We here at Alexandrite Publishing are hard at work on the first installment of the Writing Wednesdays series, Artfulness.This book was inspired by what I observed as a clear need for high school students to have meaningful creative writing opportunities in their core ELA classrooms. Why? Because creative writing fuels authentic writers’ voices. Because creative writing fuels engagement and motivation. Because creative writing fuels close reading skills. And because creative writing fuels positive risk-taking that allows students to explore their own narratives in a way that the more common essay writing does not.
Yet because of curriculum pressures, creative writing often falls completely off the core high school ELA curriculum. Perhaps it makes a brief guest appearance as an alternative ending at the conclusion of a book unit, or a series of “journal entries” written from the POV of a character in a book. Maybe it shows up for a few seconds in a dramatic skit inspired by the overarching drama unit. But it always seems to play a supporting, rather than a leading, role in the story of high school instruction.
Don’t get me wrong – there are many valid and understandable reasons why strong teachers do not regularly incorporate creative writing into their secondary ELA classes. If you are a teacher and you are reading this, you probably already know all of those reasons. I certainly do. Those reasons are the reasons why I, myself, neglected this critical skill for so many years, relegating it to those supporting roles identified above. But those reasons pale in comparison to the value of incorporating meaningful, regular creative writing in our classrooms.
Consider the following scenario:
An AP Literature student writes their first essay of the year. The prompt asks the student to explore how the author uses literary devices to portray a character’s complex experience with X. The student spends forty minutes writing a lengthy, five-paragraph essay with a three-pronged thesis that asserts the author uses imagery, repetition, and diction to portray the character’s complex experience. The body paragraphs of the essay then proceed to list examples of each of the three literary devices identified above and define them, using quotes from the passage to prove that the author uses these devices. At no point in the lengthy, detailed essay does the student explore the effect of these devices on the reader’s understanding of the work, let alone the complex portrayal of that character’s experience.
Sound familiar? It does to me, too. Because the above scenario is not some far-fetched hyperbolic warning about the imagined future of our students’ analytical skills. It’s a real-world-this-happens-with-surprising-regularity example. In advanced literature classes. Our students struggle to write meaningful analytical essays because they struggle to understand the moves the author makes in constructing the narrative. Unable to explain how the author develops the narrative, they fall back on simply explaining where the author uses the literary elements they find.
And let me be clear. The students are not to blame.
We spend years of their educational careers sending them on scavenger hunts for figurative devices with minimal discussion about the effect these devices have on meaning. We teach them to write five-paragraph essays with three-pronged thesis statements that simply list these figurative devices. We teach them that every paragraph has eight sentences and the sentences in each paragraph are organized in the exact same sequence. We teach them that no one paragraph is more important to the line of reasoning than another. We teach them that writing is like a hamburger!
Writing is not like a hamburger. Not, at least, like an assembly-line-feed-em-fast-and-feed-em-identically-hamburger.
Writing is a process.
Writing is a process that is different for every writer.
Writing is a process that is different for every writing purpose.
Writing is a series of choices and thoughtful, deliberate decisions. As ELA teachers, we know this. But many of our students do not. And in many cases, the fault lies not with the students, but with the instructional approaches we take. I know I’ve been guilty of this myself. I take full responsibility for all the missed opportunities and wrong turns I took over the years with the best interest of my students in mind.
The truth is, we cannot lament our students’ inability to see writing as a series of choices and thoughtful, deliberate decisions if we don’t regularly include opportunities for them to grapple with these choices, to think about the impact of one figurative device over another, to make difficult decisions about what to keep, what to change, and what to cut.
In “Reading Like a Writer,” Francine Prose speaks of a friend who argues that writing involves “’putting every word on trial for its life’” during a process that is done “one word at a time, one punctuation mark at a time” (3). Artfulness, then, emerged from a desire to provide students with authentic, student-centered writing experiences that invite experimentation, that provide opportunities for students to explore the impact of each and every word, that allow for mistakes, that celebrate successes. The weekly writing activities incorporated in the upcoming book provide a laboratory for students to play, to challenge, to fail, to succeed. The approach is simple. Every week, we write. Every week, our writing is linked to a particular skill or standard or larger unit. But we do not grade every week. In fact, we only grade once per quarter. Why? Because as Kelly Gallagher asserts, “it is only when students begin writing… more than the teacher can grade that they approach the volume necessary to spur significant growth” (“Moving Beyond the 4×4 Classroom”). And there’s no reason why this writing can’t be fun.
Giving students the space to play with language the way they played with their toys as children gives them the space they need to see how parts come together to form a whole, and how different parts assembled in different ways create a different “whole.” Setting aside time weekly to engage in this process allows students to recognize that writing – real, authentic, writing – is a worthwhile use of their time. You see, students apply a value to the skills and concepts we teach based upon how much value we place on these skills and concepts. When we relegate thoughtful, deliberate writing to the back-burner, we create the impression amongst our students that thoughtful, deliberate writing is an exercise that only “creative” people engage in – not something that all of us do every single day.
I do, however, recognize that incorporating creative writing regularly into our core ELA instruction takes time – more time than many of us have as we struggle to plan, and meet, and assess as part of our regular workday. Artfulness solves that problem by providing a year’s worth of standards-based, student-focused creative writing lessons, complete with paired quarterly assessments and end-of-year celebration events and games.
As we await final production of this upcoming book, I will be completing my own Writing Wednesday tasks by blogging about my experiences – my successes, my failures, my reflections – as I incorporate these lessons into my own ELA classrooms this year. I hope that you will find the blogs and the Writing Wednesdays series helpful to you as you work towards incorporating artfulness into your own secondary ELA classes.