January 18, 2007 8:34 PM   Subscribe

What activities can I suggest during a workshop on designing awesome creative writing assignments for overworked ESL teachers to use in class? (In Indonesia?) (With learners across many levels?) (For little/no money?) (Without Powerpoint?)

Backstory: we work with a pretty prescriptive, grammar-focused, exam-based curriculum. "Writing" is worth just 10% of a student's mark, and I'd like to make that 10% something they look forward to doing well, not something they have to somehow scramble to achieve. Creative writing - really, anything fictional at all - is currently not on the agenda; the Powers That Be have decided that it's more important for students to write about the, um, more boring aspects of reality. We all want to change this.

The goal of this workshop, then, is to help teachers widen students' literary experience into the realms of what they actually enjoy reading about in the comic books or watching on the soap operas so popular here - drama, romance, fantasy, science fiction: writing from the point of view of a shark, or a sandwich, or a jealous lover, or an alien queen.

Our students range from absolute beginners to "upper-intermediate"/"advanced" levels, but few of our students are older than, say, 25, and many are also enrolled full-time in universities and high schools, and many are enrolled by their parents because their English scores at school aren't so great, so we don't have the most enthusiastic groups of students sometimes, especially among teens.

We don't have internet access for students in any meaningful way at school, but nearly all of our students have access to the internet at home or in internet cafes.

The workshop will last about an hour, so we won't have much time.

Any ideas about making this workshop effective? I'm looking for both effective workshop strategies, and ideas relevant to the topic: creative writing in an ESL context.

posted by mdonley to Writing & Language (5 answers total) 3 users marked this as a favorite
I've just finished a semester with an ESL writing class in Taiwan for which they gave me no curriculum. We had two hours of class a week, but I was required to take it easy on this class (no homework). So that breaks down to about the one hour plus homework that you have. Their skills were tolerable, their enthusiasm variable. Internet access was just like yours. Here are some things that worked for me:

A few essays on subjects that caught their attention: What would you change about your school if you could? I also used prompts from here.

A couple of 'constrained' short stories. For the first constrained short story, I made up lists of mandatory characters, props, and plot events that would be different for each student: If your birthday is in January or February one of your characters must be someone magical. If it's in March or April, you must have someone from far away. If it's in May or June, a genius; July or August, twins; etc. If your favorite color is red, you must include a knife. Purple, a special piece of clothing. Blue, a bicycle. Green, a statue; yellow, a trumpet; orange, a family of rats; etc. If you are an oldest child and a boy, you have to include a fire; oldest girl, a flood; middle boy, a revolution; middle girl, a person getting lost; etc. (In Taiwan, dividing birth-orders into oldest, any middle, and youngest actually produces a pretty good split.)

Semi-guided writing: In one class, we picked apart Langston Hughes's Harlem: A Dream Deferred on the board. We talked for a bit about similes and rhetorical questions, and about how the poem builds to a satisfying conclusion. I had them write a short free-verse poem of their own, using at least three similes and at least three rhetorical questions. While they were working, I did one of my own on the board, in real time, as a model. I typed up their submissions, with some copyediting and without names, and made a handout of them all. The next week we had a poetry slam: The class took time to read through the handout, voted on about ten to hear (we did this in two heats), and then if the author wanted to take credit for the work (not all of them did!) s/he could stand up and read. Finally, we took a vote for the class slam champion. I should have thought ahead and had a silly prize handy, but I didn't.

In our final class, we recapped that with a haiku contest. I didn't make it an assignment to submit one, but I could have. I took whatever they handed me, put it on the board if it was any good, and whenever the board was full we took a keep/erase vote on each one to narrow it down to five. Toward the end of class we had a more constrained vote-for-two-favorites election to select the winner. Don't be too strict about what is or isn't a proper haiku -- I taught them 5-7-5 and showed them examples with a nature reference, but I also showed examples, and accepted submissions with fewer syllables and no nature reference. For the sake of encouragement, I also showed them haiku I had done in a second language. And I told them to think of a haiku as a ten-second film, which really helped communicate how brief and yet how layered they can be. The class were pretty tight, so they had a lot of in-jokes and backstory that they used to tease each other in haiku form. It was a hoot.
posted by eritain at 9:24 PM on January 18, 2007

I used to crib stuff off of Dave's ESL Cafe all of the time when I was teaching ESL. They even have a writing page for teachers. There are also a lot of chat boards that you may find helpful.
posted by Dr. Lurker at 9:26 PM on January 18, 2007

One thing I've seen used to great effect was giving everyone a situation and building a story from it.

The author I saw perform this (for a writer's festival's panel on 5 Minute Fiction) asked the audience - mainly schoolkids - what they think will happen in the distant future. Ideas came out of everywhere - people will have long toes, cats will rule the world, Toowoomba is the capital, etc. After the first flow of ideas, other ideas came by that built on the first set. The author was rushing trying to write them down.

After he had all those ideas on the board, the author went through the list and crafted a story about a bunch of evil cats that ruled the world and the people that saved the world from doom. And yes, Toowoomba was capital. The title even became "Toowoomba Rocks" - I suppose some of the kids were from there!

Try using that as an exercise...come up with a prompt, and have your class brainstorm together. Then, with the results of the brainstorming, let them write a story.
posted by divabat at 3:10 AM on January 19, 2007

Some ESL teachers in Japan and Korea have handed out blank comics (pictures but no words) to their students and had them fill in the dialogue in English to match the pictures. It seems like it might work better for kids, but you mention the popularity of comics in Indonesia, so...

Several Penny Arcade strips were used as the template for a class of Japanese kids.

Dinosaur Comics was(were?) used in both Korea and Japan.

White Ninja Comics would make good templates too, because of lots of white space, strange and non-prescriptive situations, etc.

Hope this is more helpful than noisy.
posted by sleevener at 9:14 AM on January 19, 2007

I have no doubt that my Taiwanese high-schoolers would love the comics thing. The allowable level of 'kid stuff' in a teen or adult life is a lot higher over here than in the States.

And, yeah, collaboration will get them stirred up. Give them a template for sketching a character—Jake, a stylish dancer with serious allergies; Alice, a clever archaeologist who lives in Australia; Bubba, an albino penguin lost in another century—and have them each write up three and put them in a basket. Have them write a setting for someone else too. Then mix and match.
posted by eritain at 4:14 PM on January 22, 2007

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