Teaching creative writing differs from teaching a core academic course – like math or even English – because a creative writing class is almost always a choice, whether it is a school elective, a community workshop, or a public writers group. In very few cases — and in no cases that I am aware of — would a person have to take a creative writing class.
But some students make creative writing teachers like me wonder, why did you come? Given the student’s inattentive or disruptive behavior, obvious lack of effort on the writing, or seeming indifference to readings or class discussions, I have often been left with a real understanding of their effects but no indication of the causes. Very seldom have I sat a problematic student down for a “Come-to-Jesus meeting” and had them fess up to why they were doing it; almost all of them go back, after their insistence that they are glad to be in my class, and continue the exact same patterns that prompted the talk. As for me, I care less about one student’s lack of interest than I do about the effect on other kids in the class. Mean-spirited students can affect the tone of discussions and workshops, when other students are timid about being the butt of their next joke. Students who repeatedly bring thrown-together work to class or who treat workshop feedback as worthless guff impact other students’ willingness to give feedback. Indifferent students who stare out the window or play with their hair have a distracting presence that weighs heavily on the whole class, and on my teaching.
I teach creative writing at an arts magnet high school, and my students go through an audition process before being allowed to come. I send them a questionnaire in advance of our audition that lays out my expectations of them and forces them to check Yes or No to questions like “Are you willing to work had on ALL assignments, not just on the ones that appeal to you?” When we meet, I go over the questionnaire with them and take a look at their writing samples; we have a talk about what they want to gain and what I have to offer. I reassure them that we don’t just come in and write whatever we want and get As – structure and assignments and deadlines are all part of the program. We end with my asking, “What do you think? Is this right for you?” I am much less interested in accepting the best writers than I am in accepting the most open-minded and hard-working students I can get. Those are the ones I can teach.
People often say to me, “Oh, you’ve got the good kids. You don’t have any problems with them.” Any impediment to learning is a problem, and often one or two difficult students can set the tone for the whole class and can require more of my attention than the hard-working and attentive students. In that respect, I am just like a core academic teacher. I teach for students to learn, not so I can hear myself talk.
Beyond my primary concern about the effect on my other students, my second main concern about a problematic student is that there is a reason that kid signed up for my program, and the bad behavior is standing in the way of doing what he or she came to do. Those kids probably do come to learn about creative writing, but as long as their best effort is on making snide comments or playing up an image for their classmates, they can’t achieve what they came to achieve. A teenager who applies and auditions and enrolls has gone through all of the steps to getting here— why go through all that for no reason? If the kid wants to learn about writing, I’m here to do everything I can for him or her; and if we’re spending our time interacting mostly on disciplinary issues, not on writing, then I’m just trying to help those kids stop shooting himself themselves in the foot.
Of course, some kids don’t let me. And when those people half-ask and half-tell me that I have no problems, I use those hard-headed kids as anecdotal evidence that I do. “Let me tell you about this one kid . . .” Every teacher has stories like these. It is impossible to teach anything without having at least one story about “this one kid.” As for me, I reconcile them all to one overriding principle: I enjoy writing and literature and books, and I am not going to let anyone take that away from me, even if they choose to take it away from themselves.