World’s Most Invasive Character Speed Dating

Students get ready for a round of speed dating to discover their characters and possibly love?

Today my peer tutor, Serena, a Senior in SCAPA’s Literary Arts program, lead my class in a character development activity so fabulous, I wish I could claim I developed it myself.

Some Background:  We’ve been unpacking the power of point of view in short fiction, specifically looking at where the language comes from in models like Daniel Orozco’s “Orientation,” Gish Jen’s “Who’s Irish?” and John Cheever’s “The Swimmer.” This week, we are looking at characterization as the point from which every element naturally stems – detail selection when describing setting, the word choice in dialogue, and the action/reaction in scenes with other characters.  The objective of this lesson is to allow students to explore their character in a safe environment in order to understand the motivations and back story of the point of view character.

The Setup: When Serena was a sophomore, my students participated in a character development activity where students had to walk across the room or tie their shoes or order coffee or drive a car in the skin of their character. It’s method acting meets creative writing class. As Serena and I talked about her lesson plan, she recalled that the activity wasn’t very successful for her because she didn’t really know her character yet, and she wasn’t quite sure how they would walk or talk or drive a car.  She recalled that the class was hesitant to stand up and walk around in front of other students in their character’s skin, because as Freshman they were barely comfortable in their own skin. So she came up with this idea she called “World’s Most Invasive Character Speed Dating”  The purpose of speed dating is, of course, to find a compatible match, but the purpose of our activity was to provide students with ready-made questions and a limited time rotation process to interact with another person as their character

The Activity: We set up the desks in the room in pairs and numbered each pair with a set of odd/even numbers (Ex. 1/2, 3/4, 5/6, etc.) Students were directed to sit down anywhere. On each desk, Serena had placed two questions.  She had 20 different questions total. Some of them were innocuous (What is your eye color? Hair color? Is it natural or dyed? Do you have a birthmark? Tattoos? Where is it? What about scars? How did you get them?) but some of them went deeper into the psychology and back story of the characters, (Have you ever been in love?  What is in your refrigerator right now? On your bedroom floor? On your nightstand? In your garbage can?) and others delved even deeper ( Do you have any powers? If not, if you could pick any power, what would it be? Would you use it for good or evil? If you had to commit a murder, how would you execute it? Where would you hide the body? What weapon would you use? ).  Some of the questions she cabbaged off character development websites, others from speeding dating websites, and others she made up.  Students spent about 4 minutes at each table.  The even number characters stayed seated, and the odd numbers rotated to other desks when time was called.  Since I was not running the show, I participated as a character: a nine-year-old Christian fundamentalist named Charlotte Bromagen who fancies herself as a neo-Joan of Arc with a loose sense of mission.

How Did It Go:   This was one of the most successful activities we’ve done all year.  Several students completely forgot who they were, and actually became their character, adopting tics, mannerisms, dialects, facial expressions.  As they moved through the speed dating, they invented complete back stories, motivations, secrets, dreams, and fears for their characters.  After the activity, Serena asked them to reflect in their notebook.  Students commented that they were surprised when they started to answer as their character.  “As the activity went on, I built up my character and got more and more into it,” commented one student. Some of them were so method, they had trouble coming out of character.  As they made the rounds in the speed dating cycle, they reported, they were forced to react, not as themselves, but how they imagine their character would react.  Hmmmm… that’s exactly what good writers do. ♥






The Lost Art of Talk

One Friday, our school had an unusually long lock-down drill.  A lock-down is a drill, similar to fire and tornado drills, where teachers and students go through the steps they would take in the event of an active shooter or a hostage situation.

We have these drills about once a month. I’m lucky to have a classroom in our 75-year-old building that is attached to a long, narrow closet.  After my students hustled in and sat down, I turned off the light, and because the drill went on longer than normal, the kids started telling stories.  The moment took on a summer-camp feel. We were sitting cross-legged in a small, tight circle in the dark.

There was 100% engagement around the circle. No side-bar conversations. No one was checking cell phones.  After one kid told a story, there would be laughter or questions or a small moment of lull, until another kid said, “Yeah that reminds me about once in fourth grade…,” and we were off again, a “real or imagined narrative” rolling out naturally, first-draft fresh.

“We should do this every Friday,” somebody said.

“Can we?” another student asked.

“I like that idea,” I said.  It felt subversive, but I knew I could defend this practice in the scope of my curriculum.

I teach creative writing at a large urban school, but anyone who teaches anything anywhere on the planet could do this activity.  Oral Tradition Friday (which has morphed into just Oral Friday, with all the attendant high school snickers and winks) hits every speaking and listening standard for social studies and science classrooms as well.   Oral Friday has been going on now in my freshman and sophomore classes for two years, and it is, by far, the most successful, engaging lesson I “teach” all week long.

Professional Growth Fridays in my junior and senior classes developed along the same pattern.  One Friday, I had assigned a very technical, informational article about how writers select a point of view from which to write a story. My students had annotated the text and were prepared to discuss it.  But the weather was perfect and little birds were begging us to come outside. So I told my students to leave everything in the classroom including their painstakingly annotated margins, and we went outside, sat in a circle and discussed point of view. Specifically, we talked about how the article applied to their own writing choices. Now, we do this every Friday.  One student is elected to find an article about the professional or technical side of writing, distribute it to the class, and lead the discussion as it applies to their work.

  Sitting around in a circle talking is not a new instructional technique.  But it seems to happen less and less frequently.  The demands of covering standards and integrating technology have crowded out the oldest curriculum trick in the world – tell a story, have a conversation, talk face-to-face with another human.

When I was growing up as the youngest child in a family of five, we always ate dinner together and seemingly— although my memory may have taken a few instances and extrapolated them into an every dinner staple—afterwards we had what my father dubbed “roundtables.” I don’t remember many of the topics, which tended to center around current events, University of Kentucky  basketball, the weather – we were farmers— but I remember the feelings it gave me: the feeling of struggling to figure out how to say what I wanted to say and the more important feeling of being taken seriously by an adult when I talked.

Talking to students is a powerful instructional tool, but allowing students to talk is an even more powerful one.  Make your classroom a place where students can talk about ideas, practice the art of spoken persuasion or storytelling, or inquiry. I have elected Fridays as the day we talk because Fridays, as every educator knows, holds magical powers. The weekend stands within reach. The sun shines a little brighter.  Use the charming force of that day to initiate learning that doesn’t appear to be learning.


Self-Inventory: The Key to Realizing Writing Goals

In the freshness of August, everything seemed possible.  A new school year.  Pencils were sharp. Apathy didn’t exist yet.

At that time, my students and I set goals.  And we took an honest inventory of the personal barriers that stood in our way as well as the habits we wanted to cultivate to assist us in achieving our goals.

But now we are three months in—one week and two days away from Thanksgiving Break—and I can see the sluggishness, the fatigue, the caving to our old habits instead of forging new habits that lead to realizing our goals.

Sometimes our best intentions are buried under the avalanche of life.  And the first step to digging out is naming the time stealers, being honest about how we contribute to our own dysfunction, realizing how we sabotage our goals.

On Monday, I will ask students to read the list of behaviors they need to avoid and the list of habits they need to develop. Many of the hurtles they named are the same pitfalls all writers feel as they struggle to complete a creative project.

Here is our list. Here’s to recalibrating,  to finishing out the year by avoiding our worst habits and cultivating better ones.

Barriers to Overcome Habits to Cultivate
·         Too much time spent reading

·         Drinking too much caffeine

·         Procrastinating all the time

·         Being afraid to attempt something

·         Distracting myself

·         Lying to myself about distracting myself

·         Apathy

·         Last minute writing

·         Online shopping

·         Staying up too late

·         Wasting time on the Internet

·         Binge watching TV

·         Smoking

·         Drinking too much

·         Staying up late

·         Putting stuff off

·         Being an asshole

·         Putting TV and books before my writing

·         Having no initial self confidence

·         Procrastination through apathy

·         Relying on clichés

·         Staring at the disco ball all class

·         Talking/laughing/sleeping in class

·         Getting fat

·         Overwriting

·         Saying “I’ll do it later.”

·         Peer Pressure

·         Believing that saying you’re a writer is what the entire Internet does and that everyone’s already finished a novel

·         Giving up before I even try

·         Fear of not getting things right

·         Controlling volume and narrative excess

·         Believing that I don’t have what it takes to be a writer


·         Being okay with silence

·         Driving me word count

·         Draining laptop batteries

·         Writing

·         Learning language

·         Loving myself

·         Reading

·         Sleeping

·         Caring

·         Hard work

·         Time management

·         Observing details

·         Understanding people

·         Taking risks

·         Doing research outside of class

·         Filling notebooks (committing to them)

·         Looking for story ideas

·         Looking at new genres of writing

·         Submitting stuff

·         Thinking

·         Sitting up with the empty page/the pencil

·         Life, in general

·         Doing things, in general

·         Goodness/decency/closure

·         Compliments/taking compliments

·         Self-control/restraint

·         Progress

·         Time management

·         Not procrastinating

·         Books

·         Exercise

·         Myself

·         Conciseness

·         Narrative poems

·         $WAG

·         Minimalism

·         Spell check

·         Coffee





Literary Sweatshops, Part II: FAQ about High School Creative Writing Workshops

What are my responsibilities as a workshop reader?

    • Be a receptive reader, and let the writer know her manuscript affected you. For example:“I laughed here . . .”  “I almost cried when. . . ” “I could just see this . . .” “You made this place come alive” “I identified completely with this person”  are all phrases that are appropriate responses to written work.
    • Be an interpretative reader, and let the writer know how you “read” his manuscript — “This is what I saw happening here — ” “You made me hate this person when he said –”
    • Be a specific reader, and let the writer know precisely where the writing is effective or ineffective, where it achieves its purpose, and where the writer might improve it or try something else These are not helpful comments:  “It was great — I wouldn’t change a thing” or “I don’t like stories about puppies” or “I think you should set this story in 1920 instead of the future.”
    • Always, in both spoken and written comments, be kind, understanding, and supportive. We are all on this creative road together.         

What if I hate the manuscript?

Find something to like – – the subject matter, a metaphor on page five, the description of the setting, an image.  In your written comments, try to begin with something positive and then move on to problems you see in the manuscript.  As a reader, focus on the writing and the craft; do not judge the rightness or wrongness of the characters themselves or the morality of their choices.

What if the author is such a good writer that I can’t find anything to criticize?

Telling an author what she did that worked is as beneficial than telling her what did not work.  Focus on responding as a reader, telling the author the effect the manuscript had on you as you read it, maybe giving an interpretation or summary of what is going on. Point out sentences or sections you especially liked, telling why specifically.

What if I don’t know what to say when it comes my time to talk about an essay?

    • Try to understand what kind of story the author is trying to tell. Make notes on the manuscript as you go, and tell the author what you understood about the story she is trying to tell.
    • Refer to the notes you have prepared to give to the author when the time comes to discuss the piece. It is up to the author to do with those notes as she will.
    • Give the author the kinds of practical comments you wouldliketo receive in a tone and manner in which you would like to receive them.  Learn to communicate constructively without being rude, sarcastic, or overly funny.
    • Say what you think about the piece even if it might sound silly or wrong. You have to practice to get better at this. Listen to others in the workshop who seemed to have a handle on this, and learn from them.

When the time comes for my piece to be workshopped, I’m afraid they will attack my “baby”?

It is not easy to have something as personal as writing criticized by a group of people. I’m not sure what advice to give here, other than it gets easier with practice.  One thing that can help is if we are all gentle with one another — not in the sense that we withhold criticism, but that the tone and manner we use to criticize makes it clear we are FOR the writer’s success.

 Do I have to take everyone’s advice?

No. As the author, you are the final judge of your manuscript.  You decide whether to revise or edit, whether to take any of the advice your classmates or teacher give you.  It is recommended, in any case, that you put your manuscript aside for a while, then go through it and see which of the suggestions feel “right” to you.  You may end up not using any of our suggestions, but perhaps we have shown you something about your manuscript that you may not have considered before.

Remember, have faith in yourself and trust your own voice. Writing takes a lifetime, not one year.