Friday, January 16, 2015

Keep them writing creatively

I recently asked my students when the last time was that they wrote a creative writing story in English class. They couldn’t remember.  According to their memories at least, their writing assignments since elementary school have been more academic in nature: summary, research papers, analytical essays, and speeches.


This reminded me of when I completed my teacher certification and every employment application required applicants to submit an educational philosophy. The question loomed large: What is your educational philosophy?  To be honest, when I was 23-years-old I didn’t really have an educational philosophy. Sure, I could write an essay to feature the generic pedagogical buzz words that the Human Resources person might use in a key word search. However, authentically speaking, I didn’t really have a philosophy. I wanted to be a better teacher than many of my high school teachers; I wanted to emulate the few who were excellent;  I wanted to be fair;  I wanted to have high standards, yet be understanding of students’ needs; I wanted to teach students how to learn and how to write;  I wanted my lessons to be clear yet creative; I wanted to teach them the history of people, not just places and events.

I didn’t think that’s what employers wanted to hear and besides, “wants” don’t equal a philosophy.

Fifteen years later, I could write an authentic educational philosophy paper. One of my main points would be about the importance of including creative writing in the curriculum. As my students struggled to write 300-1000 word stories, I realized the problem was that they didn’t really know how to craft a proper story. The reasons are somewhat understandable. In a college-prep school, the pressure to ensure that students are prepared for college and standardized tests is palpable. The standards in which we are encouraged to align our curriculum don’t emphasize creativity.

So what is the purpose of creative writing? Why is it important for high school students to be able to write a story?

Creative writing allows students to formulate completely unique ideas, execute them, and use the writing skills that they’ve developed in a piece that is entirely theirs.  Do we want future generations to be parrots or to be creative thinkers?  Here’s an example: the Ebola case in Dallas. When Thomas Eric Duncan came to Dallas from Liberia, he went to the emergency room for care. Due to the electronic records system, the doctors didn’t see the notes from where the patient had travelled. They didn’t have access to that screen. The nurse fulfilled her responsibility: she wrote down the history. However, a creative thinker would have had alarm bells go off and gotten a doctor right away. Following procedure isn’t always best practice. In Niles, Michigan this summer, a police officer tazered, instead of shot a man who had stabbed several passengers. He made a judgment call to not use his gun. This was also against procedure, however, because of creative thinking he realized that opening fire in a train could endanger the lives of more passengers.  Those are cases that made national news, but the ability of people to act creatively, without a script is decaying.

Take the example of a sushi restaurant. There is a roll I enjoy, but I don’t like avocado. There is an avocado wrapping around the outside of the roll in addition to the typical rice. When I ask for the roll without avocado, it bewilders the staff. They do not know what to do. It’s impossible! This isn’t an issue of ruining the intention of the chef. If it can’t be plugged into the computer, it can’t be done.  This happens all the time. If a bar code isn’t working, the item can’t be rung up. If you asked to be transferred somewhere, the person gives you the number instead to call, so they don’t have to figure out how to use the transfer function on the phone. These are not big issues in terms of the world order, but they are indicative of a larger problem. If there is no automation, if a task requires thinking, the result is a blank stare or a “no, it can’t be done.” This is a symptom of a diseased society that is losing our edge, losing our ability to innovate.

Creativity is on the minds of teenagers. When they are asked to evaluate a Ted Talk during the speech unit, many of them choose “How school kills creativity.” They cheer as Ken Robinson outlines the sad story of their teenaged lives.  That’s why when we rid our schools of art, drama, and music, and creative writing, we are doing a huge disservice to not just our kids, but also to their brains.

So, does every student embrace a creative writing assignment with gusto? No. Absolutely not. There are always students who view any assignment as just another thing to get done as quickly as possible. But when challenged, especially after peer editing and teacher comments, most students do indeed want to create a piece of writing that is unique and enduring. The fact that it will be published is also a motivation.

I encourage high school English teachers to not abandon creative writing. Yes, the students need to know how to write a cohesive essay. Yes, they need to know how to properly cite research. Yes, they should know how to analyze great literature. I know there is not time and there is a lot of pressure! But teenagers also need to exercise their minds so that they grow up and think for themselves, not only follow dictates that colleges and standards’ writers think are important.

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