In a recent interview in the Stories Teachers Share podcast, high school teacher Alexa Schlechter perfectly described the challenge instructors face with creative writing classes or assignments. Her classroom was a mixed bag: students who were truly interested in writing and those showing up for the required credit. “The students who didn’t want to be there oftentimes showed me that they didn’t want to be there,” she said. “My attention was on them, with their behavior.”
Schlechter discussed the detached nature with which many students approach creative writing and how she struggled to teach those who were present, but unengaged. Because these students often believe that good writers are born, not made, they fail to fully connect with the creative writing course they chose.
Familiar with the power and permanence of words, Schlechter’s solution was to ask students to imagine their permanent influence in the world, then write a memoir. Students responded well to the memoir task, as they are apt to do when they understand that creative writing can be based on their own experiences.
Schlechter checked their progress frequently, except for one young woman who asked her not to read her memoir until it was finished. She agreed because the student had never missed a deadline or assignment. “Students who didn’t give me a problem…I don’t want to say got overlooked, but I was pulled in many different directions,” said Schlechter.
Once the papers were turned in, Schlechter discovered her student’s harrowing, highly personal account of self-harm, which had begun in eighth grade. The writer expressed despair when “she realized she was a ghost; she was invisible; nobody saw her.” When Schlechter asked the young woman who else knew her story, she said, “You’re the first person who asked me to express my voice. No one’s ever cared before.”
Because most students do not consider their lived experience to be a powerful source for creative writing, asking for their invested personal writing is one way to help them find a voice. “I’ve only had this student, at this point, for eight weeks,” Schlechter told the podcast. “To think that she’s a senior in high school, this has been going on for six years, and I’m the first person who’s asked her for her voice, wanting to hear what she’s had to say. And it was such a weighty moment in my life.”
Memoir is a form of self-invested writing where students’ connection to the ideas they’re sharing makes it easier to find their voices. As a mandatory reporter, Schlechter was able to help her student access the resources she needed to intervene and recover from self-harm. The young woman graduated, and they’re still in touch. Although most self-invested writing assignments won’t reveal a serious need for help, they are an effective tool for teaching students that their voices matter.
A routine that allows students to choose their own genres and topics in response to guided prompts can be one way to stimulate their ability to write. Giving them that freedom in frequent, short bursts can help them see that writing is a skill we can apply at will. This strategy helps students get over one of the biggest forms of writer’s block: waiting around for inspiration to strike. When forced to put words on paper with regularity, students often discover their writing switch can flip on at will, rather than only by magic or revelation.
Another great way to encourage reluctant writers is by giving them a very specific framework in which to create their writing. Sometimes the vast amount of freedom that comes from a blank page and a pen shuts students down before they start. Students with more analytic minds tend to feel overwhelmed by the variety of techniques they’ve learned and have difficulty applying them at will.
Students who struggle with unique vocabulary can develop creative writing skills by working with a word bank. Word banks can either be a short list of nouns, adjectives and verbs that writers must write a story around or a longer list of verbs students can choose from to make their writing more active.
I frequently ask students to take the opening and closing line of a story or poem, carve out the middle, and write a new poem or story challenging the expectations of the previous piece of writing.
For writing drama, I’ll have students keep stage directions and characters, but write new dialogue within that framework. In reluctant writers, this answers enough questions to get them started. As they revise later, I often find they edit out the structures they started with and have unique pieces of writing as their ultimate product.
Finally, encouraging young writers to share their work and voices can be an incredibly compelling way to make writing important to them. When sharing, I prompt students of all types and abilities to share both their wins and their writing frustrations. Inspired by other people’s creations or bolstered by realizing that their frustrations are common, students gain a confidence that helps them continue to create.
Recalling Schlechter’s student’s experience, it’s not enough for writers to share their thoughts on paper; they should share them with each other. Writing is created for an audience and if students understand that writing gives them a voice, they will carefully craft pieces that are meant to be, and allow them to feel heard.
Monica Fuglei is a graduate of the University of Nebraska in Omaha and a current faculty member of Arapahoe Community College in Colorado, where she teaches composition and creative writing.