The One-Day Gig: Teaching Effectively for Writers' Organizations, Festivals, and Conferences
Martha Carlson-Bradley | September 2008
Leading a one-time class or workshop for a writers’ organization, conference, or festival is a wonderful opportunity: you meet other writers, discuss craft in a meaningful way, hone your teaching skills, add credentials to your résumé, and generate interest in your writing. If you impress your students, they will be inclined to buy your books, and your host will also be likely to invite you back and to recommend you to other writers’ associations. But a one-time class or workshop makes special demands on a teacher, even an experienced one. In a single session, the relationship between the instructor and student is very different from the one forged during a full-semester course. For recent MFAs, a one-session class is also very different from the workshop model they were familiar with in their own programs. Instructing students you have just met is always challenging; when you have only a short time with them, you need to be especially aware of their needs and expectations and the focus of your discussion. If you lose the goodwill of your students, they will resist what you say about writing, no matter how insightful. Mismanaging time or materials also alienates participants, and you have no further sessions with them to catch up or rectify mistakes. But preparing well—and knowing which questions to ask before you teach—will help make the experience a positive one.
Here are some things to think about in planning a one-session class:
Know who your students will be. Before you can decide on the focus of your session or the kinds of activities you will do, it’s crucial that you know who your students will be. Are they adults? Retired adults? College students? Very young writers? If you have never taught this age group before, turn to experienced friends for advice. (E-mail lists or online forums can be invaluable resources.) Also consider the level of experience of your students, and gauge your discussion and activities accordingly. Are these beginning, intermediate, or advanced writers? A class of beginners will genuinely need an explanation of basic terms, like “enjambment” or “point of view,” but a group of experienced writers will find this boring or condescending.
Host organizations will often guide participants to classes designed for their level of experience. In offering program descriptions, Gemini Ink and the New Hampshire Writers’ Project (NHWP) define terms like “beginning,” “intermediate,” and “advanced” so that writers can choose appropriate courses and classes. You may find these same descriptions useful in planning—and describing—your class activities. For advanced classes, there may be additional guidance. Former director of programming at NHWP, Ellen Grimm, says, “NHWP has an application process for our master classes, which are reserved for more advanced writers. In this way, instructors can better control the makeup of the class.”
If you are teaching younger writers, such as high-school students, ask the host organization if the participants all volunteered to attend—in which case they are likely to be attentive and motivated—or if they were required to attend. In that case, expect short attention spans: more group exercises and a minimal amount of time spent simply lecturing are in order.
Determine the focus and format of your class carefully. How much time will you have with your students? One hour? Four? The shorter the class, the more important it is to focus on a particular topic. Nancy S. Borris, the former director of the University Without Walls at Gemini Ink, says, “Don’t try to do too much. In service of maximizing the use of student time, it’s tempting to pack in information, but it’s best to consider a maximum student-absorption-quotient.” It’s helpful to look at recent brochures of your host institution for examples of one-session programs. Recent classes for the New Hampshire Writers’ Project have focused, for example, on cinematic techniques for point of view in creative nonfiction, and the role landscape plays in creating characters in fiction. These topics are much more doable in a short time than a broad discussion like “effective fiction.” In addition, a proposal for a truly focused class or discussion is more likely to be accepted for a one-time session than an overly ambitious topic. Even for a traditional workshop, you may find it helpful to emphasize one or two specific aspects of writing your students need to pay attention to, like line breaks in poetry or dialogue in fiction.
Describe your session carefully and check how it will be promoted. It’s crucial that your class description raises appropriate expectations. Be careful, for example, not to call your offering a “workshop” unless it’s a genuine workshop—an organized group discussion of each student’s work in turn. If instead you will be talking with students about an aspect of writing, reading samples from established writers, and doing in-class exercises, call your session a “class.” If you are planning mostly to lecture, leaving a little time at the end for responses, call your session a “lecture” or “talk” in promotional materials and explain that a Q-and-A session will come at the end. The course description is the ideal place to indicate whether the class is designed for beginning, intermediate, or advanced writers.
In describing your session, indicate how participants will spend their time in class and what the goals of the class are. What will participants review, read, and discuss in class? What will they go home with—a rough draft or revised poem? A clearer understanding of how dialogue works? A reading list and take-home exercises to further explore dramatic monologues?
Many organizations will send you an edited class description for your feedback. If they don’t offer to do this, ask to see how your class will be described in their brochure. It’s possible for misunderstandings and errors to creep in, even if you tried your best to be clear in your proposal. If you want to make changes, explain why. Event coordinators will be glad that you want to avoid misleading participants: the success of your class will reflect on the professionalism of the host organization.
Carefully plan your class in terms of time. When planning a workshop, make sure that the amount of time you want to spend on each student’s work multiplied by the number of participants is less than the overall time for the session. You will need extra time between participants to shift gears, so allow for some informal chat, and include a break or two. (Once you have a schedule, stick to it. Running over by “only” five minutes per session will mean that some students won’t have their work discussed at all by the end of the workshop.)
For classes that incorporate discussion and writing exercises, learning how much to prepare can be tricky, especially if you are new to teaching. You may find it helpful to actually say aloud the expository parts of your presentation beforehand, to gauge how much time they take. Practice explaining, aloud, how to do the exercises you have planned. Know how much time each exercise will take. And remember that it’s better to prepare many more exercises than you think you need than to run out of things to do. (The first time I taught high-school students, I used every single one of the “extra” exercises I had prepared and was simply lucky to have had enough to fill the time well.) When you can’t discuss every student’s in-class exercise, consider breaking the class into discussion groups of two or three; each writer will get the benefit of others’ attempts and feedback. When the larger group reconvenes, ask students to share what they learned with the whole class. One of the most successful single-session classes I ever took—a class led by Donald M. Murray on the personal essay—followed this small-group-to-larger-group-discussion format.
For classes longer than an hour, also plan when you will take breaks and for how long. (Younger writers may need more frequent breaks than adults.)
Come prepared. The support system you took for granted where you have taught or attended classes may not be in place at your host site, so assume that you are responsible for all preparation. For a workshop, ask when you will receive students’ work so that you can read it ahead of time. For all sessions, ask your host whether the staff can make copies of handouts or if you should bring them with you. If the host can prepare copies, ask how much lead time the staff will need and honor that deadline. It’s embarrassing to delay starting class as you wait for photocopies. It wastes valuable time and sets up participants to judge the rest of your class more critically than they might have otherwise. If you need any special equipment like an overhead projector or a screen for a PowerPoint presentation, let your host know well in advance and check upon your arrival to make sure all necessary equipment is set up in the room and is in working order before your class. Also, wear a watch. Wall clocks can be inaccurate or broken, and you will want to finish up so that participants can get to their next event on time, especially at a busy literary festival.
Finally, be sure you know ahead of time who your contact or “point person” will be on the day of the session—the person to turn to if there’s a problem with the room or materials or schedule—and make sure you have a phone number or another way of reaching that person on site.
Manage time and discussion during the session. As Grimm points out, “In a shorter class, it’s important to keep on schedule. If the class focuses too long on the work of a particular student, or if a handful of students dominate discussion, this can lead to frustration.” Borris agrees: “All feedback has led me to understand that a student who corrals too much attention is universally uninteresting except to themselves.”
This advice applies as well, Borris notes, to instructors. Participants will like to hear a bit about your background and writing process but will get restless if you talk too much about yourself. They will be more eager to know how your experience can help their own writing. For this same reason, Grimm suggests that instructors may want to comment more on student writing during workshop sessions than they would for a semester-long course. Students will appreciate feedback from other participants, but they’ve paid their registration fee to learn from your expertise, and you have only this one session to share it.
Be careful of extended introductions. Going around the room to let people to introduce themselves can work if comments are kept very brief. But for more than ten people, introductions eat up valuable time. Beware also of too many digressions. As Borris notes, “Spontaneity, a wonderful addition to longer classes, is not as beneficial in a shorter time frame, and it’s best to keep a tight rein on diverting topics.” What would seem like a delightful off-the-cuff discussion during a full semester can make participants in a one-time class anxious that you won’t get around to discussing their particular needs.
To keep on track, Borris suggests a written outline and handouts: “Handouts save time and keep the class focused.” For lengthy handouts, however, she finds that they “are best distributed in advance so as not to waste time reading in class.” If you want participants to read short stories as a jumping off point for discussion, for example, they will need a reading list or handout well ahead of the class time.
Once your session has started, avoid saying “We’ll look at some of your own poems if we have time.” If you don’t have time, you will have set up participants to feel let down and critical. And if you do in fact find yourself with extra time, why not make discussing students’ own work a pleasant surprise? But even then, if time is short, be clear that only a few people will be able to read: “We have time to hear one or two of your exercises. Would anyone like to read?” When responding to these readings, try to identify techniques that can apply to most students’ work: “Did you notice how many appeals to the senses Susan used here . . .?”
Be even handed. In a workshop, you need to provide equal time to each writer; in a class or lecture format, you need to provide an equal opportunity to participate. In a workshop format, if you discuss one student’s writing for twenty minutes, you must discuss every student’s work for twenty minutes—or expect participants to feel shortchanged and to complain in their evaluations. But if you are teaching a class that includes writing exercises, it’s fine to ask for a few volunteers to read what they have written on the spot. If one or two participants start to dominate the discussion, call on others to read or respond, and be prepared to politely interrupt people who insist on talking too much. You want enough voices heard to keep the discussion lively and the class addressed to the needs of more than just one or two people.
Be respectful, upbeat, and accessible. Even if you get frustrated with your students, this is not the occasion to be sarcastic or demeaning. It’s also helpful to point out what students are doing well in their writing, especially if they are beginners, as well as what they need to work on. If called upon to discuss the difficulty of finding an agent or getting published, be realistic but not gloomy. If participants leave your class feeling depressed or insulted, it’s unlikely you will ever teach for your host again. In addition, be available to chat informally with conference participants, during meals, breaks, receptions, and book-signing sessions. This is a perfect opportunity to talk about what you love. Your students may also ask questions they were too shy to bring up in class. Not only can you provide answers in an informal setting, but you can gain insights into points to address the next time you teach a similar class.
Be nice to your hosts. Be the kind of person you would like to work with. You are more likely to be invited back or recommended to other groups if you send requested items like bios or photos in a timely way, show up early so that your hosts aren’t worried about a no-show, and are friendly and polite to all the staff (who may be writers themselves, momentarily disguised as administrative assistants).
Finally, enjoy the experience. Not only can teaching a one-session class add to your skills, résumé, and references—but it’s also exhilarating. There is nothing like a genuine exchange with other writers about the possibilities of language to make you eager to return to your own writing desk.
Poet and freelance editor Martha Carlson-Bradley taught college English for several years and formerly worked on the staff of the New Hampshire Writers’ Project. Her latest book of poetry is Season We Can’t Resist (WordTech Editions, 2007).