Being a teacher, especially the first years, gave me a chance to explore, and exhaust, my mental facilities and creative energies. Teaching is rewarding, but it can sometimes (especially with grading) leave little “mind” to explore other endeavors.
However, most English teachers began as writers, or at least great appreciators of the art of writing, and my guess is what we wrote, read, and loved was not a non-fiction, primary source text about the creation of the Declaration of Independence. Not that this information isn’t important, exciting or worthwhile, but most teachers of English began the job because they love art and the emotional and intellectual benefits it brings.
As a teacher, I think I had forgotten the initial spark that brought me into the English classroom. However, after my first couple of years, I got involved in an arts integration program for my students that reignited my love for creative expression. That summer, I applied and was accepted into a Columbus Area Writing Project cohort, which is an organization under the umbrella of the National Writing Project.
In the two and a half weeks that I was part of the program, I connected with other professionals who were also passionate about education, innovation, and writing. I was inspired, and still am, by all that I learned from them.
In the program, I learned the power of meaningful modeling at the teacher’s level. It only really works when the teacher can have an “aha” moment that is as meaningful as the students will have in the classroom.
I learned the power of reflection. When we learn, it needs to be discussed. It needs to be processed. That is how we know we have learned; it is when learning becomes meaningful.
In addition, I wrote. So much… Too much. It helped me to connect to the part of myself that I want to bring into the classroom. The part of me that does what I teach.
CAWP offers summer programs every year that result in “teacher-consultant” certification (respected and well represented within the NCTE community), I would be happy to share more of my experiences with that. In addition, they offer a fall conference which I just attended. This is my second year as an attendee and presenter.
This week, I will post some of the insights and resources gained from this conference in additional posts.
When one thinks of creative writing, he or she might imagine it as a “right-brained” activity with little room for the analytical aspect of the mind.
While this is sometimes the dominating perception, it is far from the reality. To expose students to the true nature of the professional writer’s craft, there will almost always be some discussion of how “left-brained” activities, like research, come into play.
I watched Carrie Eneix’s class have a discussion over The Secret Life of Bees a few weeks ago, and we planned a unit of study that began with students being exposed to the type of research Sue Monk Kidd did for the book and analyzing examples from the text. It was inspired by the following quote by Kidd describing how she went from knowing “not much at all” about bees to writing a book where they are a primary focus.
“I began my bee education by reading lots of books… I discovered bees were a symbol of the soul, of death and rebirth. I will never forget coming up with medieval references which associated the Queen Mary with the queen bee… Books couldn’t tell me everything I needed to know about bees, so I visited an apiary in South Carolina. Inside the honey house, I sketched all the honey-making equipment, trying to get a handle on how they worked… I experienced when the hive was lifted. I became lost in a whirring of bees. So many, I could hardly see. The scent of honey drifted up, the bee hum swelled…”
Taken from “A Conversation with Sue Monk Kidd” in the introductory materials for The Secret Life of Bees.
Here were the learning targets for the lesson:
- I understand how authors’ use short and sustained periods of research for a variety of purposes.
- I can identify the types of purposes (to add specificity, develop metaphors, and enhance imagery) for which an author might use research.
- I can utilize purposeful research in a variety of mediums to meet specific purposes in my own writing.
The first two were targets of the specific lesson for the first day, and the third was a long-term goal by the end of the project.
On the introductory day, students were given three categories for which an author might do research. Here are the slides we discussed for those:
After we discussed the types, then we looked at passages from the text and analyzed them in two ways:
- What research might Sue Monk Kidd have done to gather the information (book, video, primary source etc.)?
- For what purpose (to add specificity, develop metaphor or enhance imagery)?
Here are some examples of those:
Students wrote from where the research might have come and to what end it was used, and we discussed each one. This entire concept is new to most students, and there was no definitive answer, so this was something with which they struggled. However, they were provided with other models and examples later in the unit which I will talk about in an additional post.
On this same day, they were given their assignment. It was the following:
- A short narrative (250 words or less) or poem (approximately 25-50 lines) that focuses on a “self-selected” community that becomes a “family” or provides a sense of belonging to its members to positive or negative ends. This is not a personal narrative, so choose one that will provide a venue for research.
- Examples/possible options: a tribe (at any point in history), gangs, immigrant communities, fraternal orders (Freemasons for example), religious communities (such as Amish or Mennonite), communes, cults etc.
- A short narrative (250 words or less) or a poem (approximately 25-50 lines) that is based upon an insect/animal as a metaphor for some larger idea and is built on the real-world aspects of that creature to develop the metaphor.
- Examples/possible options: butterflies, a type of fish, lion, polar bear etc.- really any living creature but humans
Ultimately, students would be presenting these pieces of writing to the class. More to come on this later.
Here are the resources we used for the lesson:
Students can most times identify figurative language in someone’s writing, and they can often state what is being compared and described; however, they sometimes struggle with the question of why and how authors make specific choices about the language they use.
To this end, I worked with Melissa Larisch and Sam Bosse on a lesson designed with the following learning targets:
- I understand how writers use figurative language and imagery to relay an underlying theme or a tone and what effect these tools have on the overall piece and the reader.
- I can use concrete details to represent an abstract idea.
- I can choose important details and appropriate metaphors to enhance the development of tone and theme in my own writing.
These learning goals were established for two reasons. The first was that while reading “Rules of the Game,” both teachers noticed consistent recognition of the figurative language Amy Tan was using, but a lack of understanding as to what purposeful effect these tools had on the reader. For example, the wind is used as a metaphor throughout the short narrative. Students struggled to understand why at points the “wind whispered” to Tan, as opposed to “shouted” or “barked.”
To this end, we compared how the same metaphor was used in different contexts for different purposes.
Here is an example:
The second reason for the lesson was the desire of both teachers to enhance their students’ ability to make thoughtful language choices in their own writing using Amy Tan as a model.
For this second goal, we began by brainstorming “abstractions” together. Then, students were given a random object on a card and asked to use descriptive and figurative language to make that object represent the abstraction.
Before students began, the teacher modeled the writing by creating one together in class with students. The object for the example is a moldy orange, and the abstraction it represents is “forgotten” or “forlorn.” The class brainstormed descriptive language to use in the paragraph and then thought through the process together to do the actual writing while the teacher prompted them with questions (see resources for examples) and typed the piece.
This part of the process can be a little “messy” because it is impromptu; the teacher is as surprised as the students about what develops. However, this also allows students to see the thinking process behind the writing, especially as the teacher reads the work aloud and revises it with students.
Both teachers continued the lesson the next day in interesting ways. Larisch had her students share their writing aloud to a partner and had the partner guess the abstraction it represented. She told them if they could guess it or get close, they had done a good job. If not, they needed to revise.
Bosse had his students post the pieces of writing on Edmodo (more to come about the later) and respond to one another via posts. His students also had to guess the abstraction represented in the writing.
Larisch reported that her students were eager to share their writing with one another, and they willingly read aloud to the class after the lesson.
- Here is the Power Point we used for the lesson: Abstract to Concrete Power Point-1
- This resource provides some “prompting questions for teachers while modeling this type of writing: Prompting Questions for Teachers: Creative Writing.
- Here is an actual assignment with examples and explanations to give to students: Student Assignment and Modeling Questions for Abstract to Concrete Lesson
- Here is a copy of the example from Larisch’s class: Example Model from Melissa Larisch’s class
“Ten years after the loss of his entire family to madness and death, Ernest Frankenstein finds himself compelled to return to the city of his birth, Geneva, in order to discover if his elder brother, Victor, might still be alive. Only Victor can provide the answers to questions, which have long plagued Ernest. The quest for answers will force Ernest to confront demons, both internal and external, from his past, which refuse to be at peace and which ultimately will endanger both he and his new family. Hunted across Europe their only hope may lie with a French spy, Ernest’s childhood friend, and a mysterious gypsy girl whose people believe that Ernest will lead humanity to its salvation or final destruction.
PHSC English teacher Pete Planisek not only wrote the book described above, he also maintains a podcast, blog, and online publishing company. While often teachers in the arts lose touch with the practice of creating because of the pressures of daily of teaching and (especially for English teachers) the time commitment of grading, he remains an active writer and arts advocate, a feat he described as “always a trade off.”
As a classroom benefit, Planisek said that maintaining his writing has allowed him to help students because, “You know what you struggle with creatively to give pointers.”
In addition, there are intrinsic benefits, “[Writing] helps me grow as a person- you have to put yourself in different worlds and situations, and writing connects you with other people who are interested in writing… It challenges you to not just hone your craft but hone your own humanity,” he said.
Some teachers within the district have begun to explore research in creative writing, which is true to the form of many non-fiction writers, especially those who write narratives, poems or longer works with a historical context. “With the Frankenstein novels I’ve spent a fair amount of time researching the: historical time periods, names, geography, political issues, etc. I usually really enjoy getting to go more in-depth and really work hard to make the settings and characters believable,” he explained, “I’m looking forward to going and visiting some of the locations I’ve been writing about.”
With his online publishing company in the beginning stages, Planisek is always looking for new works to add to his website. He would welcome teacher submissions.