Teaching writing by demonstration (a nerve-wrecking experience)

As some of you might be aware, when I’m not busy with reading, writing and the various other things I do with my life, I’m busy pretending to be a normal person by working as a high school teacher. I teach students mostly aged between 12 and 18, and although I am trained in English and History, I teach other subjects too, such as Mathematics.

For a couple of weeks, I have been teaching, among various classes, what is called an “Extension English” class to two of the older students – a class specifically designed for students who love reading and writing, to help them extend their talents in the area. They are currently looking at Gothic literature (particularly The Castle of Otranto by Horace Walpole), and recently wrote their own short stories in this genre for an assessment task. For the few lessons I have them, I have been helping them restructure and rewrite their stories in a less linear, more tension-filled manner.

And at the end of the first week (I only see them once a week for a couple of hours), I said something really stupid: “I know, how about I write my own short story to show you how I do it?”

Goodness knows why I suggested this, but the suggestion met with approval, and that was it, I was locked in. The rules were simple – it had to be in a Gothic setting, and it had to contain a shadow, a reflection, and a premonition. For the sake of showing them non-linear narrative structure, I also decided I needed to start my story in the middle, and use flashbacks to slowly reveal parts of the story. I also needed to keep it short, which is a challenge for me on the best of days.

I found myself busy for most of the intervening week, and ended up writing the whole 3000 word story in the space of a couple of hours squeezed into some spare time here and there. Actually, despite the complete lack of planning, and also my complete lack of experience in the genre, the story worked its way onto the page (or screen) with remarkable ease. I only had time to quickly proofread it and make one tiny change near the end, and then I had to print it off, hope it was half decent, and use it to help teach them what I had planned.

A couple of days ago I sat down with these students and read their revised stories as they read my hastily written tale. It was a nerve-wrecking moment – I very rarely show anybody my creative writing, and have never shown a student my writing like this before. I noticed, my eyes flicking up a couple of times, that they were glued to the story, and one of them shuddered at the end, creeped out by my intentionally freaky ending. But, thank goodness, they liked the story, and most importantly, they understood what I was trying to teach them about structure and a few other techniques I used in my piece.

So there we have it – I have taught writing by my own example! It was scary, but worth it and quite rewarding on the whole. It’s nice to be able to talk the talk and also walk the walk (even if it wasn’t exactly a masterpiece). And I think I’ve found the next genre for my 12 Novellas challenge (which I am going to return to with a vengeance in July).

How do you feel about showing your writing to other people? Does it make you nervous? Would you ever consider using it to teach as I have, in any kind of teaching context?

34 thoughts on “Teaching writing by demonstration (a nerve-wrecking experience)

    • That’s great that you enjoy sharing your writing with other people! πŸ™‚ I think I am slowly becoming more confident with this myself. It was great to share that experience with students (and hard-working, talented students, at that).

    • That’s exactly right! I think there’s quite a lot of students who like to write creatively at my school, though many are quiet and keep it to themselves, so I want to look into creating more opportunities for them to bring them out of their shells a bit and help inspire them more. As you say, the next great novelist could be one of them. πŸ™‚

      • Definitely. Probably, your task is even more difficult, given the age we live in. Technology, as you may well know, is a big unnoticed problem to young generations because it can somehow generate apathy!!

        • Oh absolutely, I can notice that problem. Particularly when the students are given laptops in Year 9 and you suddenly notice their concentration drop dramatically. I think we’re going to have to face a whole lot of new problems in the world of education that we currently do not have solutions for, but I guess in the meantime every little thing I can do to help makes some difference.

  1. Congrats on showing your work, it is definitely a hard thing to do! I would like to write but definitely don’t feel creative enough. I enjoy reading more πŸ™‚

    • Thank you! πŸ™‚ I think everybody has creativity, it’s just learning how to tap into it that’s the tricky thing. And also you have to really want to tap into it. I’m like that more with music I think, I love listening to it but I’m just not that great at making it (though I have never really applied myself to the task, either).

  2. I don’t mind giving my writing to others to read. The first time I did it, I was nervous as a cat in a room full of rocking chairs, but I got through it. Each time got a little easier. The only time I flip out is when I’m sending to agents/publishers, because they hold my future in their hands. That sort of power gets to me. I actually have to write something else during the waiting time or else I’d go mad. Mad, I tell you. Mad! πŸ™‚

    • “I’m not mad…I’m furious!” Sorry, that just came into my head…I can’t even think what it’s from.
      I don’t mind giving my writing to some people to read – I wouldn’t be overly bothered about putting that story on here, for example. I think it was scarier showing students, because I guess there is a sort of expectation from them that I, being a young, confident English teacher, would be able to write well. So I was worried about whether or not I’d be able to meet that expectation. Very silly of me really, but there you go.

      • Totally get it. πŸ™‚ Submitting to students is like submitting to publishers – you have to prove you know what you’re talking about. At least you proved you don’t write dribble (or if you do, you’ve proved how to write very good dribble) πŸ™‚

        • Exactly! One of them said to me “Sir…I couldn’t write this in a million years” at which point I had to point out to them I had at least 10 years more writing experience than they did! But I would say it was very good dribble hahaha, it was certainly very much a first draft still. πŸ˜›

  3. I can’t sit and watch as someone reads my work, I find it so embarrassing, really makes me cringe. I don’t think I could teach anyone anything never mind by example. Well done on taking the plunge with this, You are far more daring than I could ever be.

    • I normally can’t watch someone read my work. I think in this case because I wrote a Gothic story I was just watching for their reactions, because to me that would give me a good clue as to whether or not I had pulled off a half-decent story. I’m not entirely sure whether I’m daring or just stupid hahaha, I have this habit of committing myself to things like this, and then afterwards thinking “uh oh, what have I gotten myself into this time…”

  4. I’ve referenced my own writing experiences to my students, but I’ve yet to show my writing to anyone other than my CPs. I’m sure I’ll end up teaching by example at some point, though…

  5. As a public school teacher of third – six graders, I had to “model” ( write before the class while they were watching) a short story more than once for my students. The teachers who were giving US lessons–this was after we were out of college and had been in the classroom for years– reminded us that we were better writers than the students we were teaching. Maybe so, but I still contend that everyone is not a writer. It always made me more than a little nervous!!!

    • Oh definitely, I know a lot of English teachers aren’t necessarily writers – you can be passionate about English just because you read a lot, writing isn’t necessary really as long as you know how to do it if you did want to. But, as in a lot of teaching contexts, sometimes you have to give the illusion of expertise in something, at the very least, even if it is nerve-wrecking. I often think it’s those experiences that stay with us as teachers, too. Or maybe I’m just weird.

  6. A bit nervous – if I do, its often to a few people that I know will be balanced and fair. I find it helps having teh good and bad comments so you know what worked and what didn’t as opposed to what didn’t work (or what somebody didn’t like personally and therefore because it wasn’t written how they would write it, therefore I should change it). Because of an experience like that, I am now very careful of how and when I share my writing – purely because I feel that if an author writes something a certain way, they have a reason and it shouldn’t be changed just because one person thinks oh well I wouldn’t write it that way therefore I don’t like it and it should be changed.”

    • Ahhh I do know what you mean! I had experiences like that at university, where some lecturers judged my writing subjectively rather than objectively, and because I didn’t write the specific way they did (which I suspect was probably overly intellectual and boring, to be honest), they marked me down quite drastically. But then I also had some lecturers who really encouraged my writing, and gave me good, constructive criticism which helped me grow into a better writer, so I’ve learned to just forget about the people who shot my writing down. These days I figure if somebody can’t reasonably explain why they don’t like my writing, then I don’t feel a need to listen to them. People are allowed to not like it, but they should be able to explain why at least.

  7. I get really nervous about showing anyone my writing, especially when it is not quite finished yet. I’m a bit of a perfectionist and don’t like sharing something that is not as close to perfect as I can get it. Not sure if this is a good or a bad thing. Would like to read the story you wrote for the students.

    • I know how you feel – I am like that with a lot of my longer works. I don’t want to show anybody anything until I know it’s absolutely the best thing I can produce, which means I won’t even try to publish any of my longer works like my novellas and novels until they reach that point. I am considering showing the story I wrote for my students, though it really isn’t that great. But I might post it up. I’ll think about it…

      • I think you should, you might be surprised, it might be much better than you think. But I do understand if you decide not to. Have you had anything published before?

        • It might be…I might have to post it in two sections though, as it’s quite long. Or maybe I’ll make a new page up the top for it. Hmmm. I’ll think about it for now.
          I haven’t published anything before, though next year I’m going to push myself to at least get some short stories published, and enter some competitions and things. Need to get the ball rolling, but just start off small I think, build up a publishing history before I get to the big stories. πŸ™‚

  8. You were very brave to give your students a piece that you were nervous about exposing to young criticism. However, no matter what their response was, you could always have turned it into a learning experience by saying something like, “I’m glad you picked up on that. I threw it in to see if anyone would catch it!” πŸ™‚

    Hubby read the very first piece of writing I did, which I realize now was pretty rough. I got very defensive when he had a question regarding a part of the story. When I joined my first writing group, I thought my work was great but soon realized that it wasn’t as good as I thought it was. I have since grown a thick skin and have learned to take criticism, but it is never easy. I think my biggest worry is that someone with say, “what makes you qualified to write this stuff?” and I won’t have an answer for them. Now, I am more nervous about revealing my writing before I think it’s ready.

    • This is true, I could have gone with that line if they responded to it negatively. I had a feeling they would have responded well, and I did insist before they read it that it was very much a first draft, scribbled up hastily for them. But it was a nice relief to see they actually liked it. And even better to see that they understood what it was I was trying to show them with it about creative writing.
      I know what you mean – it is always hard to take criticism, especially initially. I think when we first start writing and showing our writing to others, we often are so excited about it all we get caught up in the whirlwind and overestimate our own abilities. Funnily enough I think I have gone the other way now, and refuse to even try to publish until my writing is at a point much higher than I’m currently writing at, but which I know I could reach within a few years if I keep practising and honing my writing. I think I generally show people first drafts these days, because first drafts are more about getting the story out, as where it is the editing and rewriting that focuses on my writing and language and that’s the part I am really tough on myself about.
      As for your worry about people questioning your qualification – many of the best writers weren’t technically qualified to write what they wrote. I think if we can put pen to paper (or the digital equivalent), we are qualified to write about most things. πŸ™‚

  9. It used to be very hard for me to share my writing with other people, and I am still very particular about what writing I share. However, as a teacher it is soooo important to share your writing–good or bad–with my students. They like to see that you’re human and are not some all-knowing being. So I’ve learned to be more open and forthcoming. It is one of the most productive ways to teach writing because it shows others that everyone can do it and that sharing does not have to be scary!

    • That is very true, and I guess on some level that was part of my motivation for showing them the story too – that I wanted them to see me actually doing it, to show them I am just human and I’m far from perfect myself as a writer. It was a good experience in the end, and I think we all learned from it, which is awesome really! πŸ™‚

  10. When I was in school, I would let no one read my reports or essay, this continued to university, I have also kept various journals over the years that no one will ever be allowed read. Much too nervous and critical of people who read my stuff, if someone does read something of mine I watch them like a hawk until they finish, snatch away what they read and retreat!
    I have used some of my blog posts to help teach my students, who are learning English conversation and occasionally writing.

    • I can understand that, and I think writing is different to different people too – for some people it’s far too personal a thing to be sharing too much. I must confess I have some writing that I won’t ever show people, because I wrote it for me, and for me only.
      That is cool you use your blog like that…I have considered using my blog (or maybe starting a second one) for a similar purpose, actually! πŸ™‚

  11. I can relate to this art-wise. I had little respect for my painting teacher until I saw her work, after that I hung on her every word and learnt more than i ever would have. A very brave move by you but your studentswill be better for it. Cheers

    • Ah that is cool, I like that story! I guess it’s true – I always have admired the teachers who I know have practised what they teach in their spare time a lot more than those who are just doing it for a job. It’s more inspiring when you know they’re that passionate about it. πŸ™‚

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