The earliest piece of writing I can remember producing was a story, written in phonetic spelling on small pieces of scrap paper stapled together. Mimicking as best I could a “real” picture book, I called it Yuc, Yuc, u Slug, and it was based on an experience I’d had the day before, when my best friend and I turned over a large rock and found beneath it ... a frightful slug! This must have been in late kindergarten or early 1st grade, as my writing development closely mirrored my reading development.
Throughout my childhood, I wrote many stories and poems, and in all of them, I can see the combined influence of the reading I did and my own lived experiences. The same is true for many of my students today. In an activity toward the beginning of the school year, I ask them to tell me about their reading and writing histories and often hear the fond memories they have of the early stories they’ve written. Some even bring those stories into class and reminisce about the fun they had writing them.
As students progress through school, though, it seems that their reading and writing experiences become increasingly lopsided: They continue to read works of fiction and poetry, but they must make a dramatic shift away from the imaginative writing of their childhoods toward analytical paragraphs and essays. The Common Core State Standards have compounded this effect by emphasizing analytical writing at much earlier ages, while not explicitly requiring fiction or poetry writing at any age. I know kindergarten teachers who now prompt students to answer questions about an author’s choices during story time, and creative writing is taking even more of a back seat in many language arts classrooms.
This is a mistake for many reasons, but especially if we want students to read more critically.
Imagine you’re taking a ride in the back seat of someone’s car and you’re asked to offer a critique of their driving. Now imagine you have very limited experience as a driver yourself. You might be able to describe how the ride feels to you—bumps, turns, acceleration, sudden stops—and perhaps formulate some opinion about the driver based on these feelings. But you wouldn’t be able to analyze what the driver is doing (or not doing) to create the effect you feel as a passenger. When the driver shifts into low gear to go up a hill in the rain, for example, you probably wouldn’t notice—and even if you did, you’d find it difficult to understand why this was an effective choice without having experience with the particular problem the driver is addressing.
When we ask students to be critics of literary works without giving them consistent, relevant experience writing literary pieces themselves, we put students at a similarly awkward disadvantage.
Rewriting the Script
Literary analysis is something kids can do in a meaningful way under the right conditions. Authentic reading of whole novels and other texts is one condition I advocate strongly. Increasingly, I’ve come to believe that another essential condition for students to analyze and critique writers’ moves is the chance to be in the driver’s seat as literary artists themselves.
Here is one example of how students’ fiction writing propels critical thinking in my classroom:
It was March, and my 8th grade students had finished reading My Heartbeat, a young-adult novel by Garret Freymann-Weyr. While half the class discussed the book, I had the other half work independently on a creative-writing assignment: They had to put themselves in the role of author and write one scene in which they alter an element of the novel. The choices included adding a character, shifting the point of view, changing the setting, giving a “boring” scene “a makeover,” or—the most popular option—killing a character. The creative but focused nature of the task easily captured everyone’s interest, and students of all levels dug in with excitement.
After several days, we came together as a whole class to share the writing. I asked students to read aloud from their writing without introduction or explanation and I asked listeners to take some notes on each reading. The prompts for ensuing discussion were:
1. Based on what you heard, what did the student choose to do differently from the original author?
2. What literary techniques or elements stand out to you in this piece?
We brainstormed and recorded a menu of techniques as a starting place for discussing the second question, including things like dialogue, descriptive language, interior monologue, and foreshadowing. Some we had practiced in previous fiction-writing assignments; others we only discussed as readers. We added to the menu throughout the readings.
The scenes were a lot of fun to hear. Every student approached the assignment differently, and the concept of the role of the “author” was suddenly very tangible for everyone. It’s often challenging for students to remember there is a real person with a real life behind a novel or any text, using his or her imagination and making decisions. Reading fiction is such a powerful virtual experience that kids tend to interact with it as if it were an extension of their own lives, rather than the creative production of a stranger. For young children, the distinction isn’t very important: A story should simply be enjoyed! But as we help students become critics, that distinction becomes essential. In this case, the authors were simply the classmates sitting right in front of us.
When students share their writing like this, endless opportunities arise to discuss the choices of each writer and their impact. Jonathon, for example, changed the contemporary setting of the novel to 1894. In the novel, the narrator’s brother, Link, is struggling to come to terms with his sexual orientation. Here is an excerpt from Jonathon’s scene:
“I’m not gay,” Link said. “James is.” My heart dropped. I suddenly began to fear for James’ life. The year was 1894. Any openly gay person could be killed by angry mobs. Being gay was not only a sexuality, but also an open bounty on your head for anyone to take. I now realized why Link wanted to deny it. …
In addition to the obvious change in setting, several students also noticed a shift in the conflict. “The conflict got bigger, because of the time period,” one student observed. This created a perfect opportunity for students to see how different literary elements affect one another. The common-core standards in English/language arts emphasize this concept. In fact, 7th grade reading-standard RL.7.3 asks students to “analyze how particular elements of a story or drama interact (e.g., how setting shapes the characters or plot).” In this case, creative writing created an obvious springboard for students’ understanding of that standard.
As more students shared, we heard a number of carefully foreshadowed tragic deaths of various characters. The chance to share and discuss raises students’ awareness of how these literary concepts work and helps them name their own techniques. Many students didn’t realize they effectively used foreshadowing until their writing was discussed.
In her scene, Soraya took the point of view of the unpopular, overbearing father character. In the book, the father makes it clear he wants a heterosexual son, but we only hear his voice through dialogue told by Ellen, the first-person narrator. But Soraya explored his emotions and internal conflict: I see Link asleep on the couch. His eyes have dark circles under them, and I begin to wonder if it’s because of me. I begin to wonder if his stress was always caused by me. ... she wrote.
In the group, students noted the strong interior monologue in Soraya’s scene. Then someone said, “It’s like she made a whole character out of the father.” I added “character development” and “complex character” to the menu of writing techniques, words we had used before but that hadn’t made it onto our earlier brainstorm.
“Why isn’t the father a ‘whole’ or complex character in the book?” I asked. “Because Ellen is the narrator, so you really can’t know what the father is thinking,” a student answered. “So, given that, what could an author do to write a book that has several whole or complex characters?” I asked. “You could switch off narrators,” one student suggested. “Like in Wonder,” another added, referring to a popular young-adult novel that features multicharacter narration. “Or you could write in third person,” another student offered.
Once again, our experimentation with writing fictional narratives created opportunity for students to see how authors’ choices around narration and point of view affect the story and the reader’s experience.
The Art of Storytelling
Another interesting moment came when Lana allowed a classmate to read her scene. It was quite intense; every word in the piece seemed carefully thought out. It began with Link studying with excruciating focus for a math test. Then she wrote:
“I stood up, ready to go to James’ house, when Link’s head fell loudly onto the table.
“Link!” I yelled, running to him. White bubbles foamed out of his mouth, and tears trickled down his face, mixing with sweat from earlier. His body was shaking aggressively. Link’s eyes began to roll back into the inside of his head, when I hurried to pick up my phone. I dialed 9-1-1, and the ambulance soon arrived.
As we listened, I caught Lana scanning the faces in the room with a look that was difficult to read. The scene continued as we followed characters to the hospital. Then, in the same serious tone, we found out that Link has a tumor in his brain. At that point, James, his best friend, started coughing uncontrollably and admitted he has cancer. There were some gasps from the class. Lana’s face cracked a slight smile. The situation got more and more extreme, and several students let out laughs, but Lana’s narrator never broke character.
When we discussed the scene, students immediately remarked on her descriptive language. “I notice that some people laughed. Did Lana use humor?” I asked. Students were quiet, and I imagine they were unsure as to whether their laughs were appropriate.
“Not exactly, but it was still funny at times,” someone said. I probed. “Lana, did you expect people to find your scene funny?” “Yeah, kind of,” she said, with a mischievous smile. “It was tragic, but …” another student said, trailing off. “There was something not completely serious about it, right?” I offered. We discussed tone, and I ended up introducing the term “satire” to describe the effect of Lana’s scene. In a way, after hearing more than a few tragic death scenes of characters by other students, Lana seemed to be satirizing us!
Students rarely get to experience such an immediate interaction between author and audience through text. From “the driver’s seat,” and as members of a learning community, students can gain awareness of their own intentions as they write stories and become more keen analysts of authors’ intentions. They get to encounter, firsthand, the problems authors encounter in crafting stories and they discover and play with literary techniques to solve these problems. The lessons, both explicit and implicit, are powerful.
Like the driving critic who lacks driving experience, students without genuine experiences creating literary art and reflecting on the process can easily be left to look to the teacher for “answers” as to what the author is up to in his or her use of literary techniques. That causes frustration, as it diminishes students’ ability to activate their own critical thinking in this area.
There are clear arguments for the social-emotional value of empowering students to write creatively. And anecdotally speaking, I’ve found engagement is extremely high and classroom management is a breeze when students get to write stories. But I’m convinced that fiction writing is a much more important component of a rigorous English education than is commonly believed. Imaginative writing contributes not only to the development of many “soft skills” like empathy and community, but also to the hard skill of literary analysis.
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