I’m Teaching Screenwriting

Because this blog is sadly neglected of late, I don’t think I’ve mentioned that I’m teaching a screenwriting class this term.  A friend alerted me to the opportunity around the same time that I was leaving my other day job, and it seemed like a message from the universe saying things would be all right. That if I jumped, a net would appear…or at least enough pieces of rope would appear that maybe I could weave a net.

Teaching has been an “interesting” experience, in ways both positive and negative.  (You could say “you don’t fall into a net without getting a few rope burns,”–although probably you wouldn’t say that, because people wouldn’t really know what you were talking about.) The class was available because it was a newly commissioned “outreach” class. Outreach classes are taught at various high schools. Half of the seats are for community college school students and half are reserved for high school students, who can earn college credit for taking the class. In many cases, these classes are successful. In the case of my class, there was apparently some communication breakdown, because when I called my assigned high school liaison to make arrangements, she informed me that “no one knew” I was coming, that they didn’t have a classroom reserved for me, and that none of their students knew about the class.

The results of this were twofold.

First, I ended up teaching in a classroom with no audio-visual technology. To each class meeting I bring: a projector, a speaker, my laptop, cords and adaptors. I set all this up on some pulled-together student chair desks and project the  resultant image on a cork board in one corner, since there is also not a screen.

Second,  since half of the seats were kept empty for high school students who didn’t know about the class, my class size dropped from a potential 35-40 to about 15, which then became thirteen. Thirteen students is an amazing class size for a beginning writing class. It allows me to get to know the students more as individuals, to read and respond at a different level, to have workshops in class where we have some chance of getting to everyone’s work.  I consider this a more than a fair trade for the lack of amenities.

Here are a few more pros and cons:

Cons:

  • It is time-consuming. The class is located in the valley, To safely arrive by its 3:30 start time, I need to leave the house by  1:30. I arrive home at 7:30. So on the days I teach a two-hour-long class, I am gone for six hours. I also tend to devote another day and a half before each lecture to  preparation.  I am  preparing my lectures from scratch, looking through my various books for the best definitions, browsing YouTube and our DVD collection for the right examples. The classroom has no internet, so I need to download all my media clips in advance and embed them in my Powerpoint presentations, and, since my Powerpoint skills are limited, part of each prep session is spent Googling how to do things like embed videos or make my bullet points appear one at a time.
  • It’s awkward and clunky. I’m constantly navigating the environment. I assign free-writes at the beginning of each class partly because I’m never sure the door will be unlocked in time to set up the equipment. At least once during each class something slightly ridiculous will happen: Someone tells us we need to switch classrooms; the broken clock on the wall  randomly starts loudly ticking as the second-hand jitters back and forth like a bad horror movie; the loudspeaker squawks, followed by an announcement about late buses, or someone’s mom waiting for them on the south side of the building. Yesterday,  out of nowhere, a Linda Ronstadt song began playing over the loudspeaker, continued for about three, agonizing minutes, and then stopped.

Pros:

  • Teaching forces me to do things I’ve intended and wanted to do anyway: Review and clean up class notes from my very expensive education; go through books that I enthusiastically ordered and then didn’t have time to read; really think about what I’ve learned and what I believe about writing, and what I think is important and worthy of passing on–and then think how best to articulate that.  If you’ve ever helped a friend study for a test, you know that the process of breaking-down and explaining helps you as well. That is the case here.
  • My students are interesting. They’ve had lives and experiences different from my own, and they have things they want to say.  Often, this isn’t apparent from their official writing assignments, but from our list-making exercises and free-writes that give me glimpses into who they are. And that inspires me more to help them express themselves in writing–because the world, for the most part, doesn’t let you turn in lists and free-writes before it judges who you are and what you can do.
  • It pays money. It’s not a kingly sum, especially when you divide it by the number of actual hours instead of hypothetical hours, but in our new “creative economy” which consists largely of gigs ranging from temping to uber-driving to admin that all pay in the same range, this is a job pays as well as the others while being intellectually and emotionally engaging and feeling karmically defensible.

That said, we are moving into that difficult part of the semester, when the end feels both intimidatingly close, and yet too far off. I have so much more information I want to cram into their brains in the short time we have left, but at the same time, I am counting down the lesson plans between now and winter break. My students wince when I talk about turning in their final projects, and I can’t pretend enthusiasm at the thought of grading them.

But this is just one more thing that is like writing–you dread it, but then you start it, and find things that surprise you and things that you love, and then you are glad you did it.

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