When Students Workshop Their Teacher

March 11, 2015 | 3 books mentioned 2 10 min read

Nothing can keep a writer as honest as a classroom full of teenagers. Students know when they are being lied to; they know when the person standing in the front of the room isn’t genuine. I’ve spent the past decade teaching at a public high school. Most graduates of MFA programs long for college classrooms, and while I won’t deny the occasional pull of that world, I have found that teaching high school has kept my feet on the ground. When the bell rings and class starts, I am not an author or a literary critic. I am an English teacher.

One course I teach, advanced creative writing, began as a novel-writing course; an ambitious, perhaps stubborn attempt to help high school students draft a novel within a single academic year. For two years, students submitted 150-page manuscripts that ranged from polished drafts to rough attempts. Their work effort was impressive; their talent was clear. But we all seemed to burn out. In reaching for quantity, we had not quite forsaken quality; we had forsaken time and patience. We rushed art.

I then changed the focus of the course from drafting a novel to writing and polishing several short stories. Students had more room to breathe, and, overall, produced better work. Without the fear of training for a marathon, they could jog and discover their craft. Yet the course is now actually more demanding than its previous incarnation. I respect the art of fiction too much to make any creative writing course a simple endeavor. I’ve taken the ethos of the great teacher and fiction writer, Charles Johnson, to heart: creative writing should be:

a labor-intensive ‘skill acquisition’ course, emphasizing the sequential acquisition of fiction techniques and providing the opportunity to practice them. The curriculum should be capacious, allowing for instruction in all styles, genres, and subgenres of fiction. I believed that apprentices learned best (as in music or the martial arts) through oldfangled imitation of master craftsmen, through assignments aimed at learning a repertoire of literary strategies, and by writing and revising prodigiously. I saw the goal of a (literary) art class as the creation of artists who were technicians of form and language; it was the preparation of journeymen, not one-trick ponies, who one day would be able to take on any narrative assignment — fiction or nonfiction, screenplay or radio drama, novel or literary journalism — that came up in their careers. And such a class should make clear that writing well was always the same thing as thinking well.

Workshop became an essential feature of my course. I think the workshop model is an imperfect method for teaching fiction, but it remains the standard style of undergraduate and graduate fiction courses. One of my responsibilities as a high school teacher is to prepare my students those courses. Our class meets five days a week, 40 minutes per class from September through mid-June. Workshops begin in February. We have two workshops a week, so the first round, short fiction, runs until April (this year standardized testing has stolen a month of instructional time). Depending on the interests and strengths of the students, the second round is flash fiction or creative non-fiction.

cover cover A successful high school fiction workshop requires months of preparation. Before we sit for workshop, students read a healthy amount of short fiction. We read “Refresh, Refresh” by Benjamin Percy to see how a story can be a deep examination of a character’s longing to be reunited with his Marine father, as well as a complex portrayal of a small town. We consider a scene from Larry McMurtry’s The Last Picture Show that evolves from awkwardness to sentiment in a few pages. We examine solid openings from Big Machine by Victor LaValle, “Royal Beatings” by Alice Munro, and The End by Salvatore Scibona. We contrast voice-driven, monologue-style pieces like “Girl” by Jamaica Kincaid and “Boy” by Bret Anthony Johnston. And that’s only in the first two weeks. We read a ton, in hopes that students won’t learn by prescription, but that they’ll connect with the style of one or more of these writers.

Students draft their own work, and we begin with informal responses to handwritten paragraphs and pages. Before I give them the work of another student, I photocopy a sample story from an undergraduate literary magazine. It is a published work, but the students know that published doesn’t often mean finished. I ask them to read the story and put comments in the margin, as well as write an end note that summarizes their overall reaction. They read, write, and edit, and then only when they are finished do I give them my sample response to the story. I stress the need to be constructively critical, to always tie those criticisms to specific words, phrases, or character actions, and to articulate those criticisms as reactions and explanations, and not as judgments. (I save the writing of literary criticism for later in the course).

In February, after midterms come and go, students know it is time for workshop. Rather than one student reading his or her work, the entire class will have copies, and will speak about the story for an entire period. I winnow down our months of sporadic peer responses into four elements of workshop reading. First is copyediting. Copyedits can take the form of alternate word suggestions, punctuation changes, misusage, or misspellings, suggestions to cut a word, observations about clarity of language and content, and format cleaning. I ask them to avoid grammatical comments, unless a consistent and distracting pattern is observed. I remind students that they are not proofreading the entire work: that is the job of the writer.

The second element is the line comment. Line comments are copyedits with commentary. These are reactions to phrases and sentences, or responses to lines of dialogue. Line comments can also be quick reactions to the actions, decisions, or desires of a character, as well as questions, although they should not have all, or even most of their comments be questions.

Margin comments are next. These margin notes are expanded reactions: responses to paragraphs, pages, or the story as a whole. Students might call for expansion or excision of a paragraph, or they might note contradictions in characterization. These margin comments are usually two to three sentences, and help articulate their reading reaction to the text as a progressive, not static, action. The final element is the end note. This five- to seven-sentence note is addressed to the writer, and explains the reader’s overall reaction to the text. It is easy for students to get lost — and misled by — the minutia of copyediting, and not tell the writer what they think of the overall work. Students might discuss character, plot, or style, but they are always doing so in a way that leaves the writer sure of their total response. For all four levels of edits, I remind students that they are engaging the work on its own terms, within the fictional parameters created by the writer: they are not changing the story to fit their own interests or style.

Next, we read excerpts from “The Writer’s Workshop,” an essay by Frank Conroy, who led the Iowa Writers’ Workshop for 18 years. Although my MFA is from Rutgers-Newark, many of my undergraduate and graduate teachers attended the Iowa program (one of my teachers, Jayne Anne Phillips, called it the Conroy “ripple effect”). Their blessings and biases inform my own method, so it is healthy for my students and me to question the workshop method, and its potential travails, even before we begin.

Conroy sees workshop as a way to talk about writing using concrete examples:

We ruminate on the seductiveness of the first person, how it seems easy initially but subsequently becomes very hard. We look at texts in which the author seems trapped in the first person, unable to find a way to look around the narrator, or rise above the narrator. We discuss strategies to avoid such pitfalls.

Such a word as “strategies” might appear more at home in an MBA program rather than an MFA workshop, but I respect Conroy’s willingness to unfold the garment of workshop, to show the stitches and imperfections. Some might wonder why students couldn’t learn from reading a work by James Baldwin or Marilynne Robinson; they could, but they also need the agency and immediacy of reading the work of their peers.

Conroy isn’t naïve enough to think that workshop creates art by committee. He knows “Workshops cannot teach the magic of making thrilling metaphors, but they can at least discuss their function, what it is they’re supposed to be doing. Precision.” He cautions that “the student who is ‘up’ should not be looking for solutions from the other students or from the teacher. The student should be looking for problems in the text that he or she had not been aware of.” We leave Conroy’s essay with a belief that workshops are best thought of as way to test the clarity of a story. Granted, this is only one slice of fiction, but is it not an essential one?

Students are now ready for the theoretical end of workshop, but they need practical format and experience. Our workshop cycle has three days, and is meant to be an experience out of the norm for their education. First is their submission date, when the student e-mails me a 1500 to 2000 word story. By having students e-mail the story, it gives them a window into how it feels to send a submission over the transom to a literary magazine. The second date is part reading day, part conference. Students read and edit the submission in the back of the classroom while I conference with the writer in the front. We talk about the story, although I hesitate to force a “master” reading of it during this conversation. I try to note elements the class might discuss, ask questions about the process behind the story, and query her confidence level. We talk about books and writers she enjoys, what she hopes to study in college, what she hopes to accomplish for the rest of the year. Some students can’t help but sneak a look back — it is somewhat disarming to know an entire class is reading your words in your presence — but the class does a nice job of playing it straight. They read and mark in silence, and submit their work at the end of the period. I check their comments — not that they wouldn’t be good editors for altruistic reasons, but guidelines and grades never hurt — and then return their copies on the third day, the workshop date. On that date, the 14 of us sit in a circle and talk about the student’s story for nearly 40 minutes. The student is not allowed to speak until the end of the period; when she may offer clarification or answer questions, but she is not to defend her story. She receives the copies back with comments, thanks the class, and then the bell rings.

Once students understand the process, I show them the workshop schedule, and they request a date. Many are still understandably nervous. It would be unkind, and pedagogically unsound, for me to send them blind. They need a model. Each year, I am the sacrificial lamb of workshop. I put up a story draft of my own so that students can see what it’s like to talk about someone’s work to his face. I follow the same three-day model (other than conferencing with myself at the front of the classroom), and certainly don’t speak during the actual workshop. This year I chose a story draft, “Weights and Measures,” about Derrick, a college student working for his town’s road department. In a backyard, the student discovers a dead body buried in mulch, and he is thrown into an investigation into local drug deals gone bad (Derrick himself was on probation for streaking across his college town).

From a writer’s standpoint, I chose the story because I haven’t been able to figure out the center of the narrative. I didn’t want it to become a cheap imitation of the “A&P” variety story, the seasonal job as parable. From a teacher’s standpoint, since the mock workshop is meant to introduce the workshop style and format, to observe student tone in reacting to a manuscript, and to create an environment that would reveal strengths and weaknesses, I selected a story that I knew was approachable, but that had a challenging narrative arc and incomplete characterization. “Weights and Measures” is also an example of “literary fiction” — fiction driven by character and language, more so than by plot — with a touch of noir or crime fiction. I don’t love these categorizations, but ignoring them is a disservice to students who will encounter them later.

At first, some students lift their eyebrows at the idea of critiquing their teacher. It is almost endearing to see this hesitancy, but they soon recognize that they are not critiquing me, they are critiquing the story. That’s a necessary lesson for them to learn, both as editors and as writers. I distributed my story, and they spent the period reading and editing. I hid behind my computer, working on future handouts — not because I was nervous, but because I didn’t want to make them uncomfortable. They submitted their manuscript copies at the end of the period, and I spent some time that night going through their comments. They were fantastic: specific, layered, thoughtful. Skepticism and praise when appropriate. Now a student wouldn’t have the luxury of seeing these comments before their workshop, but this mock workshop is for the class, not me.

This year’s class is full of talented writers and readers, kids passionate about books. That passion sometimes leads to volume; after reading a story, “The Princess and the River Queen” by Phedra Deonarine, the class erupted into competing interpretations of the lyric narrative, drowning out any hopes for understanding. But I will take impassioned responses for apathetic silence any day.

Unfortunately, successful workshop sessions, as a whole, require a linear discussion. We don’t need to proceed paragraph to paragraph through a story, but we do need to have a larger argument and narrative to our discussion, a sense that we are building a conversation about a story that will leave the writer with material for reconsideration and revision. After a few minutes of focused discussion at the start of my mock workshop, it devolved into a succession of concurrent conversations. I couldn’t hear what any single student was saying. They all had strong and smart opinions about the story, but I couldn’t follow them. I was actually a bit frustrated; I valued their advice, but I couldn’t hear it.

The next day, I gave students my reactions to their individual written and spoken participation, and spoke to the class as a whole. I explained that their written comments were brilliant, but their spoken workshop was rough to the point of being frustrating. They nodded their heads; they knew what went wrong. I reminded students that the goal of workshop is helping the writer improve his or her story, and that can only happen if the writer can follow the conversation. As their teacher, I would be doing much of this guiding during the workshop of other students, but for workshop to succeed, they must rise to the level of teaching each other. Workshop can turn good readers into confident, skilled readers. It also shows students that helping other writers is a noble act.

Student workshops began soon afterward. We’ve read stories about revenge, battling sisters, and fractured families. They don’t seem like the same class that conducted my mock workshop. They are patient, pointed, and able to grasp the heart of each story. I am proud of them.

I recognize that some teachers will hesitate to cede power to their students in this manner. But if I am willing to let a classroom of teenagers read, edit, and critique my work, then undergraduate and graduate instructors might consider it. The mock workshop brings students and their teachers closer in this literary art; it shows students that great fiction — other than the rare inspired work — is crafted, not the result of immaculate inspiration. It shows that their teacher is humble enough to allow the students to run the show for a day, and that he respects them enough to listen to their advice.

Some will say that high school is too early for fiction workshops. Others might scoff at the idea that students could have the credibility or ability to critique their instructor. But year after year, I go home with a stack of marked manuscripts from students who want to make my stories better. Some of those stories end up in drawers, never to be touched again. Others have been revised and reworked, and published in literary magazines. Workshop was the final nudge those stories needed. Granted, student fiction might need more of a push than a nudge, but students need to see someone listen to criticism without responding to that criticism. We save debate for published work. Our drafts need to weather the storm of careful readers. By putting my own work up for critique, I show my students that we are in this together.

Image Credit: Pexels/Angelina Litvin.

is a contributing editor for The Millions. He is the culture editor for Image Journal, and a contributor to the Catholic Herald (UK). He has written for Rolling Stone, GQ, The Paris Review, The Atlantic, Esquire, and the Kenyon Review. He is the author of Longing for an Absent God and Wild Belief. Follow him at @nickripatrazone and find more of his writing at nickripatrazone.com.