If you’re reading this post right now, I’m going to assume the following:
The reason I’m willing to bet these three things are true is because I was you about seven years ago. When I got the chance to take over our high school creative writing program in my third year of teaching, I felt all of the above emotions–but mostly the vomiting emotion.
It wasn’t that I felt incapable of teaching writing. Writing had been my passion for as long as I could remember–it was why I became an English teacher. I’d spent years of my childhood filling notebooks with made-up tales of fluffy bunnies, talking parrots, and everything in between (usually involving an animal or ten). In addition, when I was granted the opportunity to take over the classes, I’d already been published several times.
Still, there’s something about being given the reins to a creative class that is daunting. For one, most of us teachers like structure, organization, and a methodical plan. With creative writing class, I found none of that in place. For one, there isn’t a set structure to teaching a subjective topic like creative writing. The mere subject matter itself makes a scope and sequence difficult to map out. Furthermore, there are very few resources out there for high school creative writing teachers, probably because it isn’t a commonly taught class (thanks, standardized testing, right?). And although it feels great to set down the English teacher textbook and finally focus on creativity, where do you even begin knowing what to actually teach? The state standards offer little structure or help, giving vague hints about style and voice. Still, what should a high school class focus on? How should students be assessed? How do you teach someone to be creative?
These were all questions I struggled with in my first few years of teaching the course. How did I sort it out? Trial and error, mostly. I made mistakes. I restructured. I tried new activities, and abandoned some old ones. And eventually, over the years, I created a class that felt right. It’s a class where I love to be–and so do my students, for the most part. It’s a class where I feel like they’re learning what they need to know for the field but still have freedom to make choices and be themselves. It’s a class with assessments and direct instruction but different in the sense the kids aren’t smothered by expectations of mastery. In a sense, it’s a free-flowing class that still offers a sense of structure and expectations.
Today, I not only have Creative Writing I class that I teach and developed, but I have Level II and a Novel Writing course. Since that first class, I’ve also become a USA Today Bestselling author. Still, even now, the thing I love about teaching creative writing is that no two classes are ever the same. The thing you’ll learn in this book, hopefully, is that there isn’t a one-size-fits-all approach to teaching creative writing. It ebbs and flows. It transforms as you change, too.
Thus, I decided to write a book to share what I've learned along the way. I hope to give you practical tips for starting up your own creative writing class or curriculum. I’ll talk about tried and true strategies that have worked for me in the classroom, basic tenants to use in your own class, and activities I’ve enjoyed. We’ll talk about how to establish grading standards that give you flexibility and how to organize your class to maximize learning while still letting students have options. I’ll talk about how to create a helpful critique environment where students feel comfortable growing.
I wrote this book for a few reasons. Other books out there focus either solely on activities or exclusively on writing theory. I didn’t feel like there was a book out there for “real” teachers–teachers who face the challenges of time, behavior, and pressure. I wanted to write a book from the heart, in a way, one that speaks to my own successes and learning curves. Most of all, I wanted to write a book in the hopes of inspiring you to create your own favorite class–because my creative writing class is my breath of fresh air during the day. When done well, your creative writing class can become a safe haven not only for your students to learn how to express themselves, but for you to be the kind of teacher I think we all want to be. It might not feel like it now. You might be feeling overwhelmed and like vomiting. But I promise, if you read this book and then make the ideas your own, you’ll shine.
And let me say this, right at the beginning. It doesn’t matter how skilled you are in writing or how fancy your prompts are. It doesn’t matter if you have basic prompts or elaborate schemes. It doesn’t matter if you have technology or yellow wooden pencils to work with. It doesn’t matter if you can afford to take your class to the Globe Theater or if you barely have a broom closet to teach out of. None of that is needed to be a successful creative writing teacher, which is perhaps what I love the most.
I’m going to tell you the underlying secret to success now so you can keep it in mind the whole book. Sure, the other tips are nice and can be helpful. But at the core of your writing class, if you can keep this one thing in mind, you’ll be just fine. You’ll be more than fine–you’ll be wildly successful.
Make the students feel safe enough to be seen, and you’ve won.
The rest is just filler.
Scroll down to read my first tip for Free. Then, if you want more tips, be sure to check out my book on Teaching High School Creative Writing now.
Excerpt: Teaching High School Creative Writing by L.A. Detwiler
Strategy One: Put down the red pen.
What matters most?
Over the years, numerous students have sat in my creative writing class desks and penned all sorts of works. My class is a mix of tenth through twelfth graders of all different abilities and levels. Some students dream of publishing a novel. Some have already started. Several take the class because they want to get better at writing. A few follow their friends. Still others end up in my class because it’s the only course that fits in their schedule and it was either that or stay back another year.
All types of students and writers sit in my class with all different starting levels–that became apparent from day one. Thus, I found myself asking very early on in my writing teaching days the question posed above: What matters most?
As an English teacher, I’d been taught that grammar is crucial to success, and we have to model appropriate grammar for our kids at all times. I can remember my student teacher mentor blasting me for using an improper form of a word during teaching one time. Thus, in the writing classroom, it can be difficult to let go of the notion that misspellings and typos must be corrected.
One of my favorite books to share excerpts from, The Road by Cormac McCarthy, demonstrates a harsh truth English teachers seldom recognize; in certain periods of time, grammar is superfluous. His apocalyptic novel uses minimal punctuation and almost no dialogue marks. In this dog-eat-dog world, the story is what matters, not the restrictions of grammar.
Thus, in my creative writing class, I follow this bare-bones lead. This is because when I asked the question about what mattered in my class, it was clear to me what my answer was. Creativity. Confidence. Voice. These were the things I wanted my kids to leave with, no matter how they came to me. I wanted my students to learn to be imaginative and take risks in their ideas. The only bad idea was a boring one–I wanted them to be brave and come up with new concepts that really had no other place in their academic day. I wanted to take advantage of the freedom I had without standardized testing, and I wanted to pass those benefits on to them.
Most classrooms in a school setting don’t have the luxury of stepping away from rigid state requirements and high-stakes testing. Thus, most of my students don’t get the opportunity to explore creativity at its finest–the kind that sometimes works and sometimes doesn’t. They’ve been programmed to tirelessly seek the “correct” answer and perfect their grades, thus, arguably stifling their imaginations. I wanted my classroom to be a place that felt different than other classes, not because we are kicking back and doing nothing but because it was a place they were free to take risks, make mistakes, and still get applauded. I wanted my writing class to focus on content generation and ideas, not perfecting English concepts.
I also wanted them to learn confidence. Many of my best creative writing students struggle with grammar, spelling, and the traditional English classroom. They are used to getting papers back that look like they’ve been massacred–red pen highlighting every single mistake. “You can’t,” these red etchings say to them. Many of them have come to believe them.
Thus, I made a quick decision in year one that grammar and spelling wouldn’t affect grades in my writing class. I do not have a red pen in that class. I do not correct apostrophes or misspellings. We highlight tense changes because that is part of the writing guidelines, and we talk about how too many run-ons or fragments can get in the way of a message. Other than that, I don’t make note of anything else. This is not the class to analyze commas in a compound sentence or the proper use of a semicolon.
The result, I’ve found, is that voices once stifled are able to rise above their limitations. Students who struggle with grammar shed the weight of “you can’t” vibes and let their own voices ring out. They tell their stories, unencumbered by a lack of vocabulary or understanding of syntax. They let their truths shine and showcase vulnerabilities that otherwise would have been hidden. They learn early on their voices matter more than any red pen.
Won’t ignoring grammar mistakes make it difficult for you to read and grade their works appropriately? I’ll cover this in a later chapter, but in my class, almost all of the grading is done through read alouds. This not only makes your task as a grader more efficient, but it also helps the students to learn from each other. They internalize the learning on a whole different level.
Most of all, though, this approach helps the students learn what I think the class should be all about, at least in an introductory level: they learn confidence. Suddenly, the “You can’t” message becomes “You can.” I have seen the genuine smiles of students who have only ever had their writing corrected beam brightly when they’re given compliments on their ideas. I’ve come to learn, too, that you can’t fix grammar in isolation. Once students have the confidence in their writing and in their story, only then does grammar even matter. When they understand they have a story worth telling, then you can begin to tackle the complex, abstract issues of how poor grammar detracts from their message. If they don’t truly believe they have words worth sharing, why would it matter if a few commas or improperly placed modifiers detract from the meaning?
This is, of course, not the way you have to run your creative writing classroom. The beautiful thing about this subject and course is there are countless ways of teaching it in a beneficial way. Maybe you’ll decide to hold onto the red pen just a little bit, or maybe you’ll put it on reserve for later in the course. Maybe the grammar stickler in you won’t let you loosen the grip. Still, I challenge you to at least put the red pen down for a few months and see what progress you can make on content creation. I think once you see for yourself the impact you can have by taking the perfectionist pressure off of your writers, you’ll understand the benefits firsthand. You’ll start to hear ideas and creativity I would argue you wouldn’t otherwise.
Eventually, if you feel the need to focus on grammar, consider focusing on grammar issues that publishers commonly note finding in manuscripts. Some of the issues I’ve worked through with editors include:
If you tackle grammar from a publishing/style perspective instead of a technical perspective, students understand it in a more meaningful way. They have a reason to clean up some of their usage and begin to realize how these small changes impact their wording, impact, and voice
USA TODAY Bestselling Thriller author with Avon Books (HarperCollins), The Widow Next Door, The Diary of a Serial Killer's Daughter, and other creepy thriller books