By Justin Parmenter
Ask any English teacher what he or she could use more of, and chances are you’ll get the same answer. Classroom resources are great, more money would be nice, but what we really need is more time. Just like in any other discipline, English teachers have way more curriculum than we can cover in a year. Time constraints force educators to prioritize by order of what feels most important, and all too often that importance is determined by what’s going to be on the test. Our students pay the price as activities that cultivate essential real-world skills such as collaboration and creativity and provide them with a much more engaging and well-rounded education are eliminated from their classes.
Educators are under enormous pressures stemming from a data-driven culture most recently rooted in No Child Left Behind and its successor, the Every Student Succeeds Act, in which the ultimate measure of professional and academic success is a standardized test score. As a result of this standardized testing culture, many of our English students spend way too much time reading random passages which are completely detached from their lives and answering multiple choice questions in an attempt to improve test results. In many classrooms, writing has become little more than an afterthought. Creative writing, in particular, is seen by some as a frivolous waste of time because its value is so difficult to justify with data.
Two decades before the advent of No Child Left Behind, the research of influential literacy professor Gail Tompkins identified seven compelling reasons why children should spend time writing creatively in class:
- to entertain
- to foster artistic expression
- to explore the functions and values of writing
- to stimulate imagination
- to clarify thinking
- to search for identity
- to learn to read and write
The majority of Tompkins’s outcomes of creative writing could never be measured on today’s standardized tests. Indeed, over the same period that standardized reading tests have pushed writing in English classes to the sidelines, efforts to evaluate student writing on a broad, systematic scale have dwindled. Measuring student writing is expensive, and accurately assessing abstract thinking requires human resources most states aren’t willing to pony up. It’s much cheaper to score a bubble sheet.
Measurement and assessment aside, the soft skills that we cultivate through regular creative writing with our students have tremendous real-world application as well as helping to promote the kind of atmosphere we want in our classrooms. After many years as an English teacher, I’ve found that carving out regular time for creative writing in class provides benefits for me and my students that we simply don’t get from other activities.
One of the benefits of creative writing in the classroom is how engaging it is for our students. In general, much of our curriculum follows a one-size-fits-all design and allows little room for freedom of exploration. For young people who are at a time in life when many of their decisions are made for them, this lack of power can be very demotivating and can negatively impact their interest and effort. To do their best work, students need to feel that school is about them, and they need to feel connected to the content on a personal level. When students are given opportunities to experiment with their voices and create through their own original work, they feel a sense of place and they are able to feel in charge. That’s when they shine.
A former student and talented writer told me the following about her relationship with creative writing in the classroom:
Creative writing is important to me because it gives me a way to express myself. There are not a lot of ways, as a young teenager, to be able to freely express ideas and emotions. Many are personal feelings you wouldn’t really want to share with others. But in writing you can put all of those mixed emotions into words. Next thing you know, you’ve created an entirely different universe, with characters close to your heart. Everything is under your complete control. That is not something that you can experience in reality, even reading a book. The feeling that you have created something, something that you can call your own, is what makes it incredible.
When we empower our students to create something that is only theirs, to make big choices in their writing, it can transform attitudes toward learning and school in general. Having students who are motivated to work to their full potential is a dream scenario for any teacher. Regular creative writing can help us to move in that direction.
Another very real benefit of creative writing in the classroom is that it can help to develop a sense of community among our students. In our bitterly polarized society, any activity that fosters empathy and collaboration is well worth our time. Students can share writing with each other at the drafting phase, working together to hone their individual stories. This teamwork allows our students to support each other and work to understand each other’s perspectives. In addition to peer editing, having students co-author creative pieces, whether as an informal ‘chain story’ type activity or a longer, more polished product, can go a long way in nurturing the skills required for effective partnership. Sharing responsibility in the creative process serves as a powerful motivator for our students, often leading to better quality writing.
It’s unlikely that our English teachers are going to get the additional time they so desperately need. What we’re left with is the task of prioritizing class content in such a way that we’re truly meeting all the needs of our students. Data is an important tool in helping us to measure how well we’re meeting those needs, but our definition of data must be broad enough to include outcomes that can’t be captured with a standardized test. We must trust our English teachers to plan instruction that is in the best interests of their students and to know when they’ve succeeded. As a regular part of that instruction, creative writing can empower our students and give them ownership so critical to their motivation. It can provide them essential practice at partnering with their peers in a world where more effective collaboration is sorely needed. At its most powerful, creative writing can help turn our English courses into the life-changing experience that all educators want their classes to be.
About the author:
Justin Parmenter began his teaching career as a Peace Corps Volunteer in Albania before teaching in Istanbul, Turkey, and on the White Mountain Apache Reservation in eastern Arizona. He currently teaches 7th grade Language Arts at Waddell Language Academy in Charlotte, NC. In 2016 he was a finalist for Charlotte Mecklenburg Schools Teacher of the Year. He is a fellow with Hope Street Group’s NC Teacher Voice Network and writes frequently on education. You can follow him on Twitter at @justinparmenter.
Photo (top) and photo of author courtesy of Nancy Pierce