Budget cuts and a push for a STEM or career focus can put soft courses such as Creative Writing on the potential chopping block, but humanities classes teach students the skills to see past the obvious, dig for deeper meaning, create innovative solutions, or even give life to a rock.
• EDITOR’S NOTE: This is the fifth in a series of essays from Manchester High School English and Social Studies teachers who participated in this summer’s Connecticut Writing Project-Storrs at the University of Connecticut. The program’s goal is to learn how to better prepare students for the writing demands they will encounter beyond high school.
Our lives are made of stories. Guess what happened, you say to a co-worker — a narrative. Time for a bedtime story, you tell your child — a story. We are a species of storytellers, from paintings on caves to midnight texts to friends, we narrate our lives. Sometimes we internally narrate conversations, creating scenarios between our self and a loved one, never heard by the other, and yet we, as the narrator, may act on what we hear in our head about those unsaid conversations. We can’t help it. That’s who we are — storytellers.
So, why do we take this away from students when they reach the upper grades? Imagination is relegated to a single piece of “narrative” based around a teacher prompt. Storytelling is moved from the 7-to-3 world that teens inhabit in school and pushed back onto text and tweet and Snapchat — 10 seconds, 140 characters of expression.
When we do this, something is lost.
In my Creative Writing class at Manchester High School, the year starts with lessons to move students from the literal to the imaginative, from the facts to the fantasy. For some, it is a struggle that starts when they select a rock from the precious and guarded collection in room 230. Borrowing an idea from University of New Hampshire Creative Writing teacher Clark Knowles, I offer my box of rocks, telling students the rock they select will be a character in a short scene. The box has a myriad of options: granite from New Hampshire, local brownstone, rose quartz, mica, tiger eye and amethyst, a slice of jade, and unusual rocks donated by students. With each, I point out the uniqueness — a crack, a shift in color, quarried edges, smoothness on one side.
I then model the creation of a character. Sandy — a rounded piece of brownstone on the top, but underneath broken and jagged. Moving to the depth of a character, I cover physical, social, emotional, and psychological traits that could be found. Physically, Sandy has a scar on his leg and a chipped tooth, from falling off his bike. Socially, Sandy likes to be with people for group activities but also seeks the silence of nature. Emotionally, Sandy has had a tough time, which is why he tells people the chipped tooth is from falling off the bike. Psychologically, he is driven by the need to be liked, which results in some unwise decisions. And with that example, most students are off and racing, going from rock to write, creating their first well-rounded character.
Yet, some students only see the rock.
Why is this a concern? Creativity is the fuel for problem-solving skills. Being able to see what is not there is as important as seeing the tangible. Visualizing the possible is the skill that gives us solutions to problems that are yet to be scaled. My degrees are not in Creative Writing but in English, Journalism, and Business Administration. Understanding the story and having the ability to see beyond the literal gives us the life and business skills to figure out the missing pieces, gives us the ears to hear what is not said out loud, and gives us the imagination to see what is possible.
Sometimes the text is a rock.
Classmates come to the rescue, talking about the way in which they “read” this text. Most start with the physical. What do you see? What could that be? They lead their peers into interpretations never before considered. They reference pop culture, music, school, as they struggle to give a roadside rock a fitting name and life experiences.
Last year, the fourth for the MHS Creative Writing class, 59 entries were submitted to the national Scholastic Arts & Writing Awards, with 19 receiving recognition. The Common Core State Standards lists publishing as the end goal for writing, and Scholastic provides a national platform for work developed in Creative Writing. The young authors start the year with flash fiction, then work through short stories and poetry. They learn the form and art of movie scripts and end with a 20-page independent writing project. Students who struggle with the rock character in September finish the year in June writing nuanced, sophisticated, self-directed works, some which will bring a tear or a gasp, all written with personal investment.
The palm-sized geological characters are passed around, inspected, traded, stepped on, sniffed. By the end of the period, almost all writers will have an outline of the traits of the now-named and adopted rocks. Some ask to take the rock home for the night. They have seen what wasn’t there, figured it out, and created an imaginative life.
It is the start.
Deb Weinberg has always played with words, from a stint as an aspiring poet in 6th grade, to a marketing manager in the corporate world and now as an English and Creative Writing teacher at Manchester High School. She also mentors Papyrus & Quills, the after school Creative Writing club.
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