I’ll never forget the moment when I saw Robin Williams, for the first time, standing on a desk looking down at a group of students, professing his love for poetry. He attributes poetry to the muse for living; poetry, as a form of expression, makes life worth living. As a college student seeing this for the first time, I was impassioned with his speech, but I didn’t need to hear this to be aware of the impact poetry (and writing in general) has on our world. Indeed, written expression illuminates the unique mind, demonstrates creativity, informs, and provides perspectives on the meaning of life. Writing provides nutrients for the soul. Without writing, we would merely be existing in a melancholy world; life would be dismal and tantamount to Winston’s in George Orwell’s 1984. I believe this. My colleagues believe this. Authors believe this, but do my students? Do students always see the insurmountable value writing has on the human experience? In a word, no. For whatever reason, students can be dismissive towards writing. Attribute their disposition to shortened attention spans, increase in technology usage, and lack of music and art with meaning in popular culture today, but writing and creative expression doesn’t always vibe with kids.
I teach in high school. Currently, I teach AP Language & Composition, Modern Literature, Mythology, and Composition/Literature 10. Writing abilities range from low to high with the students I see on a daily basis. Grades range from 10th grade to 12th, but one thing remains common with all these students: they don’t like to be graded on their creative work. In fact, getting a “good grade” can often prevent these students from taking risks and thinking outside of the box in their writing. Kids have been conditioned to focus on the grade they wish to earn. You’ve heard it before: statements like, “How many points is this for?” or, “Are we going to be graded on this?” type of questions. While grades are important, what is even more important is encouraging creativity and original thought. So, consider how you evaluate your students when they do creative writing. Can it be graded on a level of effort/participation? Perhaps they can grade it themselves? You may be surprised with how honest they will be when evaluating their own work. Above all, keep creative writing assignments as low-stakes as possible in the gradebook. Encourage them to write for themselves, their heart, their story, and NOT for points.
For students, it can be hard to tap into creative writing simply because they haven’t seen the process ever done before. Sure, they’ve read fiction novels, but they most likely never saw how the story was made. So, you yourself must model with them. Tap into your personal side in front of them. This can be awkward for you at first, but this method pays dividends. Model how you ask yourself questions in your head. I often say things like, “I don’t like how I phrased this. I am going to go back to it later,” or, “Am I really telling this story in the best way possible?” or, “I don’t know exactly where this is going at this point, but I’m going to keep writing,” and so forth. These statements do not need to be rehearsed. In fact, the demonstration of you writing naturally, in the moment, is what is most beneficial for kids. Students will be able to see you become introspective, which in turn can give them guidance and inspiration for their own writing. After I finish modeling, I ask the class for feedback. I often use the “hamburger” or “sandwich” method — whatever you want to call it. Essentially, this is where you start with a positive comment for feedback (the top bun), moving into the constructive criticism (the meat of the feedback) where I ask where I can improve my writing, and finally end with another positive comment (the bottom bun). Students love to give constructive criticism! Let them voice their ideas and value what they say. Model open-mindedness to feedback, as they then will be more open to receive feedback from you in the future.
The term creative writing is incredibly vague. So, find what creative outlet is suitable for each individual student and let them run with it. You’ve heard it before, but let your students have voice and choice in terms of what form of creative writing they wish to explore. I use creative writing all the time in my Greek Mythology course. Students tend to find the stories and myths engaging enough to let the light of creativity shine on them. I give the students parameters on ways to write, but they ultimately have the final choice. For example, there is a myth in Ancient Greece where Almighty Zeus has his throne tested against the force of Typhon, an immortal multi-headed monstrous being with a hundred dragons’ heads. The myth details the epic clash between the two, with Zeus throwing a mountain on top of Typhon, which created the volcanic eruption of Mount Etna. After we read this myth, students have the choice of how they wish to write about it. They can create a dialogue between the two of them as they are fighting each other, write a news report detailing the events of the battle, write a modern day version of the myth, create a play adaptation, dabble in comic style writing, compose a rap song detailing the account, and so forth. The possibilities are endless. I’ve had a student write a rap song, record the song, and perform it for the class. This all happened because he had the ability to demonstrate his learning in a way that was appealing to him.
Another way to promote creative writing is through journaling. Last Spring, the pandemic hit, leaving teachers just days to flip their classrooms completely online. The world was changing drastically and I knew that my content I was delivering had to change as well. Yes, I still met the required standards and went through all the necessary materials, but I wanted to do something to capture this unprecedented moment in time. Thankfully for me, I follow Kelly Gallagher on Twitter and he uploaded a “Historian COVID-19 Journal Writing Project” that I tweaked to my liking and used it for my AP Language students. These students still reviewed for the AP exam, but they also were asked to document their feelings, emotions, and reactions to the weekly changes revolving around the pandemic. Each week, students found one informative article, read it, and uploaded their response to it, as well as a creative, open-ended, journal response. I was able to see the fear and anxiety these students had in their first few journals. However, as more weeks came and went, their writing became more positive and even therapeutic. I had students who told me they began journaling regularly because of this assignment and have continued to do so throughout the break.
There are numerous ways to promote creative writing to students. Moreover, one way is no more important than the other. In my experience, I have found that if you eliminate the stress of getting a good time, model with your own creative writing, offer voice and choice, and engage them through various styles of writing, the unwilling walls will break, allowing vulnerability and creativity to flood through pens onto the paper. However, it takes consistency. It will not magically change right away. Like any exercise, it takes time and energy to build up muscle to write creatively. Nonetheless, your students have what it takes.
How do you encourage creative writing in your classroom?
Thank you for reading. GO FORTH AND CONQUER!