Saturday, March 15, 2014

Once I flushed my wallet down the toilet: Creativity within a Framework

As a teacher, we have lots of options when we ask students to write. We know we want them to write, but what’s the best way to improve this crucial skill? How much structure do student-writers need? Is the five-paragraph format the way to go, or does this format only make them into little robot-writers? How do we make sure that they have a structure that we as readers can follow, and yet also an individual voice--that creative, personalized edge that makes for engaging writing (that we don’t mind sitting down to grade)?   I used to be more in the camp of anti-five paragraph, and even anti-format of any sort because I hated to read the crap that came from those structures. But I’ve learned that there’s compromises to be made, and that giving students a roadmap is crucial. 

Structure is important

I have found that some students really benefit from some structure as they write, like I might need bumpers when go I bowling.  It doesn’t mean I won’t learn to bowl well without them, it just means that I’ll feel more inclined to keep bowling if I have some success; some students will write next to nothing unless you give them a first sentence, a topic sentence for each paragraph, or some other roadmap.

My advice is to balance those structured assignments with plenty of opportunities for students to explore what they believe, to talk about those beliefs with others, and to enrich their writing with those thoughts.  Those five-paragraph essays are boring when students merely write what they think they should be saying, not what they’ve actually thought about (perhaps the SAT writing scorers discovered this, and that drove College Board to make the essay optional). In other words, structure can stymie genuine thought and fresh ideas.

Write outside the box:

Also, make sure to give plenty of opportunities for students to write outside the box.  Ask them to write poems, five- word memoirs, and scripts. Give them the common sentence, “the dog barked” and tell them to write a story with that sentence in it somewhere. Tell them to write the longest sentence they can.  Give them a list of the funniest words in English to use in a story.  Go wild.
Balance structure with chances to be creative:

Finally, structure can mate with creativity--and perhaps that's the ideal.  Like Madlibs.  This is a fill-in-the-blank writing exercise, yet I’m amazed when I challenge kids to come up with words beyond the pedestrian they come up with a very creative, often hilarious little story (something involving a butt).

I've also come to realize that there's structure everywhere, and that this doesn't mean it's not creative. Look at a snowflake, for goodness sake, or a flower garden.  And all stories hold a very similar structure.

Yesterday in my 11/12th grade film-making class, I wanted to suggest that a story is a simple matter, and that for their screenplays, all they need is: a character who wants something and can’t get it.  Until he or she does.  My purpose was to slice through the fear I felt in the room—fear of writing 5-8 pages of stage direction and dialogue.  To make my point (and to trigger ideas), I gave them this framework, insisting that all stories are basically this format:

Once. . .
Then one day. . . .
But suddenly. . .
And next, unfortunately. . . .
Then it was discovered that. . . .
Luckily, in the end. . .

Now, I said, fill in the blanks, and you’ve got your story concept and plot.  I know, it could result in crap, but I tried it anyway as an experiment.  One of my students came up with this:  

“Once, I flushed my wallet down the toilet. Then one day, I found it in my garden. But suddenly, I realized that it was actually my neighbor's! And next, unfortunately, I maxed out all his credit cards. And got pulled over with his license. And got into an argument with the cop, who set me up with a court date. And I liked her, so we went out a few times, at least until I realized that she was a Satanist. Thankfully, I had given her my neighbor's name, so just as things were getting to serious, I was able to
fake my own death by vanishing into the labyrinth of the sewers! And wouldn't you know it, but I found my wallet down there! And I all lived happily ever after.  The end.”

And there you have it, creativity within a framework.  And a chuckle to boot.

(Note: I think I stole the prompts, but I have no idea from whom.  Sorry I haven’t given credit where credit is due)