This February, I wrote about how schools inhibit our students’ capacity to think creatively. Soon after, my coworker Kira sent me an email expressing her fear that the common-core literacy standards would further slow our students’ creativity. She wrote, “Our kids seem to fear being creative, and I can’t help thinking that this informative text-driven direction we’re headed will continue to cultivate that fear.”
The Common Core State Standards in English/language arts require that by 12th grade, 70 percent of what students read in school is nonfiction. Kira articulates the concern many educators share about the common standards: that our students will get less exposure to fiction and poetry while being inundated with dry nonfiction like the copy found in traditional textbooks.
David Coleman, President of the College Board and chief architect of the common standards, tried to allay fears like Kira’s in a recent NPR interview: “The idea is that things like Lincoln’s second inaugural address and Martin Luther King’s letter from the Birmingham jail … are worthy of close attention. … Not just in a historical context, but also for the interweaving of thought and language.”
I agree with Coleman. My AP Language and Composition class focuses on nonfiction texts. I teach my students how great writers compose poetic essays and eloquent speeches.
The Art of Prose
How do I use nonfiction texts to inspire my students to be creative? I prove to them that when a writer makes purposeful choices to achieve an effect, nonfiction can be as creative a genre as any other. When students mimic great writing, they learn the DNA of writing great prose. Here are three examples of how I encourage this in my classroom.
1) To expose my AP students to great political writing, and to give them a civics lesson about the roots of American oratory, I teach a unit on Thomas Jefferson’s influence on American rhetoric. We begin our journey looking at the Declaration of Independence. How do I connect an 18th-century text to a class of 21st-century teenagers?
I teach Jefferson’s masterpiece as a breakup song, asking my students to choose a popular breakup song for comparison’s sake. This year my students selected Taylor Swift’s “We Are Never Ever Getting Back Together.” We examine both Swift’s and Jefferson’s use of suspended syntax, as well as their use of the personal pronoun as an insult. We map out the structure of each text.
As a homework assignment, my students construct their own declarations. Some declare independence from their parents, while others declare independence from homework. One student declared independence from tuna fish sandwiches because he has eaten them every day since kindergarten. When students mimic Jefferson’s structure in the Declaration of Independence, they learn that Jefferson’s rhetoric is as effective today as it was in the 18th century.
2) Another way to connect the rhetoric of the past to the rhetoric of the present is by examining presidential speeches. We examine inaugural addresses by Abraham Lincoln, Franklin Delano Roosevelt, and John F. Kennedy to see how presidents mimic and allude to one another throughout American history. Then, I ask my classes to analyze a State of the Union address from the current president.
After we analyze the speech, I introduce them to blogger Pat Dunnigan’s satirical essay “The American Family: Oh the State We’re In.” Satire is especially effective in teaching kids creative writing. Through humor, they can express views or make light of subjects they normally wouldn’t have the courage to address in school. Then students write their own satirical state of the unions, which cover diverse subjects such as texting, zombies, drama queens, the NBA, reality television, and Velcro. By instilling a little humor in a traditionally serious genre, students unleash their creative potential.
A Birthday-Card Rubric
3) My students also read Amy Chua’s parenting memoir Battle Hymn of the Tiger Mother for a summer reading assignment. One of the most controversial parts of the book is when Chua rejects her daughter’s handmade birthday card. Chua writes: “I gave the card back to Lulu. ‘I don’t want this,’ I said. ‘I want a better one—one that you’ve put some thought and effort into.’ … I grabbed the card again and flipped it over. I pulled out a pen and scrawled ‘Happy Birthday Lulu Whoopee!’ I added a big sour face … ‘I reject this.’”
My students are appalled by Chua’s bluntness. I turn their disgust into a teachable moment. The class discusses what elements make a “good” birthday card. Then I share the 1–9 scale the College Board uses to assess essays on the AP Language exam. The class works together to create a rubric that assesses how well a birthday card meets the Chua standard.
Their homework assignment is to create a birthday card they believe meets the standard on the class rubric. The following day, I run a class gallery walk where students use the rubric to assess one another’s birthday cards. My students are brutally honest and revel in being as blunt as Amy Chua. This exercise allows my students to understand the AP standard and to be creative by composing birthday cards as a writing assignment.
I began this piece with an email from my coworker Kira who fears that the common-core literary standards will hinder our students’ creativity. In Franklin Delano Roosevelt’s first inaugural address, he famously declared, “The only thing we have to fear is fear itself,” to ease the country’s fears about the Great Depression.
I share Kira’s apprehension in accepting and adapting to the common standards. However, fear should not lead us to be paranoid that our students will exclusively read drab textbooks by the time they are seniors. On the contrary, nonfiction can awaken our students’ creativity by connecting texts to the real world.
If we have the courage to embrace nonfiction writing as an art form, perhaps we will inspire our students to freely speak their minds like King, Lincoln, and Roosevelt.