Wednesday, February 13, 2013

Workout Wednesday: Writing with Coaches

     Writing with coaches?  Like "Dancing with Wolves," these two phrases don't sound right together.  Yet, this exercise not only got coaches to write, they wrote well. I have done this particular exercise with adults and children, but my most successful session was with a group of middle school coaches.

     The writing workshop was the last item of the day for this school visit. It was a Friday afternoon. A Friday afternoon after school. I don't remember the details, but I had agreed to do an hour's after school writing workshop for faculty. I did think that a Friday afternoon after a long week would not have been my choice. I also assumed I would be working with language arts teachers.

     Imagine my surprise when a group of bedraggled teachers in sweats, sneakers and lanyards stumped into the library, pulling on Gatorade bottles. There was no mistaking their identity.  These were coaches.

     I don't know whose idea it was to make coaches (none of whom taught language arts) sit through an hour of me on a Friday afternoon. Maybe they were being punished. All I could think it was "OMG this is going to be the worst workshop ever. Thank God I already have my paycheck."

     Bad, bad me, for all my preconceived notions of coaches (OK, I have to admit I am still harboring my own middle school issues with PE teachers, but still, it wasn't very professional of me).  However, once I gave out the instructions for this exercise, those pooped-out specimens of physical health and education, sat up straight, and surprised the living heck out of me with the quality of their writing. So what was the magic exercise?

     Today's workout comes to you courtesy of my friend and Vermont College MFA faculty member Louise Hawes.  Louise, I don't remember if these were your exact instructions, but this is how I interpreted them for my own use.

       1.  Under no circumstances should you give the slightest advance hint as to what the exercise will be.

     2.  Tell the students to think of two unusual things they have heard that day, and to write them down.  They should be only one sentence each, and should be from two different conversations.
The emphasis is on unusual.  "Open the window" or "Shut up and sit down" do not qualify for this sort of thing.  One of the best results of this exercise came from the quote "Hey grandma, you wanna piece of this?"

    3. On a sheet of paper write the first sentence at the top of the page, and the second sentence towards the bottom. (The idea is that the paper can be creased and ripped apart without damaging the writing.) You don't need to leave room for more writing...that will be done on a second separate page.

    4.  Do not indicate who is speaking, how they are speaking or where they are speaking. Just the sentence. Period.

    5. Fold the papers and put them in a hat, box, something where the papers can be mixed together.

    6. Each participant should choose two pieces of the papers. If they should happen to get one of their own sentences, no big deal.  No swapping allowed.

    7.  Now, taking these two pieces of conversation, the student invents characters for the speakers of each sentence. Then they will concoct a situation/scene in which those sentences are spoken. This is one scene. It should have all the basics of a story...characters, setting, something of a plot. This is not meant to be a finished story or even a part of a story. The point of the exercise is to take two unrelated
sentences and characters and work them into a scene.

     With my own students this has by far been their most favorite exercise over the years. And those coaches?  They had written down oddball snippets they had heard from their students during the day.  They had a blast scribbling away at their scenes. I usually only allow twenty minutes for this but the coaches were having so much fun I let them go for half an hour.

    I never insist that my writers "share" their work unless they wanted to. Everyone of those coaches (and their must have been two dozen of them) wanted to read their work out loud. The hour workshop turned into almost two hours (and I nearly missed my plane.) The cool thing was that those teachers had not only written terrific scenes, but they were really surprised and pleased by how well they had done.

Posted by Mary Ann Rodman


Jeanette W. Stickel said...

What a great writing exercise and a fun story. Maybe we'll see a novel by one of those coaches in the future.

Beth Cregan said...

I love this idea. It's really fresh! Thank you. Just discovered your blog - will be heading back again.

Janet S. said...

Enjoyed your post so much that I shared the link at my blog. What a great way to encourage creativity.

April Halprin Wayland said...

Fabulous! I'm putting this in my "in case of emergency" kit...and will pull it out if we have extra time for more writing!

Louise Hawes said...

You have a terrific memory, Mary Ann! I'm glad the coaches liked that exercise. It sometimes adds to the fun if you don't specify a location for the overheard lines. Then you can ask listeners to see if they can pick them out. If the dialogue is well crafted, it's often a real challenge!