This post provides a rationale for teaching creative writing often. It’s part of a larger series on integrating creative writing in your curriculum.
“Design. Story. Symphony. Empathy. Play. Meaning. These six senses increasingly will guide our lives and shape our world.”
― Daniel H. Pink,
Give Them a Voice
When my seventh grade teacher said, “Yes, Lyn, we can perform the play you just wrote about time travel!” I was one ecstatic kid. The play I’d spent so many hours writing–she thought it deserved an audience! Mrs. Dunckel, my beloved English and Social Studies teacher, said yes to my creativity, risk taking, and passion that till then, lived hidden and parallel to school, despite being inspired by the history textbook.
Today as I write my young adult novels, I play with character, plot, point of view, setting, and style–and then worry obsessively about whether my work makes people want to turn the page. When I write professionally for Duke TIP, I think about voice, purpose, angle, and organization, what I consider the nonfiction twins of creative writing tools. Then I worry obsessing about whether I’m crafting a narrative easily read by the busy online educator. (Are you still reading?)
What’s your rationale for teaching creative writing? How often do you teach it, and why?
All I Really Need to Know, I Learned from Creative Writing…
Whether school curriculum wants to contain it or not, stories are in our blood. If you haven’t heard someone argue over today’s media message and versions of a story–or admit to binge watching a favorite series–or talk obsessively about a favorite team and its glory days–you’re rare. Our gifted youth live in a world dominated by narrative, and many of them already come to us with a talent for wordsmithery and storytelling. They want to get better at it.
Natural-born storytellers shouldn’t be stymied when the pen hits the page, but some of our most gifted writers, cultural icons, even, complain of being stifled in English class. There’s the famous story of S.E. Hinton, 17 year-old author of The Outsiders, who earned a B while changing the face of children’s literature (some credit her with “starting” the YA genre). Why wasn’t her “burning desire to tell another story, one she observed daily at school — the hostilities among her peers, divided by social class” enough to get the A?
It’s likely there was little space for her stories. Mrs. Dunckel gave me that space.
Best of Both Worlds
Why, then, doesn’t our writing curriculum root heavily in the art of the personal narrative while we attempt to analyze someone else’s? Why aren’t students writing more short stories and novels and screenplays of every genre? Standards and tests, sure–everyone’s confined by those. But what if…(the beautiful question fueling every speculative fiction piece)..what if we could make it all work together? What if personal narrative and fiction writing were part of every week of the curriculum? What might the world have already seen from Angie Thomas, 29 year-old author of the current New York Times YA bestseller, The Hate U Give, had she been able to start the story, right as she was living it, at age 16 in her classroom?
If a curriculum can loop back and forth weekly between personal writing as well as reading/ analyzing others’ worlds, students might better see the point and purpose of “going deep” with literary analysis. Know how to write a metaphor? Now you can probably see one in that poem you just read. Attempt alliteration, subtext, dialogue, third person close point of view, and flashback, and suddenly the methods of the masters are not so inscrutable.
“Folks, set your watches for ancient Egypt! Next, ancient Rome!” I and my classmates who played historical figures and time travelers featured in my play, getting ourselves into high jinks happening across time–trust it was much harder to forget those facts of history. When creativity meets lists of facts, stuff sticks.
This idea of blending creative work with content and skill standards is nothing new in the realm of education: trail blazers have set us afire with brilliant ideas for many decades, such as Nancie Atwell, whose writing workshop method allows students mine the richness of their lives for daily work on personal stories and nonfiction pieces. There are programs such as Phillips Exeter where students focus writing practice intensively in 9th and 10th grades as they craft the personal narrative.
Beginning with a person’s deep and innate interest–the self–we can train students to create believable characters, compelling plots, and vivid settings, all the while turning to mentor texts as great examples of “how to.”
It’s not only standards-based learning. It’s a design for learning that allows time for direct instruction, group instruction, independent work, and group sharing.
Habits of Mind Creative Writing Creates
The world’s problems have historically been solved by the most fluent and flexible of thinkers. So imagining new ways in and out of trouble–which is essentially all authors do, torture their characters!–is great practice for just about all disciplines. Fluency is a generative aspect of creativity, the ability to produce many ideas in response to open-ended problems, while flexibility is the talent for seeing a problem from many perspectives, trying many different approaches, and categorizing ideas in a variety of ways. Society’s greatest innovators aren’t afraid of thought experiments and discarding ideas that don’t work, so writing prompts that encourage fluency, flexibility, and revision are key.
The Big Questions
Here are some of the high level essential understandings and questions that students derive and explore–along with their own epiphanies–when we let creative writing unfurl in your classroom. There are far more, but let’s look at just a few. These understandings try to cultivate flexibility, fluency, and risk taking. These are excerpted from Duke TIP’s Creative Writing: Adventures Through Time.
Essential Understandings: Students will understand:
- Authors have a range of characterization options to explore when developing a fictional personality.
- Authors balance several variables during character development, including traits and motivations.
- Professional authors are good observers and listeners.
Essential Questions: Students will explore:
- How do the Six Threads of Characterization intersect with character traits to establish clear character motivations?
- What traits should I develop in my characters?
- Do I want to research a particular back story or setting related to a certain character?
For tips on how to integrate your “regular” curriculum with regular creative writing experiences, check out Why Creative Writing, Part 2.
Want a lesson plan for kicking off a creative writing unit with a preassessment? Head here to Lesson Blueprints.
Maybe a Unit?
If your school or district or state is not keen on this type of curriculum, you may be able to teach as a short unit or integrate piecemeal elements of Duke TIP’s Creative Writing: Adventures Through Time, a curriculum that can be a few days’, weeks’, or months’ worth of materials for gifted elementary and middle school students. And guess what–kids get to travel to ancient Egypt and Rome in this one, too!