Singapore Idol

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At the request of my adoring public, I’m posting my first entry from Singapore. Unlike other places I’ve travelled to, and written about in this blog, I am in Singapore with a very specific work assignment: teaching creative writing for Stanford’s Educational Program for Gifted Youth (EPGY), for two weeks here and then for two weeks in Jakarta. This means, in practice, that I work six hours a day (including an hour for lunch) and come home more or less exhausted, rarely in the mood to write extensive blog entries. But enough has happened to justify overcoming my sloth and lethargy.

First, I must say that I’m very much enjoying this experience. This is the first time that I’ve taught creative writing, and it’s definitely much more fun than teaching literature or expository writing classes. For one thing, my students are very motivated. For another, their stories are often strange and fascinating. I have twelve students, between 12 and 15 years old, who hail from a range of schools: Singapore American School (SAS), the Raffles Institute, Overseas Foreign School (OFS), Nanyang Girl’s HS, and the Hwa Chong Institute, on whose campus our classes are being held. I and my fellow EPGY instructors are staying about fifteen minutes away by taxi at the Orchard Grand Court near Orchard Road.

I’ve divided my two week class into two parts, each corresponding to a week: the craft of writing fiction and the art of revision. I’m using John Gardner’s The Art of Fiction as my text book and have been assigning various short stories from a Penguin Books Fiction anthology (among them: Raymond Carver, “Cathedral”; James Joyce, “Eveline”; Margaret Atwood, “Happy Endings”; Jorge Borges, “The Secret Miracle”; Ernest Hemingway, “Hills Like White Elephants”: all heavy stuff for kids so young, but hey, they’re able to handle it).

After a week of discussing topics such as point of view, description, characters, plot, and style, my students turned in drafts of their stories this last Friday. Today we had our first set of workshops, where each student’s partner (each student is assigned a permanent partner) gave a general overview of the story and then the class discussed what works and what needs improvement for each story. Even though they’re young, the students were remarkably adept at the workshop format, not least because they all come from extraordinary schools and are very talented.

The most fun aspect of what we’re doing is a system that evolved naturally among the class, which I’ve been calling “Singapore Idol.” Every day, each team of two is given an assignment. Today’s assignment was to devise the “perfect murder”—a scenario involving a victim and a killer that elaborates motive, means, opportunity, and alibi—that the students would then act out in front of class. Think of it as more performative version of Clue. After each team presented its “perfect murder” the rest of the students voted on the best performance and best-thought-through murder: the winning team got a “star” and the team with the most stars by Friday will be getting some sort of prize (I don’t know what I’m getting yet). The students like this format quite a lot and I do too: it takes away my authority to a degree and distributes it among the whole class. Impressing me is not enough; you’ve got to work with your partner to impress your peers (it goes without saying that students can’t vote for themselves).
The teams also, I should mention, have hilarious names:

* Whatever (1 star)
* The Flaming Rubber Duckies of Doom (no stars yet)
* Sparkle Princesses (1.5 stars)
* Title Pending (1.5 stars)
* Ernie (1 star)
* Nike (1 star)

There’s a lot more to say about Singapore itself—including my discovery at the power of my magical song—but I’ve written enough for now. More later, I promise.