As the academic world begins to turn its wheels again (some schools have already completed their third week of school), it’s the time for teachers to contemplate the best way that to teach. For this series, one local teacher is figuring out how to teach teenagers to do what she loves: write. For the second year, she has been given the great opportunity to teach a senior high school course in Advanced Creative Writing. Having a bachelor’s in Creative Writing, she immediately assumed it would be simple. Last year’s course taught her that being taught how to write creatively doesn’t necessarily translate into knowing how to teach students to write creatively. Forever reflective on her craft as a teacher and a writer, she has decided to focus her efforts more decidedly into her creative writing course (bearing in mind that she teaches only one section of CW and five sections of a global research class). To help her and the world of high school creative writing instruction, she is willing to document her process, ideas, successes, failures, and suggestions (though she’ not bold enough to say recommendations…yet).
The beginning of any learning process should be reflection. Teachers push students in this direction frequently: What do you know already? What have you learned about this in the past? What do you want to know going forward? For her purposes, she needs to reflect on her first year teaching creative writing. What did she do with them? Well, very little. She was so excited to have eight students, such a small group, to push through the wild world of creative fiction and poetry. Unfortunately, she was teaching five full sections of freshman world history, serving as a mentor teacher (read: unpaid vice principal), and running her entire school’s international testing system. Needless to say, her enthusiasm did not outshine my lack of time. The creative writing class, so thoughtfully designed to include mentor texts and writer’s circles, dwindled into an afterthought: she pulled writing exercises from the internet or texts she had used in her bachelor’s program, skimmed student writing to provide minimal feedback, and set an arbitrary assignment of a 20 page novel excerpt. She was lucky that she had kind students who had a general talent (for the most part) for writing. Was she pleased with their overall products? Not really. But she takes full responsibility. She didn’t give them the experience they deserved. Her own professional commitments deprived these students of the full range of creative excitement that once stood before her.
She says, “This year will be different.”
This year she has 11 students, and these 11 are “quite possibly the most painfully aware and passionate writers I have met under the age of 18,” she states with a smile. In the first three weeks of classes, they have done little writing and much discussion about the writing process, how they see themselves as writers, why they DON’T write (she’s never heard such fear, paralysis, and perfectionism from young writers), and what excites them about writing. Because these students are so engaged in their own writing process and are so aware of it, she’s decided to offer suggestions to them for what they’ll do and let them choose as a group the path they want to pursue. For many adults, this appears to be a problematic approach with teenagers. However, she couldn’t be more pleased.
Through their discussions, she states that they have cultivated a respectful writer’s community where her oh-so-reluctant writing-sharing teens will open up, share their writing, and give and receive feedback. These students eagerly bounce into her classroom, find places in the room that make them comfortable, and dive into whatever task she suggests or lay before them. At the end of their 90 minutes together, they grumble and groan about having to leave their safe space and return to the world of government, math, or foreign language.
As the year progresses, she will continue to share her progress, the techniques she uses with them, how they turn out, and how this new approach to a student-guided writer’s community-based class will work for young writers.