One of my proudest moments in high school English class was when my extremely strict, Catholic nun-of-a-teacher handed me back a short story with a large A enshrined in a circle. She was often stern and sometimes downright scary, but also let us read A Patch of Blue by Elizabeth Kata about Selina D’Arcey, a blind girl living in a squalid apartment with her abusive, prostitute mother Rose-Ann and alcoholic grandfather Ole Pa. Selina has no friends and rarely ventures outside until she meets Gordon Ralfe, an educated and soft-spoken black man. Not your typical Catholic high school summer reading, but I loved it, and rode the short story grade high for a long time.
My worst high school English class memory comes from senior year when students memorized and recited lines from Macbeth to the rest of the class. I purposely did not memorize the lines. I would have gladly taken the F, but my teacher forced me up to the front of the room anyway. Hands shaking, students laughing, I stumbled through Lady Macbeth’s speech.
I’m not sure if remembering these events shaped my classroom pedagogy. It could as easily have been my love of writing or my years of work as a teacher, but creative writing should become be a bigger part of every English class. My own class included.
True, teaching creative writing isn’t easy.
According to Rebecca Wallace-Segall’s article “A Passionate, Unapologetic Plea for Creative Writing in Schools” in the Atlantic. “It is not easy to teach creative writing within the confinement of school. It is not easy to tackle the issues that arise, and it’s not easy to learn how to teach fiction and memoir writing well.”
But it needs to be done. It’s interesting that high school teachers put so much value in the novels they read with students, spending the year sharing authors’ valuable themes, use of literary devices, symbols, and conflicts, and yet never teaching students how to create their own literature. Does it not make sense that if we want students to understand theme, they need to immerse themselves in it, creating themes for their own works of art.
Segall goes on to say, “There’s a reason fiction and narrative nonfiction outsell all other genres in the U.S. It’s the same reason there are 56 million WordPress blogs and 76 million Tumblrs. Human beings yearn to share, reflect, and understand one another, and they use these reflections to improve the state of things, both personal and public. If we want our students to have this kind of impact, we have to teach them to express themselves with both precision and passion.”
I used to teach Senior Writing Workshop, anelective for students getting ready to venture off to college. For most of the course we completed typical assignments: a research reports, a rhetorical analysis, and expository writing, but sometimes we ventured into the more creative with personal narrative and satire, and it is those types of writing that students respond to the most.
In their end of the year course summaries, students wrote: “There were new things I learned, and I actually got interested in one, which was the satire” and “The papers that I am most proud of are my personal narrative and satire papers. These papers really let me express myself in a way that I never get to do as just another English student…”
But what really stuck with me was the student who said, “I came to this class dreading to write another paper and left wanting to write more.”
What teacher does not want to read that?
The question then becomes how to intersperse creative writing into an already rigorous curriculum overflowing with literature, standardized testing, and thesis-driven essays. Creative writing can be done through mini-lessons or simple units. Often time, exposure to a topic will have students experimenting on their own.
- Personal narrative through college essay. Cover exploding moments, descriptive writing, thought shots and snap shots
- Flash fiction and short story writing through mentor texts in comparison to novels. (The “Pedestrian” as compared to Fahrenheit 451 by Ray Bradbury)
- Creative journalism through narrative nonfiction, blogs and vlogs, book reviews, satire and opinion pieces.
- Dialogue and script writing through the study of drama. Craft a conversation. Teach dialogue, dialogue tags, realistic vs. real dialogue.
- Poetry, rap and song lyrics in reaction to social and personal issues examined through literature.