Teaching Creative Writing . . . for the FIRST TIMEThis morning during a staff meeting I was informed that next year I would be teaching a creative writing class. I am a first year English...
This morning during a staff meeting I was informed that next year I would be teaching a creative writing class. I am a first year English teacher. The school I work at struggles with drugs, gangs, violence, attendance, commitment, teen pregnancy . . . you name it. Our kids are brilliant and creative despite all the challenges they face, so a creative writing class seemed like a great idea. Now that the class is a reality I am struggling to come up with ideas to last an entire semester. . . I am a little intimidated. Any ideas on how to approach this wonderful subject matter would be greatly appreciated.
Keep in mind:
-Homework is not a possibility
- Roughly 90% of all the students are three to five years behind their grade level in reading and writing
- We do not have computers in the classrooms, or available for daily use
I taught Creative Writing for two years in my last school, without curriculum to match it. I would be happy to e-mail you some files if you'd like; you can send me a message on enotes with your email address and I'll give you what I've got.
I taught that class by breaking it into different sub-categories of creative writing, such as:
1. Personal Essay - I think it's easy to start here. It's nonfiction, but in a creative packaging. It's easier for kids to write truthfully about their own lives than it is to just jump in and create characters or other fiction. So I started with this unit to help them think creatively within the boundaries of a subject that was familiar to them (their own lives).
2. Short Story - I did two separate short story units. During this time, I would have the students read short stories (I found them mostly online) and then mimic certain aspects of those stories or the style of the writing in them. We would talk about the elements of a short story, too, and I would give them shorter writing exercises on characterization, setting, and plot development. For the first short story, I gave them some creative liberties; for the second unit, we talked about different types of characters and I told them that their protagonist had to be dynamic.
3. Poetry - we talked about and read poetry of many different varieties, from abstract to narrative. I had them practice again with mimicking the style of the poems we read. I used the book Sound and Sense and got some great poems out of this for that particular unit.
4. Fairy Tale/Fable - we talked about the specific characteristics of these genres and then they wrote one or the other, including the classic elements. We also talked about and wrote fractured fables/fairy tales.
5. Children's Writing - they wrote kids' stories and I read them to my own children and gave extra credit to the ones my kids chose as their favorites. We talked a lot about audience consideration in this unit, and how you have to think specifically about the developmental stages and interests of a children's audience. Again, we read several examples of children's literature, and I had one day where they all brought in their favorite childhood books and read them to the class. The text for this unit mostly came from my own kids' bookshelves. :)
Throughout the class, I focused on reading AND writing. We would read and study examples from each genre, and then write our own in that style. I used movies a lot, too - we watched "Stranger than Fiction" to discuss character creation, "The Princess Bride" to examine stock characters, "Hoodwinked" for a fractured fairy tale/fable, etc. Every time the students wrote a piece, they had already practiced smaller versions or sections of it. Then they had to bring a rough draft to class and do peer editing before producing a final draft for me. During the peer editing process, I always had a rubric or checklist for the peers to use when editing their classmates' papers. I was up-front about this in the beginning: to be in this class, you WILL share your work with classmates, and you WILL respect each other in this process. I had a few kids drop the class as a result, but the ones who stayed were committed to the process.
Throughout the class, the hardest part was working with the varying levels of talent/ability. I had some kids who were truly gifted, and others who had just taken the class to avoid gym. I had some kids who were seniors in AP courses and others who were struggling freshmen. So I just tried to help each writer improve individually, and to create rubrics that would allow a certain degree of creativity while also establishing boundaries and requirements for the quality of the work. At the end of the class, the students put together a portfolio of their best work; one example from each genre. Then I graded the portfolio, and their exam was the portfolio itself as well as the act of presenting it to the class.
I have rubrics for everything I did, as well as a unit plan and other handouts for activities. If you want any or all of it, just say the word. Good luck! Creative Writing is a challenge, but it was also really fun to teach.
Just a few ideas that I have used to incorporate Creative Writing into my English classes - you might be able to adapt them and use them as ideas for your teaching. I guess I have always found that Creative Writing always slots most naturally into a course where you combine creative writing and the study of literature, so they have some exemplars to study first and then work from.
1. Poetry - I have just done a creative writing task having looked at Japanese tankas. Advantage of tankas (and haikus) is that they are short, and it helps students to have a structure, especially if they haven't written poetry before. It also gives you a chance to talk about imagery, as each tanka is based around a single image.
2. Fairy tales - whilst teaching narration and point of view, I got my students to re-write a fairy tale from the point of view of the "baddie" and was amazed by the creativity of the responses. The stepmother of Cinderella was a seriously deluded unreliable narrator who was very unaware, the wolf was working for the housing department of the government and was just trying to help the pigs move to better housing, but had a really bad attack of influenza and sneezed, the wolf was just trying to help Little Red Riding Hood etc. I also watched the cartoon Hoodwinked with them, which is a brilliant example of a retelling of Little Red Riding Hood, with the different characters giving different perspectives.
3. Another thing I have done to consolidate knowledge of a text is to get students to write a letter from one character to another, or to an "agony aunt" to help them solve their problems. It worked really well for Midsummer Night's Dream when based on Act I Scene i students had to pick one character and write a letter to an agony aunt to summarise the problem and situation, and take on some of the flavour of the character as well.
4. Another idea I have heard of but haven't tried myself that has worked really well is getting female students to write a reply in poetry to Andrew Marvell's "To his coy mistress" - interesting assignment!
Good luck and don't be scared to be creative! Hope these ideas help.
Please don't be intimidated. Creative Writing is an awesome subject to teach. I teach in a similar demographic and trust me, these students are itching for an outlet. I think your class will be just the thing. Here are a few suggestions:
1. Journals- It may be difficult, but make one of your required materials a composition book. You can require they bring it to class everyday, or use a milk crate for them to keep them in and they just collect them when they come into the room. I prefer doing the latter because I don't have to hear the excuse "I forgot my journal at home". Journals are great for warm-ups, reflections, free-writing or prompted writing.
2. Supplemental Materials- Don't allow a lack of materials or the fact that a curriculum for the class hasn't been created deter you. You can use just about anything to supplement your lessons. Have the students reflect on various poems, songs, photographs, paintings and short stories.
3. Visit the bookstore- By now you know that as teachers, we dip into our own pocketbooks for many of the materials that we use in our classrooms. This year I found an excellent book by Bonnie Neubauer called The Write-Brain Workbook. It contains hundreds of exercises that are designed to stimulate creativity. I bought it for my own personal use, but soon found that the activities were so much fun, that I incorporated them into my lessons.
4. Homework- Homework doesn't always have to be a written assignment. Tell them to go home and observe the people in their neighborhood. When they return to class the next day, they can use their observations to create a character that they will use in a short story.
I used to use a fun group activity when I taught creative writing, and I just remembered it after reading some of these other posts. Here it is:
Have students work in a group of four. Each person must write down character descriptive traits on small slips of paper. They write one physical trait, one personality trait, one occupation, etc. on each slip of paper - you can choose the types of traits you want them to write. Then they shuffle the papers, and draw one from each pile. So each person has one trait of each type, and they have to write a character sketch about the person who would match up with those characteristics. You can then have them trade papers with another group, etc., to extend the activity. Usually I had them do at least 2-3 character sketches within one class period, using this same activity. The combinations are usually pretty funny, and it's a good way for them to find inspiration rather than just sitting there staring at a blank page.
Another activity I did was to have them fold a sheet of paper into 6 sections. Then for each section, they would do a freewrite on a topic I read from a list. They were all personal experiences, like: a time I felt proud/discouraged/afraid, my most embarassing moment, someone who is really important to me, etc. They would freewrite for 2-4 minutes on each topic, and then move on. This served as an easy way to jumpstart the personal essay/memoir unit.
Sounds like my kids!
I taught CW for two years and loved it!
Here is basically what I did--
1. Basic Poetry forms:
haikus, tankas, cinquains, odes, autobiographical poems, free verse
kids had to type all poems and add pictures to create a chapbook.
2. children's books:
kids always think these are so easy to write! we read a ton of books in small groups and then we picked one to analyze using a plot chart and identified the conflict, the climax, antagonist, protagonist etc...then they had to write a story and plot theirs.
3. dating guide!
kids thought this was hysterical! we modeled the guide (which they actually did as a poster) after the relationship self-help books (he's just not that into you). the results were BRILLIANT!
had students pick one memory and flesh it out into a complete story--use david sedaris etc as sample authors to show them how to do it.
5. movie script
kids worked in pairs for this one. we wanted to film them, but we ran out of time in the school year!
**you will find that you have to teach EVERYTHING from the bottom up for this class! You have to teach rhyme scheme, syllables, plot elements etc....
but the good news is that everything you teach in CW helps them in English class too!
I have taught similar populations, without access to computers, which might be a blessing in disguise--you won't have to fight the music downloading efforts to circumvent the school's web nanny.
I like to offer students ideas like "A Dream __________" and have them start out with descriptive details. For example, a female student might want to write about a dream wedding. Once she gets a lot of details into rough draft form, you can work with her on grammar, structure, proofreading, editing, and revision. Then she can move on to creating a story that contains the description she has written. At this point, it will be less tempting for her to veer way off track as she creates her characters. You can do the same for a boy with a dream car. I realize I being a bit gender-biased here, but I'm just tossing out ideas I've used that have worked well. Both genders do well with a dream vacation and a dream career.
Good luck with your teaching assignment!
I have had similar student populations, and my favorite way to get the class going is to give the students a list of words and phrases and ask them to write a story using the entire list. I try to make the items on the list random, but include things that are natural prompts for stories, such as a diamond ring, a red rose, a map of an island, etc. We share these aloud in class and use them as the jumping off point to discuss writing generally and creative writing in particular. I have never had a student fail to complete this assignment, and each student has read his or her story loudly and proudly. I usually write one, too, and ask the students to critique it. I really believe that we are all storytellers at heart!
accessteacher, you just reminded me of a great strategy! This is not creative writing per se, but it's a good way to get kids thinking about how to develop characters and write descriptive details. Have them select a novel or play that they are already familiar with, that has NOT been made into a film version. Each student then decides who to "cast" in the roles, using pop culture figures, politicians, actors, actresses, etc. The writing assignment is to explain why they made these choices and to justify why each person is a strong casting choice based on their behaviors, looks, etc.
One other idea that I have remembered which is kind of linked to some of the other ideas that have already been mentioned above is a teaching strategy I used when I was teaching English as a foreign language. I gathered lots of different types of pictures from magazines and holiday brochures and cut them out, and then each student had to pick three at random. There task was to tell a story based on those pictures, including them in the action. It was helpful as it gave students a very strong descriptive starter and they were quite inventive about how they linked the pictures together!
Your students have very rich lives. Be prepared for some difficult stories. As English teachers, we see into kids' souls. That can be hard. However, use writing as a form of therapy and it may do everyone some good. You might want to consider showing The Freedom Writers Diary in the beginning of the class. This might inspire some of them to write. Have them write mostly in class, and you will actually get some writing. Allow them to write outside as well.