Scenario #1: The Worksheet Approach
Meet Sarah, a hypothetical sixth-grade student who is currently sitting in English class (whether at home or in school doesn’t really matter). She is handed a worksheet with the following:
- 20 fill-in-the-blank questions about grammar and types of writing
- 3 paragraphs of text that she must read and then summarize
- 1 essay question: “In a five-paragraph essay, discuss the importance of studying English.”
Scenario #2: The Creative Writing Approach
Now meet John, an equally hypothetical sixth-grade student who is also currently sitting in English class (again – at home or in school doesn’t matter). His teacher presents the following:
Over the next two months, you are going to develop and create your very own story. You’ll invent heroes and villains, a rich and tangible setting, and a plot that will keep readers ripping through the pages. You’ll start by outlining your story and making some basic decisions about character, setting, and plot. Then you’ll write your first draft. We’ll spend some time editing it together. If you’d rather create a film or a play, that’s fine too. But you’ll need to write up the script, and you’ll need to present it in proper format, doing research to find out what that format would look like. I can help you if you need it. If you have another idea that I haven’t mentioned here, come talk to me, and let’s see what we can do. I’m here to assist you all the way, but you’re the project manager.
Once the project is completed, the teacher presents this:
Class, I need your help. I think the project we just completed is a better way to study English than using worksheets and textbooks, but I need to persuade our school board. I would like your help in convincing them. I’m going to ask you to write about your experience and why this process has been meaningful to you. Of course if you don’t prefer this type of study, you can state that opinion instead, and yes, all responses will be presented. Be honest. Be clear. And be convincing. Again, you can do this as a letter or as a film, but if it’s a film, you’ll need to prepare a script. In addition, I want to give the board a report of the creative writing projects you’ve completed, so you’ll need to give me your story title and a brief summary. If you’d like to attend the board meeting, bonus points and a popcorn party are in it for you!
In both scenarios, students are studying grammar, editing, summarizing, types of writing, and argumentative essays. In the first, students have no choice and no investment; they are being taught, in passive voice. They have read or have received lectures and are now regurgitating that information. In the second, they are actively learning together; here the teacher is a mentor and coach, and students are validated and challenged, and invited to follow their personal interests and contribute specific input into how they learn (did you catch that bit about being invited to present different ideas if they’ve got them?).
Additionally, the letter to the school board is not restricted to the dreaded five-paragraphs, and students are being encouraged that what they say actually matters. This matters. Even sixth-graders (even pre-schoolers!) want a voice in this world; they want to be validated and valued. They will do better work when they feel that what they do makes a difference to somebody. And look too at how the second scenario brings their work to real-life situations. They get to present their letters to the school board and see in person that their words are powerful.
For all of these reasons and many more, we use creative writing and reading as the entire framework of our English studies. It’s so much more fun, so much more effective, and it’s how I would want to study English if I was a kid. Here are some points to remember when planning it all out.
Change your language from “assignment” to “challenge.”
It doesn’t mean it’s not required, but it’s frankly more exciting to be taking on a challenge than completing an assignment. And “challenge” implies something you’re doing for yourself, while “assignment” is always for somebody else. This is applicable to pretty much everything – not just English.
Give kids choice.
You’ve presented the challenge. Now make sure there is plenty of room for personal expression. Let students decide their topic or genre. Let them decide whether to turn it in as a short story, a play, a film, a novella, or something else entirely. If the student feels like they have a voice in their work, they will do better work. Actually again, this is applicable to more than just English. Seriously – I could say the same thing for each of these points, so I’ll just stop now and invite you to think “wow, this is applicable to more than just English” for everything from this point on.
Of course in the end, you have to make the call if a student comes up with something totally out of the box. So you’re telling me you want to write a story in the form of a cookbook? You want to write it as a graphic novel instead? You want to do poetry? Think really hard before you say no. If you can’t think of any way the student’s idea would address the topics you’re studying, then offer alternative suggestions with clear reasons about why you declined him or her. But if you can swing it, even if you have to provide additional parameters to make sure the project works for both you and the student, then by all means, swing it.
Tuck lessons inside the challenge. But never call them lessons.
When Eva was six, she wrote her first book. Her hands were too small to do all the writing herself, so she dictated her story to me which I wrote down faithfully, errors and all. When she finished, I had her read it out loud to me. I pointed out to her some of the errors I had made, because I was typing too fast. She and I together went through and corrected capitalizations, commas, missing words, and misspellings (I had deliberately left all my mistakes in for us to find together).
Then I explained that sometimes she used present tense, and sometimes she used past tense. Of course she was six, so I had to explain what present and past tense were. I told her that most authors choose one or the other, but don’t go back and forth. Finally, I handed the document over to her, challenging her to put the story into a single tense. She did it, flawlessly.
Through the editing process, I had secretly tucked in all sorts of grammar lessons (plus I gave her her first lesson in editing). But to her, these weren’t assignments or things to be memorized. They were methods to improve her book, which we later self-published. She wanted it to be perfect, and grammar was the tool she needed to reach that next step.
Identify new projects as you go along.
As Eva developed her Kinzy stories (the charming koala with the huge ego), she wanted to begin featuring him in short films. She played around with some funny cooking videos at first, and then I let her develop his persona further through a series of historical documentary films entitled “Amazing Women of the 20th Century.” Her project in turn provided a new challenge for her brother Ian, as she asked him to fully compose theme music that they had been singing for Kinzy for years.
I have written about Kinzy in a ton of blog posts (just search “Kinzy” in the search box), but that little bedraggled stuffed animal has been the focal point for so much of our school work. In December, 2014, Eva put together a Christmas picture book featuring Kinzy and his friends, and for this project, she created her first book trailer. Like everything else, this organically led to so many lessons – script-writing, filmmaking, editing…. It’s crazy fun, and Eva eats it up. The point here is to be open to where writing projects sometimes lead, and fold in new twists and turns without hesitation. Here’s the book trailer:
Find the best resources.
As in all things, you don’t have to be an expert to manage your kid’s education. You just have to know how to find them. National Novel Writing Month offers fantastic curricula that helps kids in different age brackets plan out their stories and develop their setting and characters. Though they have established November as the official National Novel Writing Month, you can access their materials anytime, and you can write anytime. Do what works for you. Oh, and did I mention their curricula is free?
If you’d like more awesome resources on writing, download SPC’s free booklet, Resources for the Creative Educator. Just follow the link and click on the booklet image. It’s chock full of all sorts of incredible stuff!
Once the draft is written, you may need some more knowledgable readers to assess your child’s work and offer constructive feedback for editing. Ask around. Teachers, librarians, aspiring writers, editors, who do you know? Maybe they’re local, and maybe you need to put a call out on Facebook.
Revise and share.
After you get feedback, it’s easy to let things slide and just stop. Don’t stop! Make the revisions and share with your readers again. Polish it into something lovely. Then consider sharing with a wider readership. You can do this on a blog or on social media, or by simply giving a copy to somebody you think would enjoy it. You can present it digitally, as a printout, or by using one of the myriad self-publishing options out there. Oh heck. Eva can explain the whole process better herself. Here’s the first of her series of 5 short videos, teaching the creative writing process:
Every writer worth her salt knows that to be a good writer, you have to a strong reader. Read more, and you’ll write more eloquently. You could even try experiments by having your student read particular genres and see if the books influence the way the student composes their own stories and sentences. Or pick out passages that are particularly strong and analyze them together.
I’ve carefully selected the related posts that will show up just below this post to help you explore creative writing further. But you can also always hop up to the drop-down categories above, click on Arts and Humanities, and select English. And as always, you can leave me a comment with a question or drop me an email. Happy writing!
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