If there is one thing every creative writing teacher agrees on, it is this: there aren’t really any rules for writing. Yes, we know that writing is stronger when there is less telling and more showing and that adverbs make stories dull and boring (Stephen King says, The fastest way to hell is adverbs). In the end, teachers have to find a middle ground when teaching students, especially in charter schools where the teachers are allowed to experiment with new curricula and teaching methods.
Before I continue with the creative writing tips for teachers, let’s see the definition of a charter school.
A public charter school is basically an independently-run public school. The idea of establishing charter schools was conceived and implemented by Ray Budde in 1971. According to Ray, schools could create a small space where teachers could experiment with teaching methods and curricula. Charter schools are more flexible in their operations and programs. Higher performance goals and unique methods of assessment are often applied in these schools.
Parents choose charter schools because they expect that their children will perform better in external examinations and in extra-curricular activities. Excellent writing skills are an important aspect of academic achievement. Think about all those essays and tests students are expected to write before they get into colleges and universities. Think about all those students who aspire to acquire MFAs (and.or PhDs) in Creative Writing programs.
In this article, I will explore the top six teaching-tips I often share with creative writing teachers. Most of these tips have been gleaned from my own meandering experiences as an online and offline writing teacher. (I have spent some time homeschooling children, teaching at public schools during a writing residency program in Ebedi Hills and so on.)
Read Like A Writer
Most students read. Ask them what’s trending on social media and you’ll confirm this point. The problem is a double-headed dragon. On one hand, you have children who aren’t often reading the right kind of material. On the other hand, you have students who don’t know what to look out for when reading well-written literature.
Teachers must go out of their way to teach children how to read like writers. What do I mean? Read the story more than once. The first round of reading could be about entertaining the reader’s mind. The second round of reading should be spent observing the writing techniques used by the author. The teacher can ask leading questions. Did you notice the narrative arc? What were Character A’s internal and external conflicts? What image or symbol or emblem did the author use to make the story more memorable?
The aforementioned questions and more are likely to teach the learner about writing.
Give The Students Time To Write
As much as I encourage daily reading, I also advocate for some daily writing exercises, no matter how little. When I homeschooled two preteen writers, I bought them diaries as Christmas gifts. I made them promise to fill in diary entries every day. Journaling, I was certain, would make them write more often than they wanted to.
In a chartered school, the teacher can include a diary or a journal in the list of required books. The teacher can take a few minutes to inspect the diary entries so that the students will be encouraged to write every day. Alternatively, the teacher can create a writing space where students can write during an agreed upon ‘creative period’.
Teach Them To Avoid Filters and Dull Words
Once you’ve gotten them to write often, the next step is to teach them to choose their words carefully. One way to help them use lively and descriptive words is to make a list of prohibited words.
Yes, tell them their stories shouldn’t be composed using certain words. In my case, my students weren’t allowed to use the following words: boy, man, girl, woman, go, went, cool, fun, said (except in a dialogue tag), nice, good, bad, fine, pretty etc. Excluding these words, so to speak, encouraged students to be more creative in composing sentences.
Where the child could have written, “The girl went to the mall.” The pupil would write, “The ballet dancer rode her weather-beaten bicycle to the Polo Park Mall.”
Another tip is to teach them to avoid adverbs. Make a poster of the Stephen King quote, “The road to hell is paved with adverbs.” Have the students paste this around their workspace. The trick is to replace a –ly word with an apt, vivid expression. In my classes, whenever a student wrote, ‘the man walked quickly away,” I suggested, “the teacher fled from the Principal’s office.”
Play a game of synonyms. For instance, pen down the overused word, ‘said’ and ask them to find a suitable word that could be used in place of the above mentioned word. You will hear them offer more active verbs like, shouted, soliloquized, yelled or stammered. These exercises will go a long way to augment their vocabulary and help them write more descriptive sentences.
To learn more about weeding out filters, click HERE to read.
Showing and Telling In Story Writing
Anyone who has attended a writing class has heard this rule before: show, don’t tell.
Now, I have read memorable classics where the writer showed and told in their stories. The trick lies in knowing when to show and when to tell. The students must know how to strike a balance so that the writer’s style and voice remain effective.
One simple way to do this is to encourage students to use scenes. Give picture prompts for instance. In a public school where I taught creative writing, I taught the children to write stories from pictures. I taught them to ask the following questions:
- What do you think the picture is about?
- Where is the scene set? What can you see in the background and are the characters affected by their setting?
- What does the character want?
- Why Is their goal important to them?
- What obstacles are stopping them from achieving their goals?
By answering these questions, they were able to get a clearer picture of the plot and the characters.
Another technique is to ask them to use the 5 Ws and 1 H of journalism. Figuring out the who, what, where, when, why and how questions will go a long way to help them sculpt the story.
Note: Pupils might not enjoy picture prompts, But this isn’t enough reason not to use them. Introduce positive reinforcements, instead. Students’ attitudes often change when they know there is a reward for creative efforts.
Photo by tribesh kayastha on Unsplash
Creating and Folding Characters
The first step is a lesson on the different Points of View. Then you can continue with a lesson on creating and folding characters.
All great stories are about rounded people. So I often encourage my students to list their characters in terms of likes, dislikes, conflicts, shortcomings and drive. I always explain each of these terms in great details. Then we read a character-driven story in class. At the end of each reading, I ask questions like: What does Miss C want, and what’s stopping her from getting it? Why motivates Boss B to fight in the boxing ring each evening? If the war comes to an end, will General XYZ still be in love with Nurse ABC? Questions like these are likely to make the students think out of the box.
In flash or short stories, it is often better (or safer?) to have fewer characters. There should also be one conflict too. A few flash stories have been well executed with one internal conflict and one external conflict.
Once a pupil asked what to do about a work-in-progress that had too many characters. “Fold two or three characters into one,” I replied. She scrunched up her face in confusion and I smiled. It’s actually very fun and easy. Here’s how it’s done. Your lead character (let’s call her Mimi) is one of five chefs in a five-star hotel. She has an annoying supervisor and an ex-fiancé who wants their botched wedding to be revived. Mimi wants to study under a world-renowned chef in France, but she’s in love with her travel agent. So you see, there are too many characters. You’ll probably find that some of them are redundant. Cut the redundant characters. Her supervisor could also be her ex-fiance. See? Her story is more interesting. Her travel agent could be the proprietor’s son. You could fold Cook A and B into Cook C. So that Cook C is blind in one eye yet funny, witty and talkative.
It is important to encourage students to be creative about characterization. Teach them to write down details about their characters. Encourage them to write about flawed people. Tell them that flawed people make interesting stories. Interesting characterization often leads to complex pieces of writing.
6. Audio-Visual Lessons and Discussions
Unlike many public schools, charter schools are equipped with fantastic teaching aids necessary for teaching creative writing. A few examples of such materials are videos, audios and podcasts.
Young students often assume that published authors sit around all day waiting for royalty checks in the mail. Some of them have got J.K Rawlings envy syndrome. The teacher’s job is to encourage the students to employ diligence and perseverance. One easy way to do this is to play short podcasts in class. Many writing podcasts feature writers who discuss the joys and pains of the writing life. Other writing podcasts offer tips, words of encouragement and lectures on how to write more creatively.
Teaching creative writing is quite easy if you have the right tools and knowledge. With its flexibility, public charter schools provide conducive environments for creative people to thrive. I hope the aforementioned tips help you teach your students to write more creatively.