The Biggest Mistake New Writing Teachers Make

10 Oct

 

When someone is new to teaching creative writing, you’ll often hear them say things like this:

“I want my students to be free in their writing.”

“I don’t want to limit them.”

“I want them to express themselves creatively, without rules or constraints.”

These are all admirable goals from great new teachers–and I said all of these things myself not very long ago–but I still cringe when I hear them. New writing teachers often misunderstand how freedom and creativity are best encouraged, and our desire to let our students be “free” is usually more of a hindrance than a help.

Most people assume–understandably so–that broad, open-ended prompts are the best way to give kids freedom. By asking kids to “write about a memory” or “express something that is important to you” they believe that they are giving kids room to flex their creative muscles.

In reality, though, open-ended prompts encourage kids to rely on clichés and “safe” answers, rather than pushing them to dig deeper for unique, creative ideas.

Imagine watching an improv comedy show. In one scene, the actors are told, “Okay, make up a scene.”

In another scene, they are told, “You are in a doctor’s office. One of you is holding a pineapple. The other one has to say ‘My monkey is missing!’ at some point. Neither one of you is allowed to use the word ‘the.'”

Which scene do you think will end up being more creative? More artistically free and interesting? More rewarding to the actors when they pull it off?

The same goes for writing–if you want your kids to be free and creative, try giving them a bunch of interesting rules to follow. This will push them to abandon the “safe” answers and explore what makes their brains really unique. Here are some examples of rules that have worked well for my kids:

– Include at least one smell, two sounds, and a description of a texture

– Include at least one simile, one metaphor, and a symbolic object

– At some point, one of your characters has to say. “That’s a terrible idea.”

What rules would you give your kids to help them be creative? I’d love to hear them!

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8 Responses to “The Biggest Mistake New Writing Teachers Make”

  1. kristenleesmith October 10, 2012 at 11:02 am #

    Catherine,

    First things first: I LOVE your blog! Such a treat to see your writing, ideas and encouragement in my inbox. I particularly loved this post as I have a background in theater– your analogy of giving an actor guidelines is spot on!

    Haley and I are challenging our kids this week to write about the experience of eating their favorite food using five descriptive words and how the experience is felt with three of their senses. (How does it smell? Taste? Is it sticky?) Do you think that’s a good start?

    The kids at Mercer are awesome. Hope your semester is off to a good start!

    Kristen

    • thatwritinglady October 10, 2012 at 11:30 am #

      Hey Kristen,

      Thanks for the comment! I’m so glad you’re enjoying the blog. I think that sounds like a fantastic prompt. My only thought is that I would probably make a list of “banned” words like delicious, good, yummy, sweet, wonderful, etc. Kids have a tendency to rely on these kinds of words when describing food, and it will help them write more descriptively if you take those words off the table.

      I’m so glad you guys are having fun–you’re a great team, and I can’t wait to see what your kids write.

      Good luck!
      Catherine

    • thatwritinglady October 10, 2012 at 11:30 am #

      Hey Kristen,

      Thanks for the comment! I’m so glad you’re enjoying the blog. I think that sounds like a fantastic prompt. My only thought is that I would probably make a list of “banned” words like delicious, good, yummy, sweet, wonderful, etc. Kids have a tendency to rely on these kinds of words when describing food, and it will help them write more descriptively if you take those words off the table.

      I’m so glad you guys are having fun–you’re a great team, and I can’t wait to see what your kids write.

      Good luck!
      Catherine

  2. Ray N. Falls October 10, 2012 at 3:44 pm #

    A teacher by the name of Mark Strand once assigned us the task of writing a poem that used the word “shoe” eight times. Not all the results were pretty but one of the group wrote a poem entitled “My Father’s Shoes.” I believe it was Steve Skolnick. 42 years ago and I still remember it — I think it must have been pretty good.

  3. Rowan October 15, 2012 at 3:48 pm #

    That’s so interesting! I will keep this in mind, even though i’m not a teacher – maybe it will help with writing prompts.

  4. tchistorygal October 15, 2012 at 11:35 pm #

    I love your blog as well, and I want to include you in my Circle of Appreciation. This is not an award per se, but it is a chance to highlight some of your favorite blogs. I think you do a fantastic job with your writing lessons. I have put some of your ideas “write” to work in my own blog. So check this out and see if you want to join me. http://wp.me/p2jC53-IB

Trackbacks/Pingbacks

  1. Writing Prompt # 041 « Writing@lasesana - October 14, 2012

    […] The Biggest Mistake New Writing Teachers Make (thatwritinglady.com) […]

  2. 3 Things You Think Are “Cool” That Actually Make Middle School Kids Hate You | That Writing Lady - April 24, 2013

    […] 3. Giving easy assignments. New teachers often think that the easier an assignment is, the more likely it is that kids will be excited to do it. Not only is this wrong, it’s dangerous, and it can lead to lowered expectations and poor performance from your students. Think about it: would you want to play a game where you were absolutely guaranteed to win every single time? No! It would be boring. Likewise, your kids don’t want easy assignments all the time—they want you to give them a challenge. […]

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