Tuesday, December 21, 2010

Creating a Creative Writing Course

While sharing the basic framework of our middle school creative writing course, I'm really reviewing and celebrating the text which I used to create this course two summers ago: Janet Burroway's text Imaginative Writing: The Elements of Craft.

The idea behind our course is that it would be an optional class for students; they would take it in place of traditional English.  However...we were charged to design the course so that these kids would cover the same literature, vocabulary, and grammar as the traditional course.  The challenge was to rethink the current course and find a new way to deliver it.

We also did not want to make it an honors course necessarily; the bottom line is that we did not want to close doors on kids.

I personally did a lot of reading on the teaching of creative writing prior to writing the course.  What I came up with was that there were two camps.  A creative writing course was either imitative or instructional, rarely both.  Imitative meaning kids imitate various styles of creative writing and generally produce a lot of original creative writing in the class.  Instructional meaning kids learn and read about the various styles, but do not apply it much in their own writing.

My understanding for the split is time...in that it is very difficult to produce a course which covers all of the terminology and craft; read it; discuss it; write it; revise it; discuss it; repeat.

That is the challenge I took on.  What came out of the research and discussion with colleagues is a course which in its second year is not perfect, but does manage to work on all of the levels we identified as important for us.  It gives us what we want and need for our kids.  It will not work for everyone, nor should it.  Kids aren't canned, right?  We all face and deal with the unique challenges of the young people produced in our various communities.

The reason why Burroway's text was invaluable to our design of the course is it breaks the craft of creative writing down into manageable and clearly articulated segments: Image, Voice, Character, Setting, Story, Development & Revision.  Within each of those topics are several key concepts for focus and practice.  We built lessons around each of these key concepts, plugged in our current literature as well as dug around for some more literature to plug into the discussion and illustration of these concepts, and found, borrowed, and created writing lessons which allow students to demonstrate (imitate) their understanding of the concepts.

Burroway's text itself may be too advanced for a middle school student, but the concepts certainly are not.  Just as an actor has to bring a text alive for an audience, a teacher has to find a way to deliver whatever his/her message is each day.  We couldn't buy 100 copies and hand them to our students, but we could use it as our bible and build lessons from it, and that is what we have done.

For example in Chapter 3 - Character, Burroway breaks down Character into seven components: Character as Desire, Image, Voice, Action, Thought, Presented by Author, and Conflict.  Our middle school students have been learned the concept of Character as Desire and applied it to the books they read.  Desire focuses on the fact that all characters want and these wants come from a motive.  What can't this character live without?  What is his/her deepest longing, need, or hope?  The chapter also allowed us to develop a very basic introduction to Aristotle's belief that the nature of man's desire determines the nature of his morality: he who wants good is good; he who wants bad is bad.  Again, it is up to the teacher to deliver these concepts on their level.

Kids can tell me what a character's desire is.  They can absolutely tell me what Harry Potter, Christopher Robin, or Bella Swan can't live without no matter what their reading level is.  They can watch a film and tell us the same things.

In designing the course, we had to determine how we wanted it to run.  Did we envision it as a course where kids sat and wrote and produced work within the various genres; should it be an imitative course where kids imitate various styles and formats; or should it be a nuts and bolts course where kids learn the core concepts of setting, character, et al; and what about the other kinds of traditional writing an 8th grader must produce?  When I found this book, it brought all of that together for me.  I found a way to make the course respond to all of those various needs.

I need to add here that I used the Burroway book alongside of Bloom's Taxonomy. I wanted to make certain that the course allowed for a variety questioning: knowledge, comprehension, application, analysis, synthesis, and evaluation.  The traditional criticism of teachers is that our questions are heavily knowledge-based while leaving the other types as incidental.  I've found that the creative writing focus found in Burroway's book allowed us to easily create lessons which inherently addressed all questions types fairly equally.

This book has allowed me as a teacher to build and design a creative writing course which is not only viewed as valuable and useful by students, parents, and staff, but it is now receiving feedback that it might be considered an honors-level course.  What I believe people are reading as honors is really the fact that our questions are not too heavily knowledge-based; we cover the spectrum of Bloom's Taxonomy.  The reason why this is significant is because I read and hear from our teaching colleagues that in most cases a creative writing course is difficult to maintain in most secondary or middle-level schools because many look at it as kids just simply writing frivolous poems on butterfly cut-outs.

Students search for all of the concepts found in Burroway's text in our reading -it allows us to discuss literature on a deeper and different level beyond knowledge; it still allows us to write traditional (compare-contrast, expository) essays; and it allows us to apply these skills of the craft in our own writing (write a short story which clearly demonstrates Character as Desire).

For anyone looking to start a creative writing class or club, or restructure and defend one currently in place, I would highly recommend starting with this book.  It has been an invaluable resource.

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