“Learning can be transformed into understanding only with intrinsic motivation. Learners must make an internal shift; they must choose to invest themselves to truly learn and understand. This need for creative engagement applies to all fields… In the arts, teachers specialize in creating environments that encourage learners to set aside the usual rules of school and invest themselves intrinsically. It requires an act of courage.”
–Creating Innovators by Tony Wagner, taken from Caren Truske’s 2013 CAWP Fall Conference presentation
Caren Truske is a chemistry teacher and member of Project Aspire (an arts integration based inquiry group) who had her her students work displayed at the Columbus Arts Festival this year. She presented at the Columbus Area Writing Project fall conference and modeled for teachers some of the techniques she used to engage and motivate her students in the thinking and research processes for science. Caren was a member of my CAWP cohort two years ago.
Here is a summary of her process with students:
- Product: Research, create and present a written and visual interpretation of the important aspects of an element from the periodic table.
- Students research an element of the periodic table and then “mind map” the phrases and terms associated with it on paper
- Students use the mind maps and their research to create different forms of short poetry or other creative writing
- Students create a visual representation of their element using a “stamping” process where they first create a Styrofoam stamp and then use it to create a reverse image
- Presentation: These projects were displayed at the Columbus Arts Festival
In her presentation, we used the same process without research, and I worked with one of her students. He “mind-mapped” music, so I mapped poetry on the same paper. As we did this, we circled and connected our common words. Then, she gave us some short form poetry examples to use as a model. The student and I both had the word “rhythm,” so I used an acrostic poem (a form I usually don’t like) to write about that:
Repetition of sounds- thumping and
Humming with the beat
You find your own
Tapping, rapping on the table
We practiced another poetry form with the same topic, and then created our stamps to go with either work and made the final product of writing and visual combined.
Truske asked me how I would imagine this in the ELA classroom. I think that the “stamping” process would be a good way to introduce symbolism of abstract concepts to students. I think that the mind-mapping free association is a good way to start that process, too. In addition, I think short poetry forms are a great way to address content issues and use formative assessment. For example, I could see teachers asking students to write:
- a haiku about claims
- a definition poem about “connotative meaning”
- a senryu describing the theme in a story
Truske said any teacher can ask to have their students work displayed at the Columbus Arts Festival.
She referenced the work on Tony Wagner in her presentation, so here are some links to his work:
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:
“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.