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“Creative work comes from your soul,” I tell the kids, channeling my best sage-like energy. “From deep inside there, from your feelings and your own life experiences and revelations. You own your writing. You, and your audience will decide on the merit of anything you create–a poem, a song, a story. I can’t grade that. I can’t grade your soul. And I won’t. So how will I decide upon your grade in this class? Let’s talk about that…”

This year, for the first time in a long time, I’ve had one of my greatest content area loves intersect with my assigned classes–Creative Writing! I am enjoying the work of building a course that is both rigorous and accessible for my many different levels of student writers.

One of the things I’ve considered carefully in creating the course is assessment. My school, like many others in our area, is moving to a standards-based (also called target-based) grading model. If you’re new to this idea, one of the main parts of this philosophy is that rather than being awarded a number of points per task–like writing a paper that is worth 20 points, for instance–students are directly assessed and re-assessed on specific learning targets throughout the semester, according to a proficiency scale. So the focus isn’t really on “How many points did I get on my paper?” but rather something more like “How am I doing on my grammar skills?” and “How am I doing on being able to organize my writing? Am I growing in this skill? Have I mastered it?”

At first I was a little bit leery about how this kind of grading would go in a class that focuses on creative work, but as I drafted the syllabus, I started to realize that the arts work perfectly in a standards-based setting. Think about it… all artists work tirelessly on their fundamentals. Whether it’s a musician running scales, a ballet dancer working on arm placement and turns, or a writer finessing the way they use punctuation, all goals with a level of craft to them depend on this idea of mastering the essential elements of one’s art.

As a writer myself, I always feel like I am returning to the basics to try to get better. When I write a poem, it’s not like I say, “Okay, I wrote a poem. That’s done. No need to ever do that again.” Rather, I look at myself evolving as a poet–how is my style shifting? What could I try next time? How do I push myself to get better?” That’s the same mentality I want my students to have. Learning in the arts, and everywhere, is not about checking off boxes and then forgetting about them. It’s about constantly pushing ourselves to be better, to truly master the fundamentals of our discipline.

So, what does this actually look like for me? I took some time to reflect on the aspects of writing that all authors, whether beginners or professionals, always need to work on. These are standards that I set for myself as well as for my students. In a semester-long course, I decided to go with ten of them. Not all of them appear in every assignment, but all of them reappear over the semester in different ways as the students try their hands at different types of open-ended assignments.

So, on any given assessment, I might assess one to four of these standards. My instruction is all built around strengthening these skills in a wide variety of contexts. The beauty of this is that it allows me to be very open-ended in my assignment choices–as long as the standards that we’ve been working on are evident, student writers can follow their own creative instincts. What I’m ultimately looking for is a consistent mastery of these skills–if I can say that a student has mastered these ten things by the end of the class, I’m confident in their ability as a writer. What they do with that ability, ultimately, remains up to them.

For example, here’s the assignment description for my first assessment of the semester. (The instruction prior to this assignment focuses on building creative community, requesting and giving effective peer feedback, responding to feedback, revision practices, figurative language, metaphorical thinking, mining life experience and memory for creative purposes, and recognizing/avoiding cliche.)

“I can’t grade a poem, “ I tell them. “Poems don’t get grades and all poems deserve to be in the world. But I can tell you if you are using structure well. I can tell you if your revision is aggressive enough. I can tell you if you’re using a symbol or not. That’s how we’ll do this–everything I teach you is meant to make you a better writer, so that you can make the best version of what you want to make.”

I’m happy to chat more about grading practices in a creative writing context with any readers about there who may be experimenting with similar things–leave a comment below!

Leslie Marmon Silko’s Ceremony is one of my favorite texts to teach in my AP English Literature and Composition class, but it’s also one of the more difficult ones. Like many other masterful contemporary texts that make their way into the literature classroom, like Tim O’Brien’s The Things They Carried or Toni Morrison’s Beloved, this text is not told in a straightforward chronological order. Rather, it’s a complex weaving of many different times in the characters’ lives, stories within stories, and even native legends that all work together to create the sense of the story. Especially for students who are very linear thinkers, this kind of structure can throw them off, so I try to help them along by teaching them terms like nonlinear narrative and narrative thread. 

For the purposes of my class, I define a narrative thread as a storyline that orients the reader through a certain recurring character set, setting, and place in time. I tell them that, unlike linear stories, where the plot gradually unfolds and we get a sense of meaning from what happens and how, a nonlinear narrative enforces thematic ideas across these different narrative threads. Even if we don’t grasp the exact order of events as threads are switching around, what’s more important in this kind of reading is recognizing how certain ideas are emphasized, repeated, and mirrored across the threads. That’s how we make sense of it all. It’s a different kind of story, where you feel your way through in a layering process almost like painting.

They don’t always “get it” right away, though, which is why I have them wrestle with it a bit. When we’re about three quarters through the novel, I have them complete a small group project where I ask them to select a thematic idea and then create a visual product that demonstrates how different narrative threads work together to explore the idea. This year, I got some really stellar ones, and thought I’d share them in case anyone else would like to try this project! Also, please know that the students made these things up entirely on their own. I take no credit for their amazing approaches to the task!

Digital Thread Map

This approach was digital, linking drops of rain to five different narrative threads where the idea of rain and drought correlate with the characters’ feelings of guilt and longing for restoration. Like raindrops pattering down on the earth, the threads don’t need a set pattern to be felt and seen.

Pop-up/Slide-out Symbol Poster

This one was way bigger and more complicated than just this photo shows, packed with important symbols from the novel. Each symbol slides out to show an explanation and moment in the text where the idea of healing is present in different threads, and then back in to create the effect of the overall symbol-spotted poster.

Icon Illustration

This gorgeous illustration took a snake symbol–which correlates with a specific moment in the text–and used it to explore moments that talk about the human relationship with the earth, including accompanying important imagery from the novel. The two snakes represent Tayo (you can even see the little scar from his scalp ceremony) and the Mother Earth Spirit.

Fortune Teller Origami

This one completely blew my mind–such a perfect idea to illustrate the oneness of theme across many enfolded elements of a novel. This group chose the thematic idea of belonging, and identified four prominent narrative threads that featured the idea. Once choosing the thread, there are two examples, each one correlating to an important quote from the book. Amazing!

Below, you’ll find the resources for the session facilitated by me and my superstar colleague Lisa Floading at the 2014 WCTE Convention in Oshkosh, WI. This collection of resources and strategies addresses the question “What can we do to elevate the level of academic sophistication in our students’ thinking and writing?” Please feel free to contact us with additional ideas and questions regarding the presentation!