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Thursday, November 11, 2010

Creative Writing in High School

I (and maybe my students, if I can be so immodest as to say so) are fortunate to have a high school creative writing class. In fact, it's one of the great things about a block schedule that our students have a wide range of electives.

In regular English class we just don't have time for much creative writing. Our jobs as English teachers are to improve student reading/communication skills and to get them ready for whatever college or the world will throw at them. Even as an English major in college the only creative writing I did was in creative writing elective. So, let's face it, while I would love to have time to do short stories and poetry with every simply isn't important enough in a world where our electives/block scheduling also make the classes a bit shorter than they would otherwise be.

Because the English department has limited electives (I am teaching English half the time and Young Adult Lit, Paranormal Lit, or Creative Writing the other half of the time) I will not allow Creative Writing to become a bunny class. I'm determined that students will learn something in there.

On the other hand, I don't want it to be a class that a student can't take for fun. It's a little hard to balance the two. Sigh. It's hard. The other thing is that while many creative writing classes do workshopping type activities, I find these and random weird writing activities somewhat useless. Workshopping is only as good as the collective skill of the class. And in a class with Freshmen through seniors, the skill level is very mixed.

This is the first creative writing class I've had in some time that doesn't want to use any in class work time. I try to build in class work time for students to work on whatever they need to do. Only, they won't use it. So do I do activities/lecture/minilessons/talk for the entire period? I'm unsure. Very unsure.

Tomorrow they are turning in updates on their progress with their independent projects. I am a little afraid of what I am going to learn...who hasn't done anything, etc. A little afraid.

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Blogger Josin L. McQuein said...

I was blessed to have 2 AWESOME English Lit teachers for Jr. and Sr. English in High School. They weren't technically a creative writing class, but they certainly ran the, like it.

Up to that point it had been all "The Pyramid" / "Inverted Pyramid Method" of writing for essays, which are more information regurgitation over style, then those of us who went into AP English stepped into another plane of literary existence.

It was seriously that scene from Mulan where she's trying to climb the tower with the weights, and failing, until she realizes they're meant to be advantages rather than disadvantages.

The first thing to go was the "standard" paragraph (meaning at least 4, no more than 5 sentences.) Paragraphs became stylistic devices to be utilized as needed. One sentence, two words, six lines, it didn't matter anymore so long as the point got across.

Then there was the awesomeness that was "voice". We were expected to infuse voice into all of our papers. Their advice was to pretend we were giving an interview and speaking to someone through the paper. The crutch of "proper" structure was kicked out from under us, and we had to figure out what our voice was and shout with it or whisper as the need arose.

Passive voice became the object of seek and destroy missions. Passive writing was considered no healthier than passive students. We were to get our projects in motion and keep them motivated.

We were told that an "assignment" is excuse for neither mediocrity nor derivative material. If given a choice of three topics, choose the least likely to be popular. Become the underdog and drag that disparaged little topic into the spotlight like it was the star attraction, because with the correct presentation, it could be.

It was like breathing clean air for the first time.

But it was by no means a fluff class, or an excuse to slack because we were out of the stocks. We had to learn to rein in and direct our focus by doing 2 full length papers in a single block, at least once, and more often twice, a week.

By the end of term we'd almost all gotten to the point that we could write a full essay (two pages) in 45 minutes to the dot.

For motivation, have you tried flash fiction drills? Twenty minutes to craft a piece, no names, only numbers at the top, to be judged by the class.

Try fanfiction. (seriously). Take a book chapter (assigned reading, public domain) and have them write their own character into it without changing a single line from the original - meaning they have to craft their own passage by weaving around what's already there.

The idea is to match the tone and voice of the original while creating a character that's as dimensional as the existing ones.

Take a passage from a book and write it from another character's POV or in a different tense or switch from 3rd to 1st person.

Write an epilogue to an existing classic. Save Romeo and Juliet. Give voice to Dorian Gray's portrait. Chart a dialogue between Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde.

It works :-)

November 11, 2010 at 6:14 PM  
Blogger Rebecca Ryals Russell said...

I feel your pain. As a retired MG English teacher who forced Creative Writing into the curriculum, I understand the frustration of having some who like it, some who don't, some who will, some who won't. I applaud you for trying to make the class worthwhile and useful, not just a bunny class, as you said. I wish I'd had a Creative Writing class option in high school.

November 16, 2010 at 4:11 PM  
Blogger bethany said...

Thank you both for responding! Things are going better. I got feedback from them last week, and I think they feel better about things than I do. I've been very focused on getting all of their work read and commented upon, and I think we are progressing. I wish it was a longer class!

November 21, 2010 at 3:00 PM  

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