being a considerate student might be something like “When you walk into class, make sure to shake your iced coffee and slurp it loudly so that everyone knows that you stopped at Dunkin Donuts on the way to school” or if the topic is How To Get Your Essay Done On Time, then the first step might be something like “Get out the assignment for the essay, turn your computer on, and spend the next thirty minutes taking a new profile picture for your Instagram account.” Students usually have a fairly easy time thinking of examples, and the first day or so of writing goes quickly.
Soon they start trading essays, sharing ideas, and doing spontaneous peer conferences and brainstorming sessions.
The difference here is that they are writing to make someone laugh whereas just about every other assignment they write–no matter what kind of real world application I might have tried to attach to it–they were writing for their teacher. They knew that I would have to read their essays, that it was my job to do it, and, perhaps most importantly, that they wouldn’t be there when the essays were read.
What They Learn
The lessons that they learned usually went in this order–though not every student learned every lesson. That’s another wonderful piece of the writing workshop; it was truly differentiated learning.
- Peer conferences are actually helpful. The most important step of a peer conference the way that I have students do it is that they listen to their piece read out loud to them. They get a whole new perspective this way, and they want to start making changes to their essays.
- Shorter is better sometimes. Students usually have little to no experience cutting from their own writing—they are used to stretching and adding to reach a minimum word count or number of pages. But the best funny writing is not drawn out. So they start to make their piece punchier, and it starts to get even more funny.
- All good ironic how-to’s (just like all good writing in general) have to build. If the best, most biting, funniest step is the first one, then it just doesn’t work. And since they really really want to be funny, they start rearranging their steps and thinking about organization and structure. (Something that I have probably been begging them to notice in the past.)
- All good writing has a point. They may have started out writing a silly piece about how to make an iced coffee the way they like it, but at this point, they might realize that what they are really writing about is the way that people who work in the service industry are taken for granted. Or they may have started to write an essay on how to get boys to notice you in class, but then they realize that what they are really writing about is the way that girls often undermine their own intelligence and hard work in an effort to be accepted by their peers.
- And the last lesson, which really only a few students learn in the end, is that the best comedy ultimately satirizes the creator. They might think that they are writing a piece to make fun of those annoying girls who flip their hair in math class… and then they realize that the reason they are so annoyed is because they sometimes act dumb to deflect attention. They almost can’t help but analyze themselves in this process.
They are willing to open up and make themselves vulnerable.
I love these essays because they are fun, almost effortless to teach, and because students learn so much about writing.
But ultimately, what I most love about them is what I love most about any good assignment that I do in class: I help my students get to know who they are.