Inquiry Project: Initial question and analysis
Guiding question: How can I not let the students' creative nature be stifled by their perception of the assessment of their creative works? What environmental characteristics aid in the students' acceptance of creative writing projects?
It has been my experience that a major problem in engaging students in creative writing assignments is that they fear what others will think about their writing and themselves. It is impossible to deny that a student's creative piece is an extension of themselves. There are certain psychological ties that bind the author to their work; after all, writing is an extension of the imagination and experience combined in an expressive form. I decided to pursue a discussion of some thoughts of professionals in the educational realm in hopes of generating some pedagogical ideas that I can apply in my own classroom. This inquiry will progress from general ideas concerning the teaching of creative writing, to information concerning assessment in the creative environment, and culminate in a discussion of the student-centered approach to teaching creative writing - one which I feel is most congruent with what directions need to be taken in the creative writing classroom.
Most of the information in this portion of the discussion is based on the work of T.D. Allen's Writing to Create Ourselves. Allen calls his approach upside-down education. His basic criticism of traditional writing education is that all student compositions concentrate on the basic grammatical elements of written discourse. After thinking about my own development as a writer, I concluded that this traditional course was a large part of my own education. However, I had the opportunity to experience a creative writing classroom environment which deviated from this traditional approach. The basic structure of the class is to let the students write what they want to say -
We approached the teaching of English usage not by the grammar door
but by the writing door - letting students write what they wanted to say.
We came to grammar - spelling, syntax, rhetoric - through revising material
for reading (Allen, pg. 5).
Allen's allegiance to this upside-down approach allows the student to develop their sense of creativity while becoming confident in their own ability to express ideas imaginatively. This confidence is key in the student's willingness to put things on paper. It is only logical to enable the student to think about what to write before shaping it into a finished piece - this is how most professionals work.
The confidence of the student in the classroom is the other important concept addressed in Allen's work. His method of developing student confidence is two fold:
Each child is an individual. Each person's experience is of value to him/her
and to the rest of us (Allen, pg.5).
Allen maintains this principle in all lessons, activities, and discussions. He believes that the student's ability to write creatively hinges on their application of what they know in a confident, directed manner. It is the job of the educator to direct the students and introduce concepts and ideas which illustrate to the student that they have an opinion and that it is of consequence to the rest of those around. A basic idea that establishes a sort of ethos for the creative mind is to involve students in an inclusive description of the nature of the writer -
We are all interested in and write about one subject. That subject is life for human beings.....any part of life [the student] has lived provides a good subject for their writing (Allen, pg. 5).
Finally, it important to distinguish each student as a unique voice in this domain of human life and experience-
Each one's view of what has happened to him is unique and thus adds to the
sum of human experience, provided these experiences are written and shared
(Allen, pg. 6).
Allen engages his students by illustrating that they are unique, important, and different. He concentrates on the writing down of ideas before employing the more standard assessments. He provides students with basic ideas which engage students into a creative environment en route to developing an intrinsic knowledge of their own ability to write and the confidence which allows each to do so.
To discuss assessment issues in the classroom, I chose the book The Development of Children's Imaginative Writing, edited by Helen Cowie, from which I found an article written by Joan Tamburrini entitled "Children's Conceptions of Writing". This article discussed the development of the child as a writer detailing the evolution from the beginning expository phases to the more defined creative and expressive natures -
[Students begin to] write in the expressive mode, a form of written down
expressive speech that stays close to the self of the writer, revealing his/her
thoughts and feelings, and fully comprehensible only if one knows that specific
persons context (Tamburrini, pg. 188).
The student will evolve to more specific expressive modes including informational, argumentative, and the poetic (when writing is to achieve an aesthetic effect). The article goes on to describe "writing progress" as the ability of the student to differentiate between the types of writing according to audience and the purpose of the piece. So how does this relate to my inquiry, huh?
It relates because there is a serious problem in the creative classrooms of our schools. We ask our students to engage in creative processes, but do not inform our students why these assignments are important for their development. Most other classes have direct relation to the students lives - when asked, students relate the tasks to development of writing skill, language use, or language acquisition. However, in the creative classrooms we are losing are students because they do not see the purpose. Have you ever asked as student why they think they are writing poems - I assure you that they have no idea.
This article includes a case study detailing the answers of students when asked why they do assignments in their creative writing classrooms.
The dominant finding here was that children we talked to could give no reason
at all for writing poems (Tamburrini, pg. 193).
Students commented that poems rhymed, but did not have to; that the principle subject matter was seasons, summer, flowers, and birds; but they had no reason to relate it to their own lives. The conclusion to be drawn here is one of great importance - the material in the classes have to apply to the students' lives. Just like in any other subject. My main concern has shifted from what I thought plagued students' writing - the vulnerability that is associated with writing creatively, toward a more inclusive understanding of what needs changed in the creative classroom to exonerate students from the weights of the traditional mold of creative writing education.
As is the usual case, assessment is a necessary evil. The key is involving it in the classroom in beneficial ways (for the student, not the teacher and institution). Here is a brainstorm of some details which I have compiled from various resources and experiences. First, creative writing must be meaningful for the students - they must know why it is important in their development as a writer, and how creative writing relates to their lives and experiences. The students need to know the "how' and "what" of assessment. The teacher must be specific concerning what they want from their students. Often times students are overwhelmed with assignment because they have no idea what is expected of them in the assignment, not because they are afraid of the grade. The teacher should emphasize completion, effort and clear communication of ideas in assessment. Teachers should issue as much feedback as possible to illustrate that they care about the students ideas; comment on their use of the senses, images, and thoughts, these are easiest to pick out and positively affirm. Teachers should use varying inks and attachments for comments - do not let the form of the submission regulate the amount of comments. A routine to aid in student writing is to have them type their assignments. Often times the clarity of words on a blank page makes students edit what they are saying, especially in poetry. All of these ideas funnel to one main concept - students need to be confident; to write their thoughts uninhibited; then concentrate on the standard issues of writing after the thoughts have been coerced onto the page; the teachers manner and reactions in the classroom are important parts of this confidence (Allen, pg. 153).
The final text in this inquiry is Teaching Students to Write, by Beth Neman. This text argues the need for a student-centered environment rather than a craft-centered environment. This text parallels the discussion in this paper thus far, and in fact is fairly similar to my own beliefs for student writing environments. I felt it would be nice to finish with something that involves some of my own ideas. The primary problem in the writing process is again psychological:
The primary difficulty stems from the intense ego-involvement of writers with
their work. For most people, writing seems almost and extension of their person.
Criticize it and you criticize them; insult it and they hurt; tear it down and they
are destroyed. Writing is a material manifestation of the very processes of
thought; and in our essential selves, we are what we think (Neman, pg. 3).
So, again we are speaking of fostering self confidence in the classroom. If students believe that they write badly, they will write badly. And if they feel that they do not have ideas or ability they will not demonstrate otherwise.
The problem is this: To write well, you need knowledge of the craft and the confidence to demonstrate this knowledge. Correction of errors is a necessary process in the development of the writer, but this is so entwined with self-confidence that it will affect future performance.
(I think) The mission of the educator to ensure success for their students
in writing assignments is to focus on the learner rather than the task.
Define the task and what is expected of the student. Make sure that the
lesson is relevant to the students' lives. But always emphasize the creative
response of the student over the regimented flow of creative energy (concerned
with correct form, diction, and syntax) in line with the more traditional
style of creative writing education.