Our Creative Writing Class

Some questions about our Creative Writing class have come my way in the past few days from a few different people. Although I responded to those folks by email, I thought I’d offer this as a blog post too with the hope that others searching for ideas will find it heplful. If this is more or less than you’re looking for, feel free to stop, or ask for more!

When I started teaching Creative Writing, the best advice I received was from my colleague Kevin Brewner. Although I knew what I wanted students to learn and experience, I wasn’t so sure about the subjective grading. So I asked, “How do you figure grades in Creative Writing?” His answer: “By weight.” Great, great advice. Sometimes quantity is quality. With that in mind, I created a grade contract requiring students trying for an A to write 75 journal entries, a 30-page manuscript, some kind of publication submission, numerous assignments, and participation in whole-class peer review. Those who wanted to aim lower had somewhat less demanding expectations. This raises all kinds of grading-related philosophical questions and concerns. I understand that. All I can say is that this has worked for my students and me. I try to never talk about grades and writing in the same conversation with students. In fact, I hardly ever talk about grades, but the day of reckoning always arrives, and we need to have a way to approach it. The grade contract is ours.

Let’s tackle those other elements one at a time. First of all, the journals are the starting point for each class session. I said pretty much all I know about journals in a previous blog post. Maybe you won’t mind popping over there for my take on journals.

The manuscripts can be a 30-page single project, or a collection of various pieces produced over the course of the semester. The assignments, activities, and exercises from class can be wrestled (or massaged, if you prefer) into more polished versions to be included in the manuscript.

As we work through poetry, drama, and prose, students attempt a variety of writing genres, formats, purposes, and styles. Some of those pieces—but not all of them—will find their way into those manuscripts, along with some of the ideas that started out as journal entries.

The publication submission can be a contest entry, a presentation at Writers Week, a Facebook “note,” contribution to Polyphony, fanfiction.net, Figment.com, or TeenInk.com, a more-elaborate-than-average Tumblr.com post, or the school’s literary magazine. I’m also open to suggestions from students. The main thing is that it has to be available for others to see. Three of my students this semester started new blogs through Blogger or WordPress. That was pretty cool.

I have all kinds of assignments and in-class activities—too many to upload here. If you’re looking for something in particular, please let me know, and I’ll try to provide it or steer you toward it.

We do Wednesday “sharing sessions.” This means that students sign up in advance for a specific Wednesday or two when they will bring one or two pages of their writing for the class’s consideration and feedback. Before we do this, I give them a talking-to about the importance of pairing criticism with suggestions. If a criticism doesn’t have a suggestion attached, it can be written as a margin comment, but it should not be said out loud. That has worked pretty well. On those Wednesdays, each of the students for the day distributes copies of their work, and the other students read it and write comments on it. After ten minutes or so, the writer is invited to read it aloud. Sometimes they do; sometimes they prefer to have it read by someone else. In rare cases, they say something like “I’d really rather it just remain on the page.” That wish is respected. Then for about ten minutes, students offer oral comments and suggestions. Sometimes I have to steer the conversation a bit, but these sessions are almost always productive and memorable.

So, a typical day begins with a journal prompt, followed by an activity, followed by the opportunity for anyone (including me) to read aloud or tell about something written that day.

A typical week includes three of those typical days, plus Wednesday sharing sessions, and on Friday, we do “topic journals,” a collection of notebooks on specific topics that students take turns adding to throughout the semester.

Some of the dilemmas I haven’t quite solved:

1. Is a genre by genre approach the best way to go? If so, which genre should we start with?
2. How can I integrate more one-on-one time with individual writers?
3. How can I serve the larger composition instruction needs of Creative Writing students who take this class in order to avoid the research paper in our Expository Composition class? I use some of the description and pre-writing activities from our Expository Composition: Discovering Your Voice textbook in Creative Writing, but I still wonder if I’m doing enough of this to meet the needs of the heterogenous class make-up this class tends to pull in.

Your thoughts on those issues are extremely welcome.

Here is a list of the books that have been helpful to me for our Creative Writing class:
Thomas Newkirk: Holding On to Good Ideas in a Time of Bad Ones
Penny Kittle: Write Beside Them
Steve Kowit: In the Palm of Your Hand
Natalie Goldberg: Old Friend from Far Away
Geoff Hewit: Today You Are My Favorite Poet
Ted Kooser: The Poetry Home Repair Manual
Sheila Bender: Writing Personal Poetry

English Companion Ning and Twitter are also great ways to connect with other teachers interested in this kind of class and who are going through similar experiences. Knowing you’re not alone is a good thing. I’m glad to help, and maybe those of you reading this post can also somehow help each other.

Our Creative Writing class outside on the day after the seniors left us.

Again, I don’t intend for this to be read as The One True Way to Do Creative Writing. It’s just the way I’ve done it, for better or worse, mostly better, but I’m always looking for ways to make things even more rewarding for our young writers. Please share your ideas. Thanks for reading.

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3 Responses to Our Creative Writing Class

  1. Jason says:

    I have taught creative writing for three years now. Next school year because of student interest, I’ll have a section of Creative Writing II. I’m looking forward to going deeper with my students. One thing that worked for me this year was to devote one day per week (Wednesdays) to silent reading. I tell my students that good writers are good readers, and on most days, I joined them. Sometimes, though, I would use that extra time to give feedback on their writing. Just an idea! Thanks for sharing your thoughts. I will definitely bookmark this post for a reread.

  2. I would like to take this class and maybe some day learn how to teach it. Wouldn’t that be great professional development? Instead of supervising study hall, we could be students in a colleague’s class! Not realistic but still a fun thought.

    I like the contract idea. There is no avoiding grades at this point, and you’ve come up with a creative way to assess creativity. Thanks for a peek inside a great class.

  3. mdinch says:

    Adv. Creative Comp will always be one of my favorite classes!

    My teaching writing course (which had a fancier name, but it was, essentially, about teaching writing) also used Wordplaygrounds by John S. O’Connor and she mentioned Julia Cameron’s The Right to Write, which I’ve been working through this summer and is pretty helpful (she muses for a chapter about one aspect of writing and then gives an “initiation” prompt, a little assignment of ways to get started writing). Since we were talking about the teaching of writing in addition to sharing the writing, we also used Vicki Spandel’s The 9 Rights of Every Writer. Each group led a discussion from Spandel’s book and facilitated a workshop (which sometimes had to do with genre, but not always). The workshops helped a ton! Our main goal for the semester was a portfolio of writing at the end, which could be one continuous project (a piece of fiction, a collection of related poems, a multi-genre piece) or just a collection of revised writing from the semester (kind of like what you’re talking about here). Some workshops weren’t genre-related, but instead worked on writing with music, or concentrating on description–mostly just finding ways to look at writing in a different way. I could see that type of lesson playing a role somewhere throughout the course of Creative/Advanced Creative Comp–either before you get into genre, or dispersed throughout.

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