Writer’s Eyes

The first year I taught Creative Writing, I was frustrated with students who didn’t use dialogue and had no concept of a scene. It didn’t matter how many times I explained the difference between showing and telling, their stories were still mostly telling.

So I created exercises, presented examples, wrote feedback on their stories: more description, use dialogue. They improved a bit. They made their characters talk to each other and described what they were wearing in great detail.

But many of them seemed to lack any idea of what a story ought to be. They were non-readers and reluctant writers who had been placed in my class to fill a hole in their schedules.

Anyone can tell a story. Believing this, I set out to bring out my students’ inner storyteller. Under the pen-name Anonymous, I wrote terrible stories for them to critique. They could tell when a story was bad, even point out what was wrong, but they had no idea how to fix it. In the lab I sat with them and asked them about their stories, praised what was good and made suggestions for improvement.

And I improved my lessons.

Their stories were short, so they wrote Flash Fiction.

Their stories lacked theme, so they wrote fables with morals.

The protagonists of their stories were all the same – beautiful, popular, and incredibly lucky – so they invented unlikeable characters with major problems.

We discussed why a character must have a problem to solve, why it can’t be a foregone conclusion that Kayla wins the scholarship or Trey gets the girl.

The following year I decided the problem was that they didn’t write enough. The solution was to make them write more. As long as they were writing, they might learn something.

My new group of students sporadically turned in weekly journals with few entries, all short. Once a week, they would crank out 300 word stories that came to shocking and abrupt conclusions when their writing stamina waned, stories that sometimes had no conclusion at all. Only rarely did they proofread or even spellcheck their writing. They turned in blocks of text with little punctuation.

To build up their writing chops, I lengthened journal time in class. I gave them more choices – you can use prompt A or B. I came up with more interesting prompts.

At the end of the second year, I was still getting much the same. This wasn’t surprising, since every semester brought a new group of students.

But my instruction was getting better – why were they still writing stories with the same tired scenarios, using the same idealized avatars as main characters? Cliches abounded. If they remembered to include dialogue, they still didn’t bother to make a new paragraph every time the speaker switched.

Now, in my fourth year of teaching this class, I understand the real problem. To write well, you have to see the world as a writer.

Teachers have a huge blind spot. Most of us became teachers because we liked school. We were good students. English teachers like to read and write. Math teachers find math beautiful. Science teachers are intellectually curious. Only a small percentage of our students share our passion.

I cannot remember a time when I didn’t make up stories. I wrote books – handwritten pages bound with a report cover. I thought about words and continually asked, “What if…?” I have always had a passion for language and story-telling. My students are less enthusiastic.

As teachers, we compensate for our students’ apathy by planning fun, interesting lessons. We entertain our classes, make learning seem more like play.

At least, that’s what we were taught to do. Educational methods are generally focused on the lesson – what the teacher can do. We look for ‘outcomes’ – what we expect students to do as a result of our lesson. We decide how we’re going to measure the results. If we don’t reach the goal, we remediate – that is, we make different lessons.

Though we were taught to give a nod to other types of ‘intelligences’ – emotional and social, for example – these things are hard to measure. Under pressure to improve scores, we go for the measureable outcomes and hope the other intelligences tag along. Under pressure to graduate more students, we lower our expectations.

The adjustments are all on the teacher’s end. We figure out what’s preventing students from understanding and find an alternate route. Yes, we are paid to do this. I don’t complain – my favorite part of the job is planning instruction.

Our brains, however, are less pliable than our students’. Shouldn’t we be teaching them how to teach themselves, rather than letting them believe that someone will always solve the problem for them and give them points for trying?

As for my students: my job is tougher than writing new lesson plans. Many students don’t think about words. Their imaginations are parked back in the third grade.

To them, school is all about getting the right answer, turning in neat papers that meet our requirements. Did I insist on dialogue? They throw in a few lines. Did I specify a minimum word count? They describe what their characters are wearing. They don’t really want to write any more than they want to do algebra. All they want is an A.

If they are to write better, my students need to think like writers. No matter how well I engage them, I can’t teach them this. For them to see the world through different eyes, they have to understand first that there are other ways of seeing the world.

When I teach them point of view in writing a story, I’m really teaching them that there are other ways of seeing the world. Their stories will still have flaws, but a rubric can’t measure how much they’ve really learned.

2 Comments (+add yours?)

  1. Becky Leff
    Nov 27, 2011 @ 23:18:33

    Have you read Lucy Calkins? She works with younger children, but she treats even the youngest student as a real writer. If you follow her method, as a teacher you never give prompts. All ideas are generated by the student. She takes the teacher and the students through steps to teach them how to generate ideas and constantly reinforces the idea that students all have stories to tell. The most frustrating part for me as a teacher is the student who says “I have nothing to write about,” whether it’s because they have never had to come up with ideas, or they hate writing or lack confidence.


  2. Becky Leff
    Nov 27, 2011 @ 23:20:25

    I forgot to say, I really enjoyed this post and I want to try some of the ideas that you talk about, like writing bad examples for students to critique. What a great idea!


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