This post is excerpted from the book Creating Confident Writers: For High School, College, and Life by Troy Hicks and Andy Schoenborn (W. W. Norton, June 2020).
Perhaps one of our most important jobs as writing teachers is to help our writers understand that literacy is much more than reading, researching, and academic writing. For many students, the only real changes they see in their ELA and composition courses over the years are that the mechanical demands become stricter (with specific attention to MLA, APA, or other style guides) and the papers get longer. It is an unfortunate reality that turns many of those same students away from writing or, worse yet, forces them to see school-based prose as the only kind of writing that counts.
With that in mind, we need to welcome student writers with invitations they are able to choose. Providing a choice for students in topic, genre, or mode of writing increases ownership of their learning. In addition, it helps them to see value in their work. For Andy, this means biweekly opportunities for in-class creative writing and employing Natalie Goldberg’s “List of Writing Rules” from Writing Down the Bones: Freeing the Writer Within (2010, p. 8). These opportunities produce powerful moments for students to explore their own ideas. As Goldberg advises, Andy asks writers to “Keep your hand moving”; “Don’t cross out”; and, metaphorically, to “Go for the jugular.” Students choose to keep their writing in a writer’s notebook or create a Google Doc, both of which are for their eyes only. When students are given inspiration, choice, and time to write, they soon awaken the muse they did not know was lying dormant within them.
When it comes to quantity, we agree with Kelly Gallagher who says that, “as a general rule of thumb, students are asked to write four times more than [we] can physically assess” (2006, p. 53). Increasing the volume of writing students are expected to do increases their time on the page and, therefore, increases their time thinking like writers. Choosing low- risk writing invitations helps students become comfortable with the page, their thoughts, and their writing. We look for assessment that reduces the writer’s time spent listening to their inner critic and increases time spent in celebration of their ideas as they learn.
At the midterm and end-of-term, time designated for creative writing shifts from generating writing to choosing one piece of writing that surprised them. Students learn revision techniques during short mini-lessons and reenvision a piece they would like to submit for a grade in their portfolio. In this credit/no credit assessment, students are asked to meet five criteria. Their piece must include a summative image, a title, a piece of writing suitable for publication, “words from the author” in which they share their inspiration (VanDerwater, 2017), and a significant “revision decision” (Anderson & Dean, 2014), explaining a rhetorical move they made in the piece (which will be explored in more detail in Chapter 5).
Incorporating the freedom of creative writing gives students the chance to spread their writer’s wings. They write for the sake of writing, and although Andy offers writing prompts, he always begins creative writing time by saying, “I don’t care what you write; I just care that you write, creatively.” When students prepare to submit their work, he reminds them that since he asks them “to be vulnerable in their writing and write from their soul,” if their pieces meet the five criteria listed above, they will earn full credit because “whose soul is worth any less than one hundred percent? No one’s.”
Invitations for students to write creatively during classroom routines often produce impressive results. Consider Kennedy Griffin’s poem, “Everything But Us,” which shares her perspective on race and culture (as noted in the Introduction, links to samples of student work and assignment templates are available on the authors’ website: hickstro.org/confidentwriters.
As an African American student in a predominantly white school, Kennedy had been exploring questions about identity based on her interest with #BlackLivesMatter. She seized the creative writing opportunities given in Andy’s class to dig into and explore the tensions she experiences in her life. In particular, she feels that “everything from our food to our headwraps and hair techniques” have been appropriated. While she had not cited a specific example of this happening at school, she was able to share many examples from current events and pop culture. Also, as she reflected, she makes an effort in the final stanza to frame a question “meant to push the reader deep into thought.”
Kennedy, having had the opportunity for some independent and creative writing, used this writing invitation to explore issues of identity. For her, and for many students, the opportunity to do this kind of writing, thinking, and reflecting is not often found in a typical English classroom, which usually focuses on thematic essays. In thinking about the habits of mind, Kennedy certainly expressed creativity and flexibility.
As we think about additional ways students like Kennedy can extend their thinking, we are reminded of Amy Ludwig VanDerwater, mentioned briefly above, who discusses the power of poetry in her book Poems Are Teachers (2017). Here she argues that “poems teach us how to write. Anything.” Kennedy took the opportunity during creative writing time to run with this power, using the flexibility afforded by the prompt, and wrote about her experiences in a manner that, up to that point, she had not felt comfortable expressing in a traditional essay format. VanDerwater, and many others who advocate for poetry in the classroom—such as Fletcher (2013, 2017), Heard (2014), Romano (2000), and Bomer (2016)—give us, as teachers, permission to bring poetry into the classroom not just as a one-off unit but, rather, on a regular basis. By creating this celebration of words each and every day, Andy inspires confidence in his students. More resources are available on VanDerwater’s website, linked from the authors’ website page for this chapter.
Troy Hicks is a professor of English and education at Central Michigan University. He directs both the Chippewa River Writing Project and the Master of Arts in Learning, Design & Technology program. A former middle school teacher, Dr. Hicks is an ISTE Certified Educator and regularly leads workshops related to writing and technology for schools, districts, and professional organizations.
Andy Schoenborn is an award-winning author and high school English teacher in Michigan at Mt. Pleasant Public Schools. He s a co-facilitator of the monthly #TeachWrite Twitter chat, past president of the Michigan Council of Teachers of English, and a Regional Representative of the Michigan Reading Association. Schoenborn is also a contributing author of Using Technology to Enhance Writing (Solution Tree, 2014) and Continuing the Journey 2 (NCTE, 2018). In November 2019, he was honored with the 2019 Linda Rief Voices from the Middle Award for outstanding publication for his article, “Reclaiming the Arts in English Language Arts.” He is a teacher consultant for the Chippewa River Writing Project (NWP) site.