I have toughened up a lot over the past 6 years. Being a farm girl does that to you. You see up-close-and-personal how brutal and unyielding nature can be. However, you also feel profound beauty and see what a mysterious miracle that life is.Learning To Let Go: Lessons from Nature — Produce with Amy
The Writing Life
How to Organize a Creative Writing Class (Ideas for Teachers)
“You must write every single day of your life… You must lurk in libraries and climb the stacks like ladders to sniff books like perfumes and wear books like hats upon your crazy heads… may you be in love every day for the next 20,000 days. And out of that love, remake a world.”
― Ray Bradbury
I genuinely enjoy teaching all of the classes on my workload. This year I am teaching 9th and 11th grade English and in previous years I have also taught 8th, 10th, and 12th grade sections too.
Teachers are not supposed to have favorites, but I have a confession to make. I do.
While I celebrate all of my student writers, there is something about a group of teenagers that choose to take creative writing as an elective. While there are often a few students who may be taking creative writing because of credit requirements, or because it fits best with their schedule, most of my students in 7th hour are prodigious wordsmiths.
This year I am thrilled to have a positive, creative, and quirky group. They cheer each other up and on, they openly share their writing, and when I ask them to write – they do not take shortcuts, but instead write, write, write their hearts out.
Many of my CW students take my course more than once (some all four years of high school) and for the fall semester we focus on fiction and in the spring our focus is on poetry (though I am flexible with the genre they choose to respond to a prompt. After all, I understand deeply the sudden urge to break into verse or how some things can only be said in narrative form). Since many students take my class multiple times, I try to switch things up for them so they are not doing the exact same assignments year after year. While this may sound like a chore, I love the creativity that this affords me.
My philosophy about creative writing class is that it carves out precious time every day for my students to write. Therefore, we write daily. Not every assignment is graded (most graded assignments are credit or no credit) and students are encouraged to share with each other what they are writing. While I make sure to read everything that my students turn in, because they are generating such a large volume of work I cannot give feedback on everything they write (especially with my workload of 4 other f2f classes and 2 other online). Therefore, I ask students to let me know which particular pieces they would like me to look at closely so I can give constructive advice.
Ultimately, my priority is to create a creative writing class and environment that I would have thrived in as a teenager. I have always loved to write and it is what truly makes me feel alive. I want to share this passion with my students and help them find their voice and understand what a special and rare gift self-expression through our own writing is.
We do not have textbooks in creative writing and often the assignments I give come into being spontaneously. Honestly, some of the best ideas and assignments are developed on my thirty minute commute to work. There are several books on writing that I do draw on for lessons (I will share titles and ideas in future blog posts).
This year, due to Covid-19, I am teaching one face-to-face section of creative writing and one online. Therefore, I decided to come up with a weekly schedule to keep us organized.
Creative Writing Weekly Schedule (this is the basic framework I work around).
MONDAY: Student Generated Prompt
Each student at the beginning of the year submitted a writing prompt and I select one each Monday. Their prompt can be a photograph (visual image), a song and/or song lyrics, a passage from a novel or short story, a YouTube video, a piece of writing that they wrote, a comic strip, a news article, or anything that provides inspiration. They must include any information and/or instructions that they want to provide to the class. I feel that this
TUESDAY: Independent Project Work Day or Writing Contest Work Time. This is one day a week where they can work on a writing project that I have assigned or that they are working on as a personal journey. We also enter several writing contests and this gives them time to write. If a writing contest deadline is near, Tuesday gives us the opportunity to conduct writing workshops and give small or large group feedback on writing.
WEDNESDAY: Character Journal.
Many fiction authors discuss the “background work” they do to create realistic, colorful, and meaningful characters. They put a lot of work and attention into fleshing-out these characters and “getting to know them”. These characters become as “real” to them as you and I. Some authors experiment with their characters by writing about them in various scenarios and even going so far as to sketch out how they would look. For my students’ character journal I ask them to choose a character to develop. They can start simply by choosing a gender, an age, and some basic information about how they look etc.
After several entries, if students want to switch and work on another character that words as well. In the past when I had students develop character journals they had great success with them and some of their prompts they were able to turn them into stories and some even started turning them into novels.
I tell my students that they are not to worry about perfection. They should experiment with language, dialogue, and challenge themselves as a writer. The point of a character journal is to PRACTICE their craft.
THURSDAY: Focused Free-Write.
I assign a prompt.
FRIDAY: Flipped Day.
Our Covid-19 school year plan has a Flipped Friday each week. That means that only teachers report to school on Fridays and our face-to-face students learn online. This helps give teachers time to contact students and guardians, grants time for grading and creating online content for distance learning assignments (create Google Slideshows and videos etc.) It also is teaching our face to face students how to learn online in the event that our district gets shut down again.
My ultimate goal for Flipped Fridays would merge my Face-to-Face and Online classes for a group Read Around. Each class member would share something they wrote that week. They could share an excerpt or an entire piece – 2 to 5 minutes each)
Flipped Fridays would also be a great day for a writing workshop. Students could be assigned groups or partners to give each other constructive feedback digitally using Google docs.
Like most teachers I have a wide and varied community of teachers that I network with (both locally and nationally). I often am contacted by other teachers when they have the opportunity to teach creative writing and they ask me for advice.
One day my goal is to publish my own book (I suppose I would call it a text book of sorts) on teaching creative writing with the various prompts I have developed over the past two decades. That idea helped me create this blog. I thought until I have time to flesh out a manuscript, I could ruminate on the idea here and stimulate my own creativity and hopefully give other educators some ideas for their own classroom.
So stay tuned for more creative writing classroom tips. My plan in the next several weeks is to share some of my writing prompts that are tried and true in my classroom.
Please leave a comment if you have any questions and most importantly carve out some time for your own creativity. What are you going to write today? ❤
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I am haunted by words. I am hungry for metaphors. I am constantly searching for ways to express the thoughts that linger in my head. I have a thirst to find meaning. I am always looking for new ways to express my voice.
As a high school English teacher I make a living out of my passion for language. I encourage my students to make connections with with the written and spoken word in various genres.
There are certain works that have haunted me throughout my life. In elementary school I was obsessed with the Trixie Belden Mystery Series. In middle school I loved anything by Madeleine L’Engle. I was especially enraptured by L’Engle’s Austin Family Series . In high school I had an affinity for Australia so I loved the The Thorn Birds and was smitten by Gone with the Wind.
As an adult Tim O’Brien’s The Things They Carried stands at attention in my life, as well as a myriad of poems. In fact, so many poems sift through my head that I sometimes think that my surroundings seem to mirror those evocative words. Or maybe it is because poetry forces us to slow down and pay attention. I notice things that would normally pass right by.
The month of February seems especially poignant to me. Perhaps it is because it feels like the longest month of winter (while it only stretches out for a mere 29 days). However, in the Upper Peninsula of Michigan the month of February often delivers below zero temperatures, and while the days feel like they are getting longer, in my heart I know we still have a long way to travel before the spring thaw.
As a teacher, I admit that I savor my weekends as a time to reflect and recharge. While I love to sleep in later than our normal 5:30 alarm, that did not happen Saturday morning because my stepson had hockey. We did not get home until close to 6 pm and as we drove back from the rink, I marveled at the moon in all of it glory cresting the sky. The next day it would be a full February moon. Snow Moon. Otherwise, known as a Hunger Moon.
It was cold on Saturday, but I couldn’t let a beautiful moon go to waste. What a spectacular sight to witness from snowshoes as the Hunger Moon filled the night with majesty.
I’m so thankful for the peace and tranquility of home. 💚
As I look back at the photos that I snapped on the weekend, I cannot help reflecting on how fortunate I was to witness it. A moon so bright that it washed everything it touched with a magical light. Luminous. Spellbinding.
It felt like an ancient ritual as I watched the moon. A moment in time stolen from my Scandinavian ancestors. A rite borrowed from my Finnish roots. Ages ago a woman my age manifested her dreams and wishes by only the light of moon. A mysterious orb of silver to quiet her anxiety and make the snow feel silent and beautiful.
What could be more poetic than the name: Hunger Moon?
I have been pondering what a wonderful writing prompt it would be for a group of high school students.
Or for any writer.
Maybe if we tell the Hunger Moon in February what we desire, our wishes come true.
It makes us feel a little restless.
It keeps us awake.
It brings an awareness of things deep within our soul.
It watches over us with a profound awareness.
It reminds us that the longer days we crave are soon to come. It gives us a taste of ethereal light that mimics sunshine. A soft glow of wonder.
It reminds me of a poem I once read by the poet Jane Cooper. As I approach my 49th birthday Cooper’s poem resonates deeply within my heart.:
The last full moon of February stalks the fields; barbed wire casts a shadow.
If you have any photos or poems about the moon, please share them, or a link, with me.
May your February be full of adventure, creativity, and plenty of inspiration. Stay warm and well, my teaching and writing friends. ❤
A Writer’s Sensibility: Bearing Witness to Your Creativity
“Don’t scorn your life just because it’s not dramatic, or it’s impoverished, or it looks dull, or it’s workaday. Don’t scorn it. It is where poetry is taking place if you’ve got the sensitivity to see it, if your eyes are open.”
–Philip Levine, describing what he learned from William Carlos Williams
Mrs. Sherby was my art teacher in both elementary and secondary school and I will never forget the lessons she taught at the Forest Park Schools. I still dream about her classroom – the way the clay smelled, the wide-narrow drawers where we stored our work-in-progress, and the baby food jars where we mixed custom colors of acrylic paint and dipped our paintbrushes.
Mrs. Sherby taught us about the Impressionism Movement and I was moved by Monet. I vividly remember learning about his haystack series and the way he patiently painted during different times of the day to observe and transcribe natural light. What an impact it made on me to realize that a single landscape scene could take on different appearances based on the time of the day and the quality of light. It is a lesson that has never left me.
My boyfriend Matt, freshman year in college at Marquette University, took me to see a Monet exhibit at the Chicago Art Institute and it was a transformative experience. Looking back I realize how painfully naïve I was from my rural upbringing. I gapped, wide-eyed and astonished at how large the canvases were. The layer-upon-layer of paint were exactly as Mrs. Sherby had described them in one of her slide show presentations. I was moved so deeply that I wanted to touch the canvas in front of me. Without thinking, my hand stretched out to one of the paintings to feel the texture of Monet’s brush strokes and I was chided by one of the docents. Though nothing could interrupt the experience for me. I was transfixed. It may seem dramatic, but my world was forever changed. I had come face-to-face with a masterpiece and I felt the spirit of Monet with every step that I took. As a teacher, I hope that something discussed in one of my classes sticks with a student so permanently that they add it to their bucket list.
As a writer, and a teacher of writing, I believe that we must experience the world with the sensibility that other artist’s do. For our craft we also study light as attentively as Monet did. Writing is an image rich process and it also must engage all of our senses.
My students are used to hearing me lecture that as writer’s we notice things that other people do not. We listen to conversations with our ears finely tuned to accents and word choice and experience color and sound in a way that approaches their essence. We constantly ask ourselves, how would we describe the way a high school hallway swaggers with students after the bell rings? Or more accurately, how would I show my reader?
I often have my teenage writers take abstract terms such freedom, love, and happiness and describe them in terms of our senses to make them concrete. What does freedom smell like? What does happiness taste like? What color is love? The true test for a writer is turning the abstract into something concrete so the reader has a sensory experience.
In my last post, Writer’s Block? Mine the Richness In Your Own Backyard, I shared how I have spent my winter snowshoeing around our homestead. Ironically, while I am a native of the Upper Peninsula of Michigan, I have never been fond of winter. That was until I started snowshoeing. While my primary goal is exercise and stress relief, I cannot help feeling that I am “Filling the Well” to borrow a phrase from Julia Cameron’s, The Artist’s Way.
When I strap my snowshoes on to burn hundreds of calories, I am also tuning in, memorizing, and categorizing colors, sounds, shapes, fragrances, and textures. It’s true, I even snowshoe with the sensibility of a writer. While I am trudging through the snow I am keeping a deft eye on the landscape, and even though I usually stick to the same path, every day the scenery is different. The snow is never the same shade of white and even the snowbanks are malleable and are shaped by the elements. One day they are choppy from plowing and the next day the peaks are smoothed by the wind like a piece of Lake Superior beach glass tossed by the waves. One day the snow is a flawless, glistening sheet and the next day the surface of the snow wears sparkling grooves and flowing ripples.
As a writer I have what I call my, “Monet Moments”. When I want to experience the world with a new lens. Mid-February I was watching the blues set in at night (on many levels). I wanted to snowshoe at dusk to experience the optical effects of light up close and personal and not just from the mudroom window. I have a trail carved around our pasture and approximately three and a half times around is a mile.
One night when I set out, the sky was blushing a sheer rose with a hint of lavender. Within minutes every snow covered surface was cast with an ethereal blue tint. It was the same trail that I frequented daily. However, on most nights I snowshoe after dinner and since it gets dark early I wear my headlamp. On this particular evening, I wanted to live with intention and experience a moment in tune with nature. While the purple and blue quickly faded, I could not help marveling in what a beautiful world we live in.
The blues of February set in dark and deep. Winter’s heart. Blue veined shadows throb across snowbanks. An ancient voice glistens like gaudy sapphire jewels to stare me down. A deep and sacred silence. Bare branches shiver with faceted sparks hinting at spring’s promise. Ushers of hope. Indelible moment. Winter’s bruised paradox.
When my students roll their eyes when I assign a new piece of writing, it is my job to try to convince them that they will rewarded for their efforts and that what they gain goes far beyond a grade that I assign. I acknowledge that I understand writing is work – it takes patience and diligence. Not everyone in my classroom will publish poems or novels and aspire to become a teacher, professor, professional writer or a blogger. Yet, viewing the world – as a writer – trains us to experience the world differently. It forces us to pay attention. Once our senses are opened as a writer – they can never be closed again and that makes us more astute, sensitive, and engaged human beings. Becoming a writer means looking at the ordinary and everyday things in our life through a magnifying glass. As human beings we are immersed in communication and writing helps make our thoughts tangible. This act of creation becomes as individual as our fingerprint.
I think in the age of digital technology, where much of our lives are dominated by screen time, that engagement is more important than every before. We are so focused on instant gratification that we have forgotten to step back and appreciate. To watch and wait. We neglect to see the nuances that the world offers up. I am thankful that I saw myself as a writer at a young age because it has helped me to find my balance and focus on the positive even during challenges and struggles. It has helped me become a seeker of beauty and wisdom and has taught me to look for patterns and see that everything in the world is connected.
My writing challenge to you over the next few days is to participate in a commonplace activity with the sensibility of a writer and artist. Whether you are baking bread or taking your dog for a walk – open up your senses. Leave your cell phone behind so you can have an uninterrupted experience or use it as a writing tool to capture images (sometimes taking a photo gives us an excuse to stop and focus). When you are out in public eavesdrop and listen to conversations. Listen to an individual’s diction and the melody of laughter. Watch the sun cast shadows and the play of branches on a snowbank, building, or sidewalk. Wake up early on the weekend and watch the sun rise blister the sky with color. Pay attention to how nimbly the horizon washes into new hues as it dissolves into pale morning light. Take a walk at dusk or at twilight. Fill your creative well and make discoveries about both humble and pretentious spaces and things. When you are a writer your practice is portable and your writer’s sensibility goes wherever you go.
Who knows, like me, you may make the revelation (after forty-seven years) that there is beauty where you least expected it — such as in the mid-winter blues of February. The writer in me is thankful for the experiences that I had as a teenager that shaped me. Such as art teachers like Mrs. Sherby and the paintings of Monet.
I would love to hear from you as you bear witness to your creative spark. What has inspired you recently? What fuels your inner artist? What is a lesson that you have learned about writing? Please share your insight and wisdom.
Do not forget to check out my sister blog where I share healthy lifestyle tips and recipes: Produce with Amy