Hand Holding Most Definitely Allowed
– Kevin Stein
A few weeks ago I introduced Storybird to a few of my students who were hanging out after school. The site is filled with sets of professional level illustrations and an easy to use interface which allows people to create original picture books. After I had finished showing off what you could do on the site, most of the students kind of shrugged and drifted off to practice listening with Lyrics Training or to do vocabulary work with Quizlet. But one student, Y-Chan, got right to work on making her picture book. It was the story of a rabbit who could only hop backwards. Y-chan worked on the story all week. When she was finished, she let me read it and then absolutely refused to let me show the other students or link to it in my blog (or anywhere else for that matter). She was perfectly satisfied with putting the story together and showing it to her teacher.
In case you’re wondering, this blog post is not at all for students like Y-Chan, because for every Y-chan there are 10 students who don’t really think that writing a poem or story is all that fun. And out of those ten, there might be one or two for whom the idea creative writing activities is terrifying. We have that cliché, “my mind went blank.” But the fact that it’s a cliché masks just how unnatural the whole concept really is. Minds don’t go blank. They are constantly throwing up ideas, images, the detritus of ourselves. So it’s not surprising that some students, when faced with a snowy white sheet of paper and a similar expanse of nothing in their minds, feel a hint of panic. If I’m going to assign students creative writing assignments, I think it’s my responsibility to tamper down that feeling to the best of my ability. Here are two ways I’ve found to make creative writing activities a little less scary:
Pick the right form
A number of poetry and even prose forms provide a structure which makes the act of creating something new a little less daunting. I’ve found that Haiku, with it’s three lines in a short/long/short combination is limiting enough (and short enough) that students don’t quite get as panicked as they might with a longer assignment. There are a number of Internet sites and blogs of people writing haiku in English as a second language. One of my favorites, English Haiku English Haiku is worth using as examples for a writing assignment, or even for a reading class. Similarly, Six Word Memiors, a story in only six words, work well with almost any level English student. But even limiting the space which students have to fill up isn’t enough sometimes. Just in case, before I start this type of short form writing assignment, I prepare six themes which I then write up on the white board. Things like, “What I did last summer,” “My worst Day,” and “My favorite thing,” work well. Then, if I find a student who is still struggling to start writing, usually because they can’t decide what they want to write about, I just hand that student a die and tell them to roll it two times. The numbers they roll are the themes they should use to start their writing. And if all of this is still not enough to get a student’s pencil moving, I will simply supply the first few words of the assignment for them. Jotting down the word ‘yesterday I’ or ‘tired,” at the top of the page makes choosing the next word much easier. And when they are done, students can go back and erase those first words—usually without any damage to the piece as a whole—making the work entirely their own.
Provide good prompts
For longer activities in which the form is less constraining, I find that some students need a series of prompts to set them at ease. The prompts are a way of assuring the students that they will be able to get from the beginning to the end of the piece. Adam Simpson over at Teach Them English Teach Them English has a great set of question prompts which serve to help students write a one paragraph story. The Story Box is another example of writing prompts. It’s a box of flash cards divided into Characters, Setting, and Action. In each section, there are cards with basic information, so a Character card might read, “Patty: 42 years old. Works in a library. Loves children. Is afraid of mice.” Students pick 1 setting card, 2 character cards, and one action card to start. The information on the card provides them with the information they sometimes feel they need to start writing. And if a students gets stuck in the middle of a story, the remainder of the page a cliff over which they are dangling, having them pick another “action” card usually provides the story (and their imagination) with enough of a push to get their pencil moving again.
You might wonder, if all these nudges and hand-holds are necessary to keep students moving through the process of writing, is it really worthwhile? Isn’t there something easier students could do which might be a more effective use of time? Maybe. I wonder that myself sometimes. Only, I love the open-ended nature of creative writing tasks. And some of the things students produce reveal them in ways that I could never get at through a more typical activity. But it’s more than just the selfish desire to get to know my students a bit better. When our students get out of the classroom, almost every communicative act is going to be novel, is going to require an act of imagination. Providing an opportunity for students to play with language; to make something personal and new; to listen to other learners’ stories and poems; these are all a kind of training, I think, for the wildness of real communication. Sure, it’s not easy, but it doesn’t have to be. That’s why we practice it.
There’s one other reason why I love to give students creative writing activities. Remember Y-chan? Students like her thrive on these kinds of assignments and should also have a chance to shine. Best of all, you don’t have to worry about them being constrained by all those steps you set out for the other students. Most of the time Y-Chans will raise their hands and simply ask, “Can I do something different?” Then, like a rabbit who can only hop backwards, they’ll simply ignore all those signs you’ve staked along the way as they happily managed to get themselves from their very own beginning to their very own end, enjoying all the spaces in between.
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