Pop quiz. What do the following five phrases have in common? Building Sand Castles, Crossing Out Mistakes, Listening for Smells, The Celebration of Life, What Do You See In Life and How Do You Respond to It? If you’ve read the recent release announcing the 2010 Torrance Legacy Creative Writing Awards, you know that these are the five topics to which students can respond with a short story or poem.
Consider the following scenario. You tell your fourth through twelfth-grade child, student, babysitter or friend’s child about the writing contest. In response, he or she stares back at you in disbelief, “Me? Write something? For a contest?” If the previous response sounds like a child you know you may be wondering – how, as a teacher or parent, do you inspire the best creative writing/thinking to emerge , especially if they claim their minds to be vast, blank canvases?
As a creative writing teacher who has participated in, observed, and taught scores of creative writing classes over the years, I believe that students are too often boxed in when given so-called creative writing assignments in class. Observe this scenario: “Class, we’re going to do some creative writing today. Take out your notebooks and write, “A Magical Day” at the top of the next blank page. That is your title. Your assignment is to write a fantasy story about a dog that has magical powers. Your story must have 5 paragraphs, including an introduction that hooks us and a conclusion that provides a twist. You will be graded on the rubric I have on the board in the categories of structure, imagination, spelling, grammar, and plot. Please use your neatest handwriting and be careful to use correct punctuation. Remember this is fantasy, so if your story is too realistic you will be marked down. Okay, begin writing now.”
First of all, let me say that there is absolutely a time and place for practicing proper spelling, grammar, and for honing five-paragraph essay-writing skills. But, were you able to keep track of all the assignment requirements in the scenario above? Many potentially creative students totally shut down when faced with a similar situation. Were you inspired to write based on what the teacher said? Personally, I got nervous instead of inspired. I was so focused on the detailed instructions and constraints that I wanted to make sure I was following them all. All this energy concentrating on the requirements made my hands sweat, but it certainly didn’t spark my creativity.
So, how do you provide fertile soil, cultivate writing growth, and see inspired, eager writers emerge? The key is to create a nourishing environment where creativity is encouraged and supported by rich resources that serve as catalysts of inspiration. Music, art, already-written creative stories and poems, films, inspiring biographies, and children’s books (yes, even for older students) can all serve as catalysts. For first-time writers, providing a catalyst such as beautiful nature scenes or animal photographs and asking them to respond to the pictures with free-verse poetry (after doing this once or twice as a group), is a perfect way to start. In fact, following Joan Franklin Smutny’s example, I begin all of my creative writing classes this way. Once unloosed from the shackles of rhyme and meter, students have the entire English language at their disposal. Combined with their imaginations, this approach yields exceptional writing.
So, if the five Torrance Legacy Writing Award themes entice you (as they should!) to tell your students about this writing opportunity, provide some delightfully rich resources that fertilize the imagination and spark ideas. Consider using the list of children’s books of various levels below that present unique perspectives, made-up lands, luscious metaphors, and mind-sparking illustrations.
If by Sarah Perry
Meow Ruff by Joyce Sidman
Weslandia by Paul Fleishman
Two Bad Ants by Chris Van Allsburg
Toliver’s Secret by Esther Wood Brady
True Story of the Three Little Pigs by Jon Scieszka
Love That Dog By Sharon Creech
Mom and Dad are Palindromes by Mark Schuman and Adam McCauley
Writing Magic by Gail Carson Levine (a book recommended to me by a student that helps kids improve their writing in a creative, adventurous way)
IGNITE Creative Learning