A Peek Into the Classroom

I loved today! What a great day for teaching. I turned on some music of students volunteering their favorite songs. Today, we listened to Van Halen’s Jump and then Jimmy Eat World’s, The Middle. We began class with a name game: your current breakfast obsession. The majority of the class announced their love of breakfast sandwiches–bagel, egg, bacon, avocado, cheese–and coffee. I tried to convert them to my newfound love of refrigerator oats; I only won over a few sympathetic souls. (Every name game relates to a skill we’re building, and this time, it’s precise characterization: you as a character who eats breakfast.)

Next, I asked for five volunteers to read their “I Am From” poems that we composed as a pre-writing activity to mine our lives for settings, characters, and events that might shape the professional signature story we write. We learned about the sights, sounds, smells, tastes and textures of hometowns like Brooklyn, Pittsburg, Philly, and New Jersey. We clapped and cheered for all the excellent poems.

We watched a video on what makes a great story from the advice of leading filmmakers and producers, and we discussed authenticity, conflict, audience, vulnerability, education, and transformation. We talked about how to tell a life story of transformation that transforms others by teaching them something and inviting them to somehow change.

We then looked at a presentation on five ways to create complexity in a story by using examples of key signature stories from students in the past who grappled with anything from challenging stereotypes, undergoing some kind of conversion experience, or simply making a connection between two otherwise seemingly unrelated things.

By now, we needed a break to sit back and talk about our possible stories. We worked through a planning sheet. A few brave students announced their story ideas and allowed the class to weigh in on whether we’d want to hear a story like that.

And then, my favorite moment arrived: a grammar lesson on using strong verbs in narrative. We looked at before and after examples of dull writing that turned into something magical with vivid verbs and advanced grammar.

As class wrapped up, I introduced the homework assignment: to read more of our book Writing to Change the World (the chapters on the author’s own signature stories) and Russell Brand’s article in the Guardian called, “My Life Without Drugs.” We viewed a few video clips of Brand discussing his personal mission to help others understand a life of addiction.

Time’s up. They stream by, pausing to tell me about this or that possible story or to wonder why their grade wasn’t as high on their professional packet. I lean in and tell them what I’ll say all semester:

Your verbs. Your verbs make all the difference.

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