Fun Training for Short Answer Questions with Masha

I always found writing exercises in school boring and not useful. That's probably why I didn't become a writer earlier in my life. When I teach writing I therefore strive to avoid repeating that sense of agentic boredom that school propagates so well.

Let's do a little bit of deep thinking before we dive into our fun and creative writing exercise.

It's important to actually learn things. School is very bad for that, so you have to take care of that on your own. But, it's also important to be able to get through school. Most people think that school is important, they just don't really know why. It's for a couple of reasons. One, success in school selects for a useful form of conformity, i.e. a high level of conscientiousness and a low level of defiance. Thus, it acts as a societal filter. Two, school is a form of social approval. It's hard to know what's good, or real, or true. One of the two main ways that people determine these things is by looking at what other people think. Intersubjective agreement is an informal version of a testimonial. The importance of these types of testimonials is weighted according to who seems the most credible and believable. Which largely comes from the same system, so it's self-reinforcing. Social approval of passing through the societal selection process makes doing well in school extremely important for the normal definitions of success and acceptance in society. That's why people value school, and that's why it's important to be able to achieve in that stifling system. Alright, now on to our main subject today - how to do fun writing exercises.

Masha has a big exam at the end of the month to see if she's going to get into a special school. One of the main hurdles is their English section, and that's why they hired me as a teacher. She was able to get a demo exam, and she sent it to me. It has two parts.

In the first section you read a short selection. In this case it happens to be from "The Chronicles of Narnia" by C. S. Lewis, so that's nice. Then there are seven questions based on the reading that you give short answers to. Masha and I have done a little bit of question and answer exchanges through text, but not too much.

In the second section you choose between two possible prompts and write a small story based on your choice. Masha and I have done quite a bit of training in writing short stories.

It's those pesky short answer questions that I wanted to work a little more on, so we've been doing that for the last couple of weeks. Ideally we make this work into play. During the exam what Masha is doing will not be play, it will just be work. Play is preparation for the future. It allows you to try things, experiment and explore, to find the edges of possibility and the limits of ability. I try to give permission to do that.

Teaching and writing are similar in several ways. They both involve specific skills that can be studied and taught and learned. But they also contain things that don't fall into that category. They can both be part logical science, but they are probably more intuitive art.

They have something else in common too. I call boredom and confusion the two great sins of writing, and they apply equally well in teaching.

In this session Masha's internet connection wasn't great. That happens sometimes with her. Luckily, we are doing writing, so it's okay. If her video won't come through we can just write. In this session I couldn't see or hear her, but she could hear me. That worked well because I was still able to explain the adjustments I was making in her writing.

I suggested that we work on short answers, and she agreed. I told her to give me the first question. After I gave my answer I told her to write down her comments. Here's all of that. (I'm going to skip all of the corrections that we went over.)

- - - - - - -

If you were in another dimension for one day what would you do first? Why?

Truly, what you do depends on a combination of who you are and where you are. Now, without knowing where I am, I am necessarily in a state of the unknown. When you arrive in a place where you are lost and confused, when you don't know how things work or why things are the way they are, you do a certain set of things. First, you freeze. You stop doing anything. Then, after a moment, you start looking around. You start slowly finding things out about where you are. Then, if nothing bad is still happening then you start exploring. You start wandering about and learning what you can. This is exactly what I would do, because it is how mammals have been selected to behave in these types of situations.

Hm..... Ok. "A".
(like the mark)

- - - - - - -

Then it was my turn to give her a question and comment on her answer.

- - - - - - -

If you could be gifted with one amazing skill, that you just magically acquire, what would you choose? And why?

I love this question!
I would choose to have all of the magic skills in the world, so I would be the most powerful creature in the world. I could eat tons of ice-cream without getting fat. I could play Minecraft 24/7 and not go to school. It would be really cool!

But, what if there is no real magic in the world. Oh no! Then you would just get nothing. Or, maybe you would just be really good at doing magic tricks like card tricks. Lol.

- - - - - - -

You can see how she started this section still stuck a little bit in the normal school mindset. When I asked her to make a comment on my answer she gave me a grade. I don't usually do grades. What am I comparing the kid's work to? Unless we clearly define that, you are just getting a pointless letter or number.

What was she comparing my answer to? The schoolwork of pre-teens in Russia?

Between my unusual answer to her question, and my unusual comment after her answer, she now feels that it's different than school. There's more freedom. More room to explore. More room to have fun. That can obviously get out of hand too, so it's a line that you always have to be playing with while teaching.

Here's her next question to me.

- - - - - - -

If you had only 24 hours to live, and an unlimited amount of money, what would you do? Why?

Assuming that I maintain my current level of functional health up until the time of death, I would probably: write and publish a few articles, go to a writing group, cuddle with my girlfriend, probably go for a short hike on the sand dunes, say goodbye to a few family members, eat a bunch of ice cream and watch some tv shows that I want to finish. This, somewhat similar plan to my current plan, is what I would do. Because, and this is important, these are the things that I value spending my time on, so they are largely the things that I already do.

It's a great answer, where you mention some of your hobbies and things, that are more important to you than others. "A"(mark).

- - - - - - -

You can see that it looks like she's a little more comfortable with commenting on and judging the teacher's writing. Here's my next question to her.

- - - - - - -

What do you think the first person that went into space was thinking about at the time?

"Oh my god, I'm finally in space! I will be the first person to go away from our planet! Yay! Wait... did I forgot my favourite lemonade? Nooooooooooo!"
"How was your trip? We saw you on TV!"
"It was great. But you know what? I. Forgot. My. Favourite. LEMONADE!!!"

Lol. That seems reasonable.

- - - - - - -

You can see she went quite creative with this one. She delved into a small dialogue instead of the more normal, and less interesting, contemporary academic type of answer. (We've worked on dialogue attribution before, and it's something we're still working on, but I decided to skip that discussion on this occasion. I also ignored the British spelling of favorite.)

- - - - - - -

Imagine that you were on a trip with your family, and another person who can give you as much money as you want, and suddenly they all started to sink. Who will you save? Why?

In such a fantastical situation I would clearly explain to the circumstances that context dropping is one of the most common and egregious errors in all of philosophy. It is especially pervasive in the field of ethics. And therefore, without the world clearly providing a greater context, which in such a situation as this, where the smallest difference could influence a choice that effects life and death, it is rather rude to present such a case.

Just one word... WHAT? I would save both, because it is in my imagination!

- - - - - - -

You may have noticed that I decided to get witty and defiant on that one. And she outdid me! Hahaha. I was quite entertained by that.

I thought I would bring it back toward in a little more serious direction with my next question. I was mistaken.

- - - - - - -

Imagine that you are left alone on a deserted island. What would you do?

If there is internet, then this is my plan:
1) find a place to stay near food and water
2) open my computer
3) play Minecraft.
If there is no Wi-Fi, then my plan is:
1) stop imagining that
2) play Minecraft.

That seems like a logical solution.

- - - - - - -

You can see that things are now starting to get a little too wild. But, I really liked how she used a completely different format of writing to answer this question.

Now, on this last question she didn't want to let the session end (a good indication of having fun), so she asked me a few follow-up questions. I obliged for a little while, but I did need to end the session within a reasonable time. Which we did. This one gets pretty wild, but I knew it was fine because we've discussed all sorts of things about science fiction and fantasy in our previous sessions, and she's fine with exploring such fringe concepts.

- - - - - - -

If you suddenly discovered a new planet with aliens and their own civilization, what would you do?

It seems rather unlikely that I would suddenly discover such a planet. That is, unless I had magical powers that allowed me to travel to other planets and solar systems. If I had such powers then it is not hard to surmise that I would also have other powers. Therefore, I would use my powers to become their God incarnate.

What if they try to kill you? If they don't like you as a God?

If such a thing were to come to pass, I would just wipe them out and build a new civilization, just like all of the other gods.

What if humans and other creatures hate you because you tried to be a God, and killed all of the aliens, who could have been friendly and might have had more things to explore?

See my previous answer.

Okay, bye.

- - - - - - -

She could hear me so I said my normal goodbye about having a nice evening and such. She apparently cut it short because she didn't want to type that part out, lol.

You can see how there's a progression here from Masha thinking within the normal confines of what's acceptable at school, to fun, creative, and wild freedom. This isn't our first session together, and yet each week the school is able to re-train her to think within the box. I then spend one hour a week breaking that box apart so that she can explore different perspectives and grab hold of new abilities. It's possible that that back and forth exchange is itself beneficial.

You can see that Masha is becoming skilled in being able to express herself in multiple different ways. She's acquiring the ability to communicate her thoughts, feelings, experiences, and ideas. And, she's having fun doing it! Such miracles are possible. You just have to provide the opportunity.


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