How My Class is Designed: Imposing Method to the Madness in a High School Creative Writing Classroom

Before I launch into specific creative writing assignments, I thought it might be informative to readers of this blog to understand how my class is designed.  Students who audition and gain placement in the Creative Writing program take classes with me for four years.

At SCAPA, I teach four courses in Advanced Creative Writing during two 90-minute blocks.  Creative Writing 1 and 2 (typically freshman and sophomores) are combined during first block, and Creative Writing 3 and 4 (typically juniors and seniors) meet during second block.  The curriculum is built around a two-year instructional rotation in Creative Writing 1 and 2, which provides them with a craft foundation for nine different genres of writing, followed by a two-year writing studio in Creative Writing 3 and 4.

Class 1 writes a memoir or personal essay, the first 30,000 words of a novel, the first 30 pages of a screenplay, and ten pieces of micro-, flash- or short fiction; Class 2 writes five vignettes, ten poems, a documentary script treatment, a one-act play, and a small graphic story.  We take these genres through the same pattern: we write every day about something, then we read or watch some models; we read a few essays on craft or have guest speakers come in and talk about their labors in this genre, and then each student produces a piece of her own. As a writing community, we then read everyone’s works and provide feedback, support, and love. Students are encouraged to submit their work for publication, but it’s not a requirement during the 1 and 2 levels.

Classes 3 and 4 are writing studios.  During each six-week grading period, students propose creative projects with an accompanying timeline for completion. Some are ambitious; some are lazy; some are just right, Goldilocks.  I am the gatekeeper of these proposals and make suggestions, additions, or subtractions. Then, for three weeks, we labor. I might make a few announcements or give an encouraging word or slap someone at the beginning of class, but mostly it’s just sheer, brute labor.  Ditch digging. Write and write and write. Some cursing and drinking coffee. And sometimes they park themselves outside in the hall to eat their KitKat bars.  During the fourth week, all 16 students gather at a long table and commence giving each other feedback.  I’ve been a veteran of the workshop scene for 30 years, and I can honestly say this is one of the most supportive, helpful, critical, no-bull-crap groups I’ve ever worked with. At the end of the six weeks, they submit a personal reflection, a semi-final draft of the project and plans for its publication.

Here’s my daily schedule for Class 1 and 2:

Time Possible Activities Description
15 minutes Poetry Transcription I read a short poem out loud to students, including all punctuation, line breaks, indentations, and capitalization, and they transcribe it. It’s a great listening activity that illuminates the power of diction, punctuation, and line break in such a small medium.
Freewriting From the influence of writing teachers Peter Elbow and Natalie Goldberg freewriting has been de rigueur in most English class since the late 80s.  Freewriting prompts can range from the finish-the-sentence type (When I opened up the door, I immediately saw….) to the question (What songs are on the soundtrack of your life story?) to the scene (Write this scene- two people are driving to a destination where neither of them wants to arrive). Freewriting is a great priming activity to generate text for later projects.
30 minutes Craft Lesson A craft lesson is an opportunity for students to concentrate on one particular element of a genre – how to write a flashback, how to punctuate dialogue, how to frame a scene, how to compress time, how to use direct and indirect characterization, etc.
Reader’s Response The class reads a story, poem, snippet of a script, an essay, then responds to it through a journal entry. After all students have read and responded to the work, we have a discussion about the piece.  The discussion is not about what the piece means, but about how the piece is built.
45 minutes Individual Studio Time Students have a sustained 45 minutes to write on their current project.  I turn off the lights, and students put their ear buds in and write into oblivion. I have three rules: no talking, no sleeping, and no working on homework from another class.
Community Studio Time Students engage in some kind of collaborative activity, such as viewing a longer movie clip followed by discussion or engaging in a whole class writing workshop on a piece of writing contributed by a peer.

I have a student who sits in this window occasionally. She hopes she will be mistakenly identified by someone on the other side of the courtyard as a ghost.

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