… peace and contentment. However, when last we met, this was by no means how I was feeling. Quite the contrary. My creative writing students were disgruntled, and I knew I had to win them back, so…
I decided that if I had learned anything from teaching this age-group, teenagers can see right through a false facade. They do not like to feel that they have been duped by an adult. Moreover, on any given day, you cannot make them do anything they do not want to do. They also believe it is their job to keep every adult they know honest. When they perceive you are not, they will definitely point it out to you–and usually it’s a humbling experience. I was sure it would be for me,too, but I was willingly to eat humble pie if I could just get them to buy in to the class.
Thus, on the Monday of the second week of school, I vowed to make things right. Yet, as I suspected, it was going to be an extremely hard sell.
Before class, I watched students linger at their lockers until the bell signaled they had no other choice but to enter dreaded room 103. I decided I had to launch right in.
First, I apologized to all of my students for last week’s debacle. I then explained how the class was created over the summer, which made recruitment for the course impossible. I also acknowledged that when I gave students the option to leave this class, I inadvertently made students feel unwanted, which was not my intention. I suggested we begin again, that if they opened their minds and trusted me to get them through, they could have fun writing creatively.
To my surprise and happiness, my students seemed impressed by my honesty and seemed to appreciate it. Hoping for the same result, Tuesday I repeated my speech, and the students in those classes seemed receptive. All was right again in my world! However, as the end of the week approached, I was back to square-one.
I tried to do a fun whole-class activity with all of my sections, but except for one, it fell flat. I could see right away that because the class is an elective, and students do not have to worry about a grade, they weren’t going to take it seriously and try to be creative with words and ideas. The vast majority were either detached or chose to fool around. I left school on Friday feeling frustrated and dejected. How could I get them on board?
As you know, I went to yoga. At one point during the one hour session, our yogini cautioned us that we should listen to our bodies, and if a pose does not feel right, we should not stay in it to impress her or the person next to us. She urged us to take the ego out of our practice, and if we didn’t like where we were, we should come out of any pose. She also said that no matter how much we might want to perform a balancing posture, some days, no matter how hard we try to make it work, it just won’t. In fact, she said a pose could take years to master, but that’s why it is called a practice. She implored us to meet ourselves where we are now.
My choice became clear: I had to stop grieving over a class that was a figment of my own imagination, and my students had to accept that they were now a part of this class for the remainder of the year. We all had to deal with the situation in its present form and move on.
As a result of my yoga epiphany, I placed myself in my students shoes and determined what I would need if I was in a class where I didn’t feel excited or comfortable with the curriculum. I realized that they were asking me for guidance, and I needed to take back the reigns. And this reminded of my very first Paint Nite experience two years ago.
My daughter asked me to come to a fundraiser to support the cheerleading team she was coaching. I will admit, I tried to worm out of it a number of times, for I am not artistic at all. So, not only was I resistant days and hours before, I was even worse when I arrived at the restaurant.
There, in front of every seat, was a huge stark-white blank canvas. A few feet away was the instructor’s perfect portrait that we were supposed to emulate. As I stared at it, I felt defeated without even dabbing my brush in a speck of paint. I could feel all of my creative energy drain as I searched for and nearly tackled a waitress, begging her to bring me an alcoholic beverage immediately–and to keep them coming.
When it came time to paint, I had a snarl on my face as the instructor made each of us lift our glasses and repeat the phrases we were forbidden to utter during the next two hours: “I can’t do this!” “Mine sucks.” “Can I leave now?” “I hate this.” “Please don’t make me do this!” If truth-be-told, I didn’t want to fail at something I knew I could not do.
Yet, I reminded myself why I was there and worked hard to knock the cranky, sullen critic off my shoulder. I took a deep breath as I watched and listened to the instructor show us the first step. Tentatively, I picked up my brush and swirled it in the paint. Once my brush began its ride across the canvas, I realized I was actually enjoying the process. With each stroke, I became more relaxed; I started not to notice those around me. I was captured by own creativity. When our instructor presented the next step, I watched her and then went about it with my own creative flare.
By the end of the evening I was euphoric. I had proven to myself that I possessed the capacity to create a piece of art of which I was proud. I wanted to show it to everyone I knew!
As I stood beaming at my triumph on the easel, the smile slowly slipped from my face. It dawned on me that this must be how my reluctant writers feel when they approach a blank page. Just like they, I had experienced that same sense of insecurity and recrimination. Conversely, simply changing my mindset helped me succeed beyond my own limiting expectations, and I needed to share this with my students at school. The next day, I did just that, and then I hung my picture in my classroom. It is a constant reminder that with a little tweak to my mental attitude, feelings of frustration and self-doubt can be replaced with joy and self-discovery.
Thus, on the Monday of the third week of school, I decided to grab my painting off the wall and share my Paint Nite experience with my creative writers. I recounted my initial negativity toward this form of artistic expression. I admitted to them that until I was placed outside my comfort zone, I never fully realized how intense it must be for students to approach a blank page when they don’t feel confident enough to fill it with ideas. However, if I could paint, they could write, and that was exactly what we would be doing from this day forward. The whining and complaining were over. They were placed in a creative writing class. I am the teacher; they are my students, and we will move forward–together. For now, I must lead, and they must follow.
So, to that end, my plan for my creative writing class is as follows:
Each day when students come into class, they write for ten minutes in their notebooks on a journal prompt of their choosing.
Last week, I shared the science of writing with them, and explained that the writing that begins each class will always be done in their notebooks. The act of writing by hand makes the brain focus on the words being written. Although students aren’t aware of it, out of this writing can come a germ of an idea that can grow into a bigger, deeper piece. Julia Cameron calls this stream of consciousness writing or “Morning Pages.”
They also can choose to write on a prompt from a clever book entitled Unjournaling by Dawn DiPrince. All the prompts are fun and impersonal. They also enjoy the prompts that come from Rip the Page! by Karen Benke. In addition, a fellow friend and outstanding occupational therapist, Laura Trent, encouraged me to purchase, Spilling Ink A Young Writer’s Handbook by Anne Mazer and Ellen Potter. Her son was reticent to write, and the prompts at the end of each chapter helped to open him up as a writer. I am excited to introduce it into my repertoire.
Additionally, my plan is to demystify the process of structuring a story for my students by sharing one I wrote awhile ago that reviews all of the necessary story elements. It is based on a first-sentence-story-starter prompt called, “Horrible Beginnings.” I chose one of the many lines and started my story with it. After we read it together, students will analyze it for plot, conflict, setting, theme, point-of-view, characterization, dialogue, figurative language, irony, voice, word choice, and fluency. This will serve as a review and as a model, so that when students work on their own narratives, they can refer back to it if they are stuck.
Furthermore, I am confident that when my reluctant writers are introduced to 25 Creative Writing Prompts (That Don’t Suck!), which my amazingly talented colleague, Kimberly Crouch, created and sells from her store, English, Oh My! on the Teachers Pay Teachers website, I will certainly get my students writing! The students view a silly picture and then have to write according to the goofy prompt that goes along with it. Students love to laugh and make others laugh as well. My hope is that when we share these prompts aloud, it will generate an atmosphere of fun and trust in the room. (Visit Kim’s store; she has a ton of products to turn any E.L.A. teacher’s classroom into his/her students’ favorite period of the day!)
Alas, this is my challenge for now. I will meet my students where they are. I think if I keep it simple, we should all be fine. I hope each of my students will come to embrace his/her writer within. I want more than anything to share my love of writing with all of them as I keep it alive in myself. I will continue to nudge and guide them toward their own stories as I continue to work on my novel. Yes, this is a challenge, but I’ll only fail if I give up–and I refuse to be defeated by a little teenage angst.
If you have any suggestions for me, please feel free to comment. I am open to all ideas! We all learn best from each other! I hope my students come to realize this.
I’ll write again soon to let you know how it’s going! Thank you for reading! Namaste!