Online Teaching Stories

Online Teaching for Creative Writing - The First Class


The background students see for online classes.

For almost two years I've been teaching and developing the creative writing course for my department at a university in South Korea. The department focuses on building up academic English for students who will engage in the international communities in their various specialities. As a writer, of course I was eager to add this option for students to learn how to write in English with more innovation and have enjoyed developing the course to fit the needs of our students.

Going into 2020, I was planning to dabble in some academic research in connection to this course. Then, COVID-19 spread into our peninsula and the semester was delayed.

This was great for my writing. I've been able to make some changes to my book draft that I might have had to delay for months or given up on altogether. So, even though I've been pretty isolated, I've enjoyed my time.

As South Korea saw the explosion of virus diagnoses, the rumour and finally confirmation of online classes spread. A huge part of my instruction style depends on my interaction with students. I'm an expressive teacher verbally and physically. I also like to be available for students before and after class to speak about any issues they might have.

Needless to say, I was dubious about this online teaching malarkey. Our school took their time confirming things and this could have driven me crazy with pre-planning changes and then re-planning everything once I knew the real needs. But I've been in Korea long enough to learn that there's no point in worrying until something happens, because when or if it does, it'll be different than expected. Finally that lesson has sunk in and I wasn't even concerned this past weekend as we approached the first week of classes.

Thanks to technology advances and the huge demand already in place for learning anywhere you happen to be, my usual methods of teaching should be mostly possible. In fact, I'm looking forward to trying out some functions and finding new ways to freshen up my teaching plans.

Today was our first online creative writing class. It went very well, although it is a little taxing trying to engage the class while finding the right button and making sure the correct documents are available for everyone. Most went as planned. It started with looking at what writing is; in essence, storytelling. We read quotations from famous authors about why they write and then thought about our own reasons. This was great preparation to challenge students for their first assignment: flash/micro fiction. Again, we looked at examples, discussing how they were created to cause an impression on the reader. Finally, the students took time themselves to think about what they want to do with their writing - the impression/emotion/experience/conclusion the reader should have at the end.

Thursday will be our second class. I'm looking forward to trying out mini meeting rooms for students to work in teams and then share what they created. I'll update you on how the technology and the teacher manage it all.




The Problem with a Broken Hammock - Day Two Online


Imagine being on this when the thud happens.

Almost a year ago, I persuaded my husband that our lives would greatly improve if we bought a hammock. During his first little rest hanging above the ground, he quickly agreed that my purchase was wise and it has been a welcome haven for both of us to relax with a book or for a nap. 

The other day, though, while laying on the hammock myself, there was a sudden thump and my back met with the ground. Our dear hammock collapsed on top of me as one of the supports bent and cracked. 

Of course, my immediate thought was to get online and order a replacement. With covid-19, though, I didn't think this should be a priority and instead mourned the loss with my husband through many laments. 

End of story? Not exactly. 

Yesterday, when I woke up early to finish preparing some class work before my morning online lessons, I found that I could not see properly. Blind spots obscured my vision so that as I messaged family to pray about the situation, I could not see the words I was typing fully and most likely sent a few typos. With my family 9 hours behind, they were just about to go to bed, but saw the message in time and began praying, over the phone or just on their own.

Thankfully, within 30 minutes the spots began to fizzle and then fade. By the time I started classes, I could see almost everything and was able to conduct the lessons well. After classes, with a huge headache, I knew that rest was in order. But how do you rest without a hammock? Honestly, for me, not that well. I may have sang out a few more grief filled sobs.

This morning my creative writing students joined me for our second lesson of the term. I woke up very thankful for my perfect vision, even though my headache remained. I took time to read the bible and pray to find some peace. This time of correcting my perspective and remembering God as my Lord is an imperative part of life. It's not a fix for when I need help because I need this communion with God every day as a basic activity. 

Class started well and we had plenty to do. Honestly, I wish I'd been able to focus better to plan a more interactive and entertaining class. (If I had a working hammock...) We covered POV and tense as part of the foundations of writing. I was able to send the students into mini groups to gather some ideas for time order transitions. Unfortunately, this was probably the most exciting time for them because they could share and discuss together. 

After this, we had writing practice, using one story prompt told in different POV and tenses. A simple exercise, but thankfully one that provided a lot of opinions afterwards, as students shared their experiences of the difficulties they felt or the comfort in preferred methods of narration.

My students today all preferred to use the third person, some in limited perspective and some omniscient. A few talked about ways to approach second person that inspired the others to try this again. 

It surprised me that no-one enjoyed first person all that much. In my own writing I find that I naturally start most of my stories in first person singular. I've wondered why that is and pushed myself more and more to write in other POV, but I regularly find that if the story idea comes to me in sentences or clear pictures, they are told in this perspective.

My WIP, which started as a short story and the first prose I ever seriously tried out, is first person singular. However, the two stories accepted for publication a few years ago were both third person omniscient. While first person may be an instinctive POV for my writing, I've had success with others. It'll be fun to see how my students develop in this area. 

Rest is essential. How we rest is crucial to proper relaxation and further performance. I'll keep this in mind and remember that God offers peace and rest. But I'm also going to search deals for a new hammock. 



A Half Expected Guest - Day Three Online


Top right: the speaker in question.


An announcement came through the apartment speakers this morning. I suppose I should explain at this point that in South Korea, most apartment buildings broadcast announcements through speakers installed in each home. I've heard that this can get rather annoying with random intrusions happening perhaps once a day, or more. Thankfully, our building management is sparing with these and I usually know when to expect them because the contents have already been advertised in the elevator and by email.

This time, the management needed to let us know when they would start sending a lady with sanitation equipment to spray this on drains around the houses. It could have been any time between 9:20 am - 3:00 pm. But I knew it would be right in the middle of my morning classes. 

Just around 9:10 am, as I double checked the files and computer camera position, right on cue: May I have your attention ..... (Except that it played in Korean and then repeated in English.)

When the sanitation lady arrives on our floor, she has to ring the doorbell for us to open the door, or else she uses the master key to enter and do her work. Not wanting any interruption to my class, I opened the door and left it ajar, with the door to the room I was teaching in open as well. 

You'd be correct in thinking that this was not enough to avoid a nice Korean lady appearing in our creative writing class this morning. Of course, the only door she wished to use to access the veranda drains was the one in the room where I was teaching.

Thankfully, students were in the middle of group projects, creating a story inspired by a picture of a baby running away. We'd already practised some sensory writing by taking time to draft ideas of how to describe the sights, sounds, smells, touch and taste of sweets/candies. I asked students to consider the senses to add to their narrative of the baby in the picture. There was some nice description of action and emotions, with many students already attempting some 'showing, not telling'.

To round off the class, I read The Wish by Roald Dahl out loud to the class and we discussed how the author makes the simple descriptions of a carpet come alive and adds tension, risk and purpose for the narration. Students had just a little time to consider how they could add more to their baby stories with all these skills in mind. We're planning to continue this task a little more later and I'm excited to see how they will develop their basic story concepts into engaging prose.

Perhaps if our guest had arrived earlier and interrupted before I showed the baby picture, I could have used that moment as their prompt. We need to remember and be open to using these small moments that could add interest and reveal the emotions and desires of our characters in subtle ways.




Resting my Eyes - Day Four Online


The first view point, not even half way up.



Last week, when I had some issues with my eyes, my mother ordered me to look outside and let my eyes rest with nature. When I tried that my eyes nearly screamed with shock and it took an awfully long time to focus properly on the details. Part of me thought that maybe it was that there wasn't enough nature outside my window - too many buses and buildings. A week later, I've not been outside the house or felt much urge to watch those buses.


This morning's class whizzed by and suddenly it was the end of the teaching week. My students discussed ideas about genre and practised first sentences that attempted to reveal the genre and engage the readers. It's a simple class, but it's a lot of fun because the students reveal their ingenuity. Well, mostly. There are always a few cliches, but we don't worry about that in this early stage. 

After class, and a good few online administrative tasks, I finally got out of the house. Been planning it all week but those admin tasks really got in the way. 

As I went outside, I was anxious to get out and go far, but I did also feel an odd trepidation that I think most of us will be feeling these days. It wasn't exactly fear of the virus, but more of opening up my world again to more than just my home. This feeling was minuscule, but it would be an interesting thing to note for a future story.

A friend was walking along and it's been a good while since we've seen each other. Both of us were smiling and waving, but we kept our distance. It was easier to do this because the other party was on the phone, but it revealed a little more of what social distancing should be. It really wasn't worth us getting close, even if we had time because that friend has a little one at home that I'm eager to meet as soon as it's safe.

I entered the forest trail and debated about which route to take. I could go the easy path I regularly take to take the scenic route to the subway, or I could challenge my legs to rise higher up the mountain. I chose the harder path. A little bit of climbing took me to the first viewing spot. Here my eyes encountered their biggest hurdle. 

The sun, through fog and clouds, felt sharp and the newly bloomed flowers, while bright, fuzzed into their greenish, brownish, greyish backgrounds. 

Suddenly I realised that apart from food, all I've seen the past week are man made furnishings and computer screens. And that's not good.

I kept going up but little specks of rain started pinging on my arms and face. It was time to head back to safely manage those steeper sections. On the way back down, I became distracted by some issues that have been bugging me lately and my thoughts switched to prayers simply because I asked God to be with me and be the one to lead my thoughts and understanding.

Just one hour. One hour to break out of my online, at home rut. I had rested my eyes with this reset and rested my heart in the only place that gives peace. It was a good day.





Technical Mistakes - Day Five Online


Online teaching props.
(Tomato made by my writing buddy. Shoe box and books get webcam at perfect angle. Don't hurt me, I'll read them soon!)



I made a big technical error today. It's not surprising that this would happen eventually. When I started the audio for our reading passage, I asked if students could hear it and saw one student nod. They must have been thinking about something else.

Thankfully one of the students stayed on the line at the end of class to ask if I could show the link to listen to the audio. This was an easy fix: just an announcement on the portal.

This mistake didn't affect the lesson task of pointing out uses of figurative and lyrical language in the text, or later editing sentences to include these elements and make more interesting writing. In fact, the students did fantastically in both of these tasks. I sent them off in teams to analyse, then again to write, jumping into different side rooms to assess comprehension and be available. 

To show, instead of tell, the idea of a "fun game", we had time passing quickly, ignorance of work deadlines and descriptions of adventures. As an embellishment of a "dark and scary night", we had the absence of light, a broken light bulb and eerie trepidation along a creaky floor. They're catching on quickly to this idea of subtly showing, not telling. 

With this being the first noticeable technology mishap and my students engaging to already respond to exercises so well, I'm really getting away easy with these online lessons!

Outside of the classroom, things are progressing as well. The students just submitted their first draft of a story inspired by a chosen proverb. While I'm curious about their ideas, I'm a little overwhelmed with the changes to teach in this new way, so the thought of sitting down to mark out notes on how to improve these drafts is something I want to avoid.

How do I avoid it? When not preparing lessons: a little TV, a little cooking, a lot of eating, a lot of reading and some writing. 

Speaking of which, one thing I've enjoyed during this time of social distancing is my video chat writing/working dates with a prior colleague and continuing close friend. We used to meet about once a week in person to write or grade together, and saw no reason not to move it online. It's great for de-stressing and accountability. (In fact, she's by my side right now.)

Like the students help each other to come up with ideas, expand upon them and then review, we do this with our stories and our classes. Wouldn't it be nice if some of my students kept in contact after this term and continued to support each other? I wonder if there are some ways I can encourage this. Suggestions welcome!





Fun and Games - Day Six Online

Part of today's class inspiration.


I spy with my little eye something beginning with... "s". Thinking? Got it?

Students! My students today played this as our roll call game. I'm a firm believer in active roll call. My students have to answer questions or play games as their response to check who has arrived on time. This does three important tasks to start the class off: helps me remember their names (I'm TERRIBLE with names, even though I remember the face and past events); helps students get to know each other; helps us all start to think creatively.

Thinking creatively is important for all of my classes, but particularly for my writers. Playing "I spy" might seem like a dumb thing for a bunch of 20-year-olds but they always humour me and got into it even more this time. Some of the spied objects could only be seen by the speaker, so the guessers had to think outside their own visible boxes on the screen.

After this, it was story writing practice all day. Usually, I introduce the element of writing we're covering and then give them exercises, but we've covered enough that they just need time and opportunity to do it. 

We started with sharing a story from our week. When other students listened, they had to note down questions, then ask these at the end. What did the storyteller miss? Students needed to consider how they had chosen to explain events, but more importantly, what did their audience pick up on and care about.

A time of editing was followed by a second reading and more listener notes. Students were critically thinking about how each other writes and how to advise or challenge each other.

With this practice, the students were grouped to write a story together. They were told this time to deeply consider the elements we've covered so far: plot, character, POV, tense, figurative language, genre and philosophy. They also had to incorporate three things: a blanket, a puzzle and fake money.

Something amazing when they came back to share their stories.

Nearly there!


We had fake money used in a childhood game playing market, to woo a best friend. A puzzle contained a map for a special birthday surprise during lockdown (yes, even my students are bringing it into their writing), and then...

A man lost his wallet, only to have it returned with extra money.

This was the perfect conclusion to the class, leading me so easily into rounding up with gives writing depth: our humanity. We love to read because it shows us or asks us to consider who we are and what it means to be human. When that scenario was introduced, every student picked up slightly, already curious about what they would do in that situation. Then, as they hard the events, they related it to themselves - "I wouldn't do that." "I'd buy something else." "I'd give it back." "I'd...". 

Thinking through their own perspective, they reacted to the fictional actions and then waited for the consequences. 

As Mark Twain wrote, "There is no such thing as a new idea. It is impossible. We simply take a lot of old ideas and put them into a sort of mental kaleidoscope. We give them a turn and they make new and curious combinations."

None of the ideas my students suggested were completely original (although they were thoughtful and creative; I was very pleased). It was how they played with them and then engaged us and brought us into the stories that mattered.

Finished! A surprise from a close friend - hard to explain this in-joke.





A Tomato On The Tomato By My Tomato - Day Seven Online


My tomatoes were dancing on camera to help teach articles and prepositions.


My poor students probably had their most boring class yet on Tuesday. At least in other classes there was time and opportunity for interesting interactions that related to storytelling. Today, the most open time was while asking them to guess which preposition they thought matched a situation. And why.

Last night at midnight, the deadline for the second story draft passed. Students are now expected to do some peer reviews by next week's class. This means trying to proofread those awkward things like prepositions and articles, as well as suggesting areas that need revised. 

While I'm teaching creative writing, I also have to remember that I'm teaching English as a second language, as well. It's easy to get distracted by the content aspect of the class and dismiss the difficulties my students have with the basics of the language. After all, that is somewhat the point of the class: learn through practising in contexts that are real. 

Even those born in English speaking countries have problems with basic English grammar. It just so happens that those are the first things my students learn and it sticks with them so well that they don't make the common mistakes you might see online. 

Their or there? Obvious to my students. We're, were, where? Simple. Affect or effect? No problem.

A/an, the or nothing? Ahhhh! 

In, on, at, by, for, to? Help!!!

The biggest area of grading isn't in these minor points. Showing they understand skills of using language in creative ways is how my students earn their grade. So, for these short stories, or their midterm on Thursday, while they might lose a small fraction if their writing lacks clarity, they'll still pass with a great grade when they consider POV, tense, genre, philosophy and how to bring that all together using language that engages and evokes the reader.

My goal is to push them to think differently, mostly in creative ways, but also to assist them in becoming more fluent as they strive to share ideas with their readers in a clear and enjoyable way. We need the basics of language in order to do that. Let's just hope they had a little fun practising it with the help of my cuddly friends.






Midterms - Day Eight Online



Hopefully more of the left than the right.

Today was the dreaded midterm test. Our eighth class, but we've done three extra activities on the side to make up for the lost time from our delayed start to the term and a few holidays in the schedule. 

The students were worried because anything we've learned so far could be on it. I was nervous because this was my first time setting it up online.

And of course there was a hick-up. Or two. The first link I sent students claimed it was "expired". I still haven't worked why, but I was able to send a new link and that worked fine. Until a few students noticed that they could only enter numbers as answers for two of the questions in section one. Since we were in the virtual classroom while they were taking the test, I just asked them to send their answers to those questions via the chat function. It's a little work for me but hopefully it eased their minds that there was an immediate solution.

All in all, not a disaster.

So what was on the test? 

Section one was analysing a passage. They had to tell me what genre it was and what words implied this genre; what plot points were covered by the extract; formatting issues in the layout; and then a couple of explanations about how the story shows instead of tells, or when it should do this.

For example, "why is the word clicked used instead of tapped?" "Which word could replace 'desperately' in text?"

If I show you the story, would you be able to answer?

Write your test answers in the comments section. ;)


Section two had a story arc that students had to read and then turn into prose. They had to select two sections of the story arc to write as 3-5 sentences which must include use of figurative language and senses. Continuity, understanding, along with general punctuation and grammar in the piece, as a rough draft, are assessed.

How would you add your own voice to make this into a real story?


This is a good way to get a sense of who has understood the concepts and how to execute them. There are always some who write too much, and ones who keep sentences running on too long. Those are often the ones who finish early. Others stick too close to the story arc syntax while a few stray too far away. One or two surprise me with their gentle and effective use of language to add more to the story than what I'd simply stated in the outline.



Best get to grading. And making notes on their short story drafts!






Different Editions - Day Nine Online



My students are assigned two passages to read each week for the first five weeks. With midterms last week, we only got to reviewing the fourth set today. 

The article gave tips for developing comedic writing, which the class elaborated on in terms of how it could help general writing skills. I then asked them to look for points in The Happy Prince by Oscar Wilde where these tips were used for humour or to emphasise other points.

We listened to the fiction passage (successfully this time) but it turned out that the audio version was slightly different from the edition I had asked my students to read. Oops. 

Still, I think it was a great experience for students to read the shorter version of the story by themselves and get used to the language and style before hearing an extended edition read out dramatically. I had hoped to send the students out in teams to pin point some of these moments in the story and share these with their discussion thoughts. 

With time running out, though, we had to move on to understanding the basic elements of the next class assignment. This task has students propose an idea for their final, longer story. We talked about methods of research and students pondered over what element of writing they wished to improve in order to make their next story stronger in literary expression. Another interactive activity I had planned on and usually do with students is to send them off to find possible sources for writing research. Perhaps I packed too much into this one lesson and should consider separating the topics next time I teach this class.

The biggest excitement of the day was that the bigger deadlines are looming. A few students had concerns about all the tasks yet to complete. It's natural that they would worry, after all, their peer reviews and notes from me have only just been returned and the deadline for the final version of their short stories is coming up.

In fact, looking at the class schedule last weekend, I considered swapping around the current classes and the following set. After seeing the heaviness some students had because one assignment was starting while another was yet to be completed, I have decided that I will swap these around next term. This is only a minor change compared to the mid way through term changes I made in the autumn and even as I edited the syllabus to teach this spring. It's good for teachers and writers to adapt and be adaptable. I'm sure my students are struggling with this skill enough as they read their review notes.






Questions Galore - Day Ten Online


Thursday's class was a day for asking questions. For too much of the recent classes, my students have been patiently listening, so today I set them a task to go think of what they don't know already. 

In pairs, they chatted and plotted (for questions, ideas and writing). Then, I joined each group twice: once to clarify that they understood their current task, and a second time to answer further questions.

Some important questions were about the looming short story and flash fiction deadline: 

  • Do I have to edit and submit both drafts and a flash story? (No, just one and a flash, phew!) 
  • Is the deadline on Sunday or Monday? (End of Sunday night, before Monday starts.) 
  • Can I change my story completely to a new idea? (Sure! But you might not have any help.)

Since that class, one student did send me a new draft and asked if I might take a look. Thankfully I did have time and this student hadn't sent one of the draft options previously, so I thought it would be fair enough to give a few notes. It turned out that the student had been working on that new draft for a while and already made edits, so what I read was better structured and developed. It was easy to make encouraging advice on how to improve it even further.

Other questions were to fully understand the new 'proposal' task: 

  • Can I choose an element of writing that we didn't talk about in class? (Please do! We didn't go into detail for many important elements, including punctuation or small issues relating to different figurative language. Find what interests you.) 
  • Do I need to explain my whole story idea in the essay section? (Only what relates to how you will develop your use and understanding of the element.) 
  • How much detail should I put in the outline section? (Not much. Just enough to show thought and connection to the element.) 
  • Can I change my idea later? (Yes!) 
  • What is the difference between this proposal and the later post writing critical essay? (This is less formally structured and is to give you practice for the bigger critical essay.)

While students have been editing stories and contemplating what to do for their next project, I have been grading midterms. Just as in past tests done on paper in the class room, there has been a regular variety of types of answers. I can say with great confidence that my students seem to be smoothly switching to online learning and are grasping the concepts from class very well.

Any questions you have about our classes?






Achievements - Day Eleven Online

Green for good mark ups.

Success! Short stories and flash fiction has been edited and submitted for grading. That means it's time for me to focus on grading them and for students to explore their next project. We don't stop for a minute all term.

The Final Story Proposal was introduced last week, but today students were able to concentrate more clearly on ideas for research. This is all I wanted them to do today; think out loud. There was time for this in randomly assigned groups. Then again in teams with similar interests.

So what are my students interested in researching to help improve their own writing? 

  • POV: switching it to look at different angles
  • character: how they change and the set types
  • genre: formats to follow
  • language: personification, subtext in dialogue
  • senses: which ones add most interest and how to show, not just tell

It makes me so proud to hear their interests and see what matters to them at this point in their writing. Each of them is embracing the challenge of looking into topics they've never considered before or ones that they have realised they are weaker in applying.

This is not something I actually do myself, though. When I start a story, I have an image or an interaction in mind. Next, the ending appears and I eventually work my way to connect the two. At some point in my wandering, I get what the story is trying to say. While re-drafting, the weaknesses become clear.

The important thing about re-drafting is time. Time to read, write other things, work for income and interact with the world. While I do this, the things I couldn't get right work themselves to the front of my mind, like a splinter you couldn't get out with tweezers. 

These students don't have the luxury of time. My job is to accelerate the process and offer them the skills to do this on their own once the class is over. While this is happening, we also have to cover academic writing; how to research in a logical way and present it professionally.

All of this in a foreign language. It's new and it's pedantic. But it's the first time that the students have full control. Even structure is up to them at this point, as they get used to understanding and presenting their literary thoughts. Hopefully it's interesting to them, maybe even a little fun, and they can be pleased with how much they've already accomplished in completing two creative pieces. 






Student Take Over - Day Twelve and Thirteen Online

A slippery task for unsure students.

There's been enough of me talking in class. Thankfully, last Thursday and this Tuesday, that changed completely. I hardly spoke at all!

Each student had about ten minutes to share a story for the class to read and then ask questions about interesting use of language that would help reveal deeper meaning in the text. As they began this activity, everyone was a little on edge and unsure, but they soon realised that they had the answers and I wasn't setting them up to fall.

That initial session brought up interesting ideas, which included:

  • Why is this the father's reaction in Oysters by Anton Chekhov? 
  • What is it like to want to laugh alone like the officer in Give It Up by Franz Kafka? 
  • Why is this behaviour shown at the end of Borrowing a Match by Stephen Leacock? 
  • How is the mood of New York connected to the narrator in The Bell Jar by Sylvia Plath? 
  • Since we're not from a Western culture, how can we know who 'Nicholas' is in Smoke and Mirrors by Neil Gaiman?

It was impressive to see how students approached the task, some by revealing the questions before reading, some by asking more about little details and others by opening more for general reactions to the tone of the pieces.

This continued with students on Tuesday asking:

  • Why is this mood created in Likable by Deb Olin Un? 
  • How can we assess the use of POV in this version of Salubrities Abroad from Punch Magazine? 
  • What does The Zebra Storyteller by Spencer Holst imply about the function of us as writers? 
  • What is plan A in the story Plan B by Nicolas Julian?

These sessions of sharing stories and leading discussions is intended to build up the students' abilities and confidence in sharing with each other about literary intentions. In just a couple of weeks, they will be doing something similar as they critique each other's final story drafts. 

For now, the students are on holiday until next Thursday. In South Korea, we just happen to have a couple of holidays in a row (Buddha's birthday and Children's day) to make it a longer break. Yesterday they all submitted their proposals, so it's time for them to relax and approach the first draft of their final piece.






I Can't Draw - Day Thirteen Online

Representing The Zebra Storyteller by Spencer Holst, Plan B by Nicolas Julian and Salubrities Abroad from Punch Magazine

At end of class, the Tuesday before last (before our long holiday), we needed an activity that would somehow have winners. The prize was first priority on the sign up sheet for the coming peer review workshops. By signing up for workshop A, B, C or D, a student also decides their deadline for the draft, edited piece, critical essay and presentation based on the date of the workshop. It's kind of a big deal.

I usually ask students to fill in the blanks of a story sentence. (Something like "I was _______ at the _______ before ________ because I needed _________.")

Since we're on zoom these days, I thought it would be fun for students if we used the whiteboard. I added text to show the dates for different deadlines and then tried drawing pictures that related to the stories we had read recently. 

This was a mistake! One student was quick to guess that I had drawn the French flag, and another could work out that the next was a double-decker bus, but no one could work out that these were a clue to remind them of the french pronunciation that was mentioned in the story about people from London (Salubrites Abroad).

My next drawing was of a cigarette, followed by a broken mug, but still students did not connect it to the narrator's explanations in Plan B. 

Finally, my worst drawing of all, a zebra. By now, I had revealed the connection of the pictures to give clues to the stories, so this might be how the students were able to guess what these squiggles were supposed to become and that it was inspired by The Zebra Storyteller.

Well, we ran out of time and the sign up became a free for all. Next time, I'll stick to what I know. Speaking of, what would your answers be to the gaps in the sentence? Here's my random answer.

I was _singing_ at the _kitchen sink_ before _I started washing dishes_ because I needed _to encourage the water to heat quickly_.






The Return of Online Teaching

Standing desk set-up.


You may have noticed a rather long break in posts. Apologies. There are a few reasons for this, which I'll try to explain briefly.

Voices: there are so many out there and it didn't seem the time for mine. Instead I needed to read and listen to others.

Time: with the pandemic and grading pressure, I had to prioritise my job and other commitments.

Purpose: processing some things led to a feeling of pointlessness in my voice (here and in current writing). 

The first and last are clearly connected. I've often struggled with this self-insignificance, particularly in posting online. While I hope this site will be a way to connect with others, I am a person who often wonders why someone else would want to know about my processes and thoughts. I don't like to presume myself an interesting person. 

However, the series I was working on was started for a reason and a few people have been encouraging me about it, so we'll continue where we left off. Classes have already started again for another (safety-first) online term. Sharing the rest of the online creative writing teaching posts will help to improve my teaching this term, but I do hope it's somewhat interesting for you to read as well.

For now, I most likely won't be writing much other than that. Time has helped me learn more from the voices that I need to be listening to but I still need a while to process, understand more and develop. 






So Irritating (A Short Story) - Day Fourteen Online

Is this the most irritating sound in the world? Or is it hearing an echo on Zoom?

After a refreshing break, I've pondered over the best way to share these online teaching experiences. With the class motto "show, don't tell" already being repeated back to me by the new students, I have a strong desire to do just that. So instead of telling you what happened in the lesson I'm covering today, I'll list the key moments and write a rough story inspired by them. (We'll see if I can keep it up in future posts.) Based on true events, but completely made up, including characters, here is: "So Irritating".

The events:

1. Roll call - sounds that make us quiver.
2. Task - developing prose and reviewing skills.
3. Exercise - describe setting, describe action, then bring it together.

The story:

Student 1 entered the Zoom room five minutes early and immediately regretted initiating her camera. Professor B wasn't even there yet. Student 2 was, though. And he always keeps his camera on. Which made it a little rude to disappear and leave him on his own. It's not like she didn't want to watch his every gesture and memorise it for later daydreams, but her fear of stumbling over her words or having to clear a blush while talking to him way outweighed that pleasure. He didn't have his microphone on, so S1 took the chance to look in her mug and pretend she needed a refill before he had a chance to possibly greet her.

Away from the camera, she watched as Professor B arrived, along with Students 3 through 7, until she felt safe enough to sit and listen without pressure to contribute. Professor B, however, had another plan and immediately asked what was in her mug. Pressing the space bar for a temporary unmute, she answered, "coffee" and hoped there wouldn't be a follow up to that. She really had tea, but knew she'd be asked what type and then maybe if it had milk or something strange like that, because the British professor was obsessed with finding out if any students drank it her way. Not the Korean way.

The two minute verbal warning passed and then the professor asked the question of the day: what sound makes you quiver? Thankfully she immediately explained and spelled out that new word while shaking her body in example. Student 1 took a note. If she could add it to a story, maybe it'd subtly encourage generous grading. She got to the 'e' when she heard her name. First today? She had to think quick, "um... the morning alarm". Everyone's expression grew weary just at the thought. A few more answers caused the same or even worse tension: S4 said, "screeching on a board"; S7 added, "snoring", and somehow the last became the most impressive with S9 giving them, "that certain pitch my mum has when calling me for dinner". Thinking about it after a little laugh, S1 remembered that S9 always spoke for the longest time during the first activity, but nothing had made quite as much sense as today's comment. Not even when he discussed ideas in whichever language in the breakout rooms.

The screen flicked over to a plot list. "You might remember this." S1 read the first line and her lungs immediately filled as if she was back to last week, planning how to use any type of metaphor, simile or even onomatopoeic word to help her grade. "Yes, it's from your mid-term test. We'll use these points to create something new today." S1 knew there was a perfect word to describe this moment. She scanned back in her notes. There it was: cruel. "We've focused on senses for description, talked about characters and we know about plot. Today we're going to think about how to put these together more professionally. It's not easy!" 

Professor B was right about that. Even though the task was broken down (setting, then action, then merge together) and they had plenty of time in breakout rooms to freely chat, Student 1 found herself dropped in the same group as Student 9. To begin with, she was thought he'd take over and lead everything to his own confused thinking. That would have been fine with her! Especially since he'd probably be happy to take on the sharing role back in the main room. In reality, he was lovely. He asked her her thoughts and ran with them to add new things. They layered on top of each other, almost sounding like a ping pong rally, until each word was typed and the timer appeared to warn that they'd be forced back into the main room in one minute. Having to concentrate that hard with someone who actually cared about her ideas was tough and embarrassing. "So how do we present?" S1 asked, only so they could confirm it wouldn't be her job. "How about a paragraph each? Professor B said it'd be nice to work as a team in presenting as well as writing." 10 seconds left. A nod was all she could muster.

Back with the whole class, thankfully S9 had enough sense not to volunteer first. Professor B was careful to give praise to each team, "nice use of metaphor there", "well done in building the tension for the thriller genre", "I didn't expect that explosion!". But she also highlighted the weak areas, "watch out for change of tense", "since you made the child your narrator, it might be better to have more simple vocabulary". 

And then, it was their turn. Professor B smiled at their description of the smell of the cookies and relating it to the mother's hugs. She did warn against spending too long on the sound of the wind from the open window upstairs, but her compliment over the smile on the boy's face melting to show his fear made both S1 and S9 sit up in pride.

There was still one more task, though. And it was much more awkward than reading their own words out loud. 10 minutes to read another group's work and highlight two things to share with the class: areas that showed nice writing and others that needed improvement. It wasn't too hard to find examples of each. But they had to share criticism in front of everyone? S9 cleared his throat, "I guess we just say that it would be better here to use some sounds or smells to add the senses?" He was right and it even helped S1 think of more, "And in that dialogue, they could make it shorter by just an exclamation reaction, not describing the image again."

This time S1 was first to raise her hand and ask to go first. She didn't want to forget their ideas. Professor B was pleased, saying she didn't have anything to add and was impressed with their respectful expressions. S1 and S9 would never know if the other students took inspiration from them or already had their thoughts as well put together. It didn't matter: the joint success in this nasty task felt amazing and unifying for the whole class.

So when Professor B reminded them of the upcoming "workshops" and said that this was exactly what they needed to do for each story in those sessions, the class wasn't totally overwhelmed with dread. Only moderately concerned. 






Workshops (A Short Story) - Day Fifteen to Eighteen Online

Korean spicy rice cake (tteokbokki).


Continuing with fictional re-tellings of last term's online creative writing classes, we've reached the draft workshop sessions. Over two weeks, we had four workshops, each covering 2-3 pieces. Rather than taking a different post for each of these, one short story, in four parts, will cover them all. Some details are true but the characters and their thoughts are made up.

The events:
For each story, volunteers read the piece out loud to start each new discussion. 
The writer was asked to only listen, unless a reader had a specific clarification question, and at the end they could comment or ask their own questions. 
As the instructor, I also stayed silent until it was time to move on to the next piece. I also took notes of the discussions and forwarded these to the writers afterwards, along with detailed draft review notes.

The story:
A: 
Once everyone logs in, Prof B says "alright, class time, welcome everyone to your first workshop" and cameras switch on. Then she dives straight in to the first student's work. Mine! Thought I'd be able to keep the camera angled up and subtly finish off my cereal during role call, but no. Student 9 volunteers to read my piece and for a while it seems he'll have to read all 600 words, but finally Student 4 and then Student 1 also offer to read, so Prof B is happy. That usual goofy smile on her face like we're her little toddlers taking our first steps. You'd think Student 3 would do me a solid and offer to read, but no, he just sits there, probably too distracted by Student 4's beautiful red lips. That's all I notice during her section, and on through the rest of the reading. Then it's silent. Like, no-one at all has a clue what to say about my writing. I don't know if it's because this is the first time and they're nervous or they really aren't inspired enough by my piece to bother about it. Prof B just sits there too. She did tell us it was our time, not hers. Eventually Student 7 says something about the obvious typo I made. It breaks the ice; Student 5 suggests a new title (totally missing the pun I made), Student 8 goes on about a lack of senses and disses my moments of "telling, not showing", and finally Student 9 likens it to an old Korean tale and I'm scared everyone will say it's too similar but he gets cut off by Prof B's buzzer and we move on. I go back to my cereal and there's still a lot of silence for the other reviews, but the same students get bolder with advice.

B:
It's the weekend. My birthday! And instead of enjoying the tteokboki Mum ordered and joining in the heated debate my brother and Dad are having about the government aid for families affected by the pandemic, I'm thinking about what Student 4 said about my story. If anyone else had said, "there's not enough emotion to care about the characters," I'd probably be hushing my family and showing my mum a funny video on YouTube. But she said it. She didn't say much about Student 2's story. Even though everyone else seemed so impressed. Sure, his had more "literary language" like Prof B goes on about. Even his title matched with the theme. I don't understand how he can write creative stuff so easily. If I didn't have every other class with him and only saw him in this class, I'd probably hate him. But it's kinda nice for him to be doing better for once. I wonder if I'd feel the same about Student 9 sucking up all the time if I knew him outside of class. That's it! I need some kind of comparison for people to see a deeper level of the protagonist. Then they'd care and want to see him succeed. Prof B's starting to make some sense.

C:
Consider title, foreshadow the theme/events. Foreshadow? What was that again? Ending a little abrupt, remember to give full resolution and use deeper language. I guess that's Prof B's way of hinting I didn't "show" enough. Don't forget the other characters. They are people too. Not just there to serve the protagonist. How am I supposed to cut words and add extra stuff about the other characters? Like the metaphor of the baby and the crib. Can extend this. I didn't even know that was a metaphor! How did Student 9 see that if I didn't even intend it? These notes are ridiculous. Well, at least there's something. Everyone was so quiet at the start I thought Prof B would actually have to speak just to tell us off. Thank goodness Student 3 has a crush on me. Even though he just said "I liked it. It was pretty." at least that got the conversation started. I just wish Student 2 would have said something so I'd have an excuse to contact him. Maybe I could. Just email saying, hey, it's Student 4 from writing class. Did you finish your final draft? Got any tips? Wow. That's more pathetic than Student 3's comments!

D:
I can feel the sun today, not just see it. Summer is coming! But deadlines first. Stop it Student 5! The point of this walk is to clear your head and forget about assignments. Except, that suggestion to change the POV is still echoing in my mind and keeping my blood pressure pumped up. Sure, Prof B said to let ourselves be angry and take time to let ideas come, but I have to submit the final draft in a few days and I'm still not sure what to do to fix the story. There's no time to stop and smell the roses. Actually, I don't think I've ever done that before. And there aren't any near me. The cherry blossoms have shed their petals; I don't think it's a great idea to kneel on the ground to sniff them. But the bold green of the grass makes a nice backdrop to the soft pink and white confetti. Hmm, is there a way to get that into my story? Prof B would probably love the description. I could work it into a metaphor or simile somehow. I just have to keep the idea in my mind the whole walk back to my room and not get distracted- Oh! Is that Prof B on the other side of the street? Should I greet her? Head down, head down.






Post Writing Critical Skills (A Short Story) - Day Nineteen to Twenty-One Online




Another story, completely fiction, but based on the creative writing class that I've been teaching online due to the COVID situation. Some details are true but the characters and their thoughts are made up.

The events:
Students were left to re-draft their stories in their own time and in class we moved on to critical academic writing. For the first class (day nineteen), we focused on how to critically assess one's own writing and processes in relation to the proposals they made previously. There was a strong emphasis on researching other elements of writing to connect with those they had looked into for their proposals. The next class (day twenty), we revised research and academic writing skills to make arguments more connected and logical. On day twenty-one, students shared their drafts with each other to help smooth out their papers.

The story:
At first you thought this class would be fun; just doss around, writing whatever came into your mind. As long as it was in good English, you'd surely get a top grade. Then the "inspiration" guidelines came and you suddenly had to write about something specific. Next, the teacher added in a critiquing aspect. But not just of your peers - of your own writing and the purpose of the the story. To top if all off, she wanted it to be academically appropriate.

By the time you realised that last point, it was too late to drop the class. So you continued to sign in each week. Complete each assignment. Then you found your mind wondering to that niggling sentence that you knew wasn't working but couldn't figure out how to fix. And that's when you looked up one of those concepts mentioned in class - alliteration. 

Alliteration, it seemed, wasn't only referring to the first letter of each word, but the sounds. Kind of like a poem, but sort of backwards. And you thought of the tongue twister you learned in elementary school when you were first forced to learn this other language - she sells sea shells on the sea shore. This connection led you to search more examples and practice the awkward sounds. At least it was improving your English, although perhaps not in the way intended by your writing teacher.

But it did help you with that line. And further along, when the same theme came up again and you remembered the concept of repetition; to highlight important moments. You imagined the reader, suddenly caught up in the rhythm of the phrase, their mind automatically taken back to the previous special moment and connecting to that important message that sums up the whole story.

Then you went back to that article that inspired the changes and hunted out another, to reference your ideas about tongue twisters. Before you knew it, you had got your argument - the topic sentence/thesis - that Prof B said was oh so important to the academic critical essay. It almost wrote itself. Except, you were the one who painstakingly spent hours thinking how to explain it all in English, then re-arranging sentences and double checking articles, particles and prepositions. But you did it. And you suppose you're kind of proud of the results.






Final Assignment Preparation (A Short Story) - Day Twenty-Two and Twenty-Four Online


A wooden acupuncture tool for the hand.


We made it to the final task (but I've been too overwhelmed with work all this time to write about it). The last five lessons of the term were a mix of methods for preparing students to share their writing with the world in different ways.

For lesson twenty-two, we began to prepare for the "Reading and Review" presentation by discussing how to select specific content from the critical essay and pairing that with an excerpt of the final story. Then in lesson twenty-four, we focused on how to more formally convey information through developing presentation skills; looking at more practical forms to bring clarity during the analysis and then making it lively and animated for more interesting storytelling. Since these were similar in content and part of the same assignment, we'll combine those classes for another story inspired by what the students did in class. (Based on true events, but completely made up. And, for fun, I've decided to play around with different POV and tenses, so this one is in third person future tense.)

The events:
1. Roll call - 'I spy' and share which sense you would give up.
2. Task - Practice sharing ideas with partners to prepare for final presentation assignment.
3. Exercise - Use the short stories to practice finding the areas you wish to improve and sharing thoughts with others in a comfortably formal way.

The story:
They will look around the room as soon as the teacher tells them that their role call will be a game of 'I spy'. The teacher expects the students to roll their eyes at the idea of playing a children's game, but instead most will wonder exactly what she means. When she explains, each will consider how to make their item interesting and fun, but also possible to guess. Then they will all get stuck on one mystery item and the teacher will not make it easy as she stands there in silence to force the class to contribute. That student who picks the W-A-T (wooden acupuncture tool) will kick themselves the rest of the class for causing that awkward moment.

After they finish that first task, it will be time for congratulations, which will be well earned. They will, hopefully, all have submitted their final essays on time. But it won't be time to relax, as the new assignment rubric will be shared on the screen. An assignment like no other in this class, but one they will have prepared for the whole time as they discussed ideas and shared their thoughts about every concept and story they studied so far.

The content will be easy to prepare, since it will only require a selection of previous work. In fact, the teacher will have the students practice this by asking them to select an example of editing from their first assignment and even share their thoughts about it with other students to informally practice this type of exchange, while helping them realise the limit of the time allocation. They will come to discover that five to six minutes will fly by when they are passionate about the topic they share, since they will get cut off mid-point to be thrown back into the main classroom for the teacher's closing comments. And this presentation time must be shared between the storytelling and the analysis!

Then the next week - after forcing them all to think over an impossible question and finding that very few of the class would be comfortable with losing their sense of sight - the teacher will concentrate on how to conduct each section of the Reading and Review task. She will even present an example using aspects of her own writing. She will change position and alter her voice to display various methods of differentiating the dialogue in the reading as she switches to from the male character to the female. Then she will exaggerate the moments where she waves her arm, claps her hands or arches her eyebrows to bring focus to the reasons for changing certain vocabulary words with the theme of missed opportunities in mind. Of course she will make it clear that this vibrancy of actions isn't expected of every student, but in their own way they should consider how to emphasis and engage.

Again, they will be given time to try all this out with a friend. Some will take full advantage of this, drinking in all the remarks and suggestions offered from their classmate after their practice. Others will use the time to prepare their content, in complete silence (microphones muted), fine with winging the gestures and intonation when they face the full class.

Then the only thing left to do will be to wait for their allotted moment to share with the class about what they have each been doing over the last couple of weeks, and get graded for explaining it well. 

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