Creative Writing Pedagogy in Literature Courses: A SSAWW Roundtable

In November I went to the Society for the Study of American Women Writers (SSAWW) conference in Denver (which, if you have never attended and study American women writers you should because it is the best mix of scholarly rigor and friendliness that you will find). I gave a presentation on a panel about capitalism and labor in the 19th century and also was lucky to be invited to be on a roundtable about teaching creative writing in the literature classroom. I want to write a little bit about this roundtable here. It was organized by Angela Sorby and featured scholars from grad students to full professors and from literature scholars who don’t identify as creative writers to poets, fiction, and non-fiction writers. It was nice to have perspectives from scholars in different positions and also to have some time to open up discussion with the audience.

Since I’m writing this in December, I’m not sure I have the memory to give detailed overviews of everyone’s presentations but here were some of the main assignments that were discussed by the presenters:

  • Anthologies of poems that included original work by the students
  • Imitation poems where students write in the style of a poem studied in class
  • Dialogues to respond to song lyrics
  • Multi-media texts to accompany a piece of literature
  • In-class outlines of stories using the conventions of plots

While all of these approaches were different, in my opinion, the general consensus was that such projects are fun but they aren’t just fun. By giving students permission to create, they flex their intellectual muscles in ways that just consuming literature does not allow them to do. They are more inspired, more engaged, and more clearly able to understand what it means to create the works they are studying. From a teacher perspective, it seemed that many of the panelists and audience members felt a sense of freedom when they challenged themselves to think beyond the close reading paper and were occasionally surprised and often happy with the projects that students came up with in their nontraditional assignments.

That doesn’t mean that adding creative writing literature assignments is not without its challenges. One of the big topics of discussion was assessment. Do you assess the students creative writing as a piece of creative writing? Or are there other means of assessing the projects? The approaches to the assessment varied. Some of the panelists do assess the creative writing while others assigned tasks like reflection papers with the assignments and gave more weight to those in their assessment. Regardless of the means of assessment, there was agreement that what was being assessed needed to be clear to the students. It should always be apparent to the students why they are doing what they are doing. This is the case in traditional and nontraditional assignments. A great piece of advice that I once received was that you need to teach your students how to do the assignments that you are asking them to do. This is especially true if you are asking them to do a little bit out of the norm of what they expect.

Because creating new assignments can be, for lack of a better word, scary, we also discussed how to mitigate some of the potential pitfalls of the assignments. One of the biggest tips would be to think through the assignment not only from your perspective as the teacher but also from the perspective of your students. How might they see it? What are outcomes that you might not have thought of that they could come up with? I would also add that you will make mistakes, and you might not fully be able to anticipate those mistakes, but if you add time for your students and you to review the assignment and think through their plans, then some of those difficulties can be averted.

via alyssa

Two of the individual roundtable presentations had their origins in PALS posts. I talked about how I stumbled upon the idea of using creative writing assignments in the classroom when I created an in-class activity for my introduction to literature students that involved writing the plot to a detective story. I wrote about this activity for PALS here. The students that I did this activity with were mostly taking the course for a general education requirement, so I didn’t make the connection that they would want to explore their potential as writers. I didn’t make this connection even though I had already spent years telling my composition students that they were all writers. This was obviously a failure of my imagination. I think of this as my “aha” moment of how fun and useful thinking like a creative writer can be for students.

The second PALS post that was represented in the roundtable was this piece by Melissa Range. Range talks specifically about using imitation poems in the literature classroom and writes about the concept that “placing yourself in the writer’s position allows you to think about each decision she has made in crafting her work.” Additionally, Range was one of the panelists to advocate for having students write a reflection about the process of their imitation, including comparison of their work and the original.

Finally, Angela Sorby, the organizer of the roundtable, was kind enough to provide an overview of her presentation for this PALS post. Please find her explanation below:

Like Marla Anzalone (a co-presenter), I assign curated, themed micro-anthologies in a lower-division genre course for non-majors. Part of my aim is to get students to engage with poetry across historical time periods, so I require that they include—along with an original poem and three from contemporary sources—one Emily Dickinson poem. These disparate poems must form a thematic group; when I last taught the course, one young woman chose the theme “body dysmorphia,” while another, a nursing major, chose “hospice care.” Students are asked to title their anthologies; to choose illustrations; to write headnotes for each poem (including their own); and to compose an editorial introduction. This project generates a small, accessible conversation with no outsiders: the student, the chosen contemporary poets, and Emily Dickinson are all posited as working poets, jointly exploring a common topic through language and form. Rather than groping for a “correct” reading of Dickinson, students are empowered to find what they need in her poems. This is not a traditional scholarly approach to Dickinson, but it mirrors the way many passionate non-academic readers (and some poets, even in the academy) tend to read poetry.

PALS would love to hear more from you about how you teach creative assignments in the literature classroom. Feel free to leave a comment here or find us on twitter @PedagogyAmLitSt.

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Gritty in the Composition Classroom

I was introduced to Gritty, the Philadelphia Flyer’s new mascot, while scrolling through Twitter. Despite originally being from Eastern Pennsylvania and coming from (in the words of my dad) a “long line of suffering Philadelphia sports fans,” I first saw Gritty while reading this tweet from poet Eve Ewing in which she describes him as a visualization of a panic attack. My eyes widened in horror as I realized how absolutely terrifying this new mascot was. I immediately assumed that Gritty would go down as yet another notorious moment in Philadelphia sports history, like that time Eagles fans threw snowballs at Santa. Fortunately, Gritty was embraced by the city of Philadelphia as well as the users of Twitter. Why not embrace Gritty in the composition classroom as well? Since we are nearing the end of the semester, I have been trying to think of quick writing activities to help keep my current students interested while we review certain skills or my future students interested while they are learning these skills for the first time. So, in honor of the newest member of the Philadelphia sports community who has captured the hearts of many, including several of the contributors here at PALS, I have outlined two easy in-class writing activities, one that reviews summary writing and one that emphasizes the importance of using description, with Gritty as a focal point.

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Via @GrittyNHL/Twitter

Summarizing Gritty

My first activity that uses Gritty in the classroom was inspired by a piece of advice I received from a former colleague. He told me that when teaching developmental writing students how to read critically and summarize information, give them articles about weird topics, ones that will keep their attention. Colin Dwyer’s “Gritty, Stuff Of Nightmares, Has Been Officially Welcomed To Philadelphia” is an article designed to do just that. Its content is accessible, but it is presented in a way that might be tricky for students who are learning how to write summaries for the first time. This article, specifically, contains a lot of images and tons of details, both of which some students might over-prioritize when drafting a summary. As a result, working with this article about Gritty will help students practice how to determine and then write about an article’s implied main idea as well as its major supporting details.

To begin, I ask my students to annotate the article. After checking their annotations, I have students create an informal outline of the article’s most important points. Depending on whether this lesson is an introduction to or a review of writing summaries, we may stop the writing process at this point for a brief discussion. As a class, we talk through the ideas that students have outlined and write them on the board. Then we determine what the article’s main idea is, which details are too specific for a summary, and which ones should be included. Students then draft their summaries. After everyone has finished writing, I conclude the lesson by creating a class summary. To do this, students volunteer to read parts of their summaries out loud. Together, we then make sure that our summary clearly begins with the article’s title and author, states the article’s main idea, and describes the article’s major supporting details. Students check their summaries with what we wrote as a class and make revisions. By the end of this activity, students should have a clear understanding of how to write a summary, even if it is about the public’s reaction to a tall, goofy orange mascot.

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Via @GrittyNHL/Twitter

Describing Gritty

When writing a descriptive essay, especially in the first-year composition classroom, students must practice being deliberate with their word choice. That way, they are able to write about a person, place, or moment so that a reader, who has most likely not known this person, been to this place, or experienced this moment, feels as though she has. This activity uses images of Gritty to help students practice incorporating figurative language into their writing. First, each student is assigned a picture of Gritty. Luckily, Gritty’s twitter account is an excellent resource for a wide range of images. Students then spend class time writing a paragraph that describes the picture. The goal, I tell my students, is to have someone who hasn’t seen your picture be able to draw the image based on what she reads. What my students don’t know yet is that they are going to test how effective their descriptions are by actually doing this.

After writing, students are put into groups of two or three, where they trade paragraphs with another student. Everyone keeps their original images of Gritty. Students then draw Gritty, based on the paragraphs they were given, with the goal of having their pictures look as close to the original images as possible. This quick exercise shows students how important using detail can be. For example, if one student writes that Gritty is holding a sign that says he is a month old, but doesn’t include which hand he is holding that sign in, the second student might place the sign in the wrong spot. After giving students enough time to laugh and/or grumble their way through the drawing process, I have them compare, in their groups, what they drew with the original images. Then, as a whole class, we discuss any challenges students faced during the writing process as well as how we can apply what we have learned during this activity to writing with detail and clarity.

Analyzing Gritty

While the two activities outlined in this post could focus on something completely different, the use of Gritty highlights why it is important to, at times, use unexpected topics during writing activities. My next step for using Gritty in the classroom is to develop a lesson based on his cultural reception, whether it be close reading this Resolution, which was passed almost unanimously by the Philadelphia City Council, or thinking through the politicization of Gritty, as analyzed in this article from The New Yorker. A recent episode of the podcast Reply All could serve as supplemental material. Additionally, I would love to hear ways that other instructors have used surprising topics to help students practice different elements of the writing process. And remember, even though incorporating something like Gritty in the composition classroom might seem ridiculous, it is important to take risks, just as Gritty does every time he steps out on the ice with his t-shirt cannon.

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Via The NHL’s official page on Giphy