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Creative Writing for Academic and Struggling Students

What weapon next is stored?

Perhaps she is merely bored,

Her imagination moored.

At her request, I’m floored.

~ Excerpt from Thirty-six New and Laughably Random Poems by Sheila Petre

Read the whole poem. It’s a hilarious tale of Sheila’s feelings about her poem prompter-her mom, giving her the assignment to write a poem about a floor, or as being flabbergasted/floored. When I read the ending of this poem, I see a student’s face after they’ve been given an assignment in school. I am not a mean-hearted teacher; I personally know the feeling of overwhelm over needing to accomplish a large or novel idea. There is value, though, in stretching the student beyond the normal and helping them succeed in more then they thought possible. I’ve done it in my writing classes, and I’ve seen the student’s mouths drop open in disbelief over my assignment whether they are a high academic or a struggling student. Perhaps you know what I’m talking about?

Can our creative writing curriculum motivate both the high academic and the struggling student? Yes! First, we’ll explore some of the tendencies and weaknesses of both kinds of students in relating to creative work. When I mention the high academic student or the struggling student, I am not trying to imply stereotypes. There are various dynamics that go into a student’s physiology and character that influence whether their achievements are relatively easy or a struggle. I encourage knowing your student well enough to know his limitations due to circumstances out of his control. As we discuss this topic, I am in full sympathy to those who struggle, but I also acknowledge that we tend to overlook the higher academic students and don’t utilize their strengths.

Academic students

The high academic student may find memorization, comprehension, and completion of lessons easy. They also may work hard to keep their academic scores high, produce neat work, and meet the requirements to a tee. Some approach the work as if it’s a challenge, while others view it a necessary evil that must be quickly put out of the way. Highly achieving students do tend to be curious, willing to try new things, and accept specialized training. They are motivated by inspiring models and examples. However, these students can tend to flat line when it comes to creativity. They develop the idea that success comes from understanding a logic so creative work can be a frustration. They need pushed past the required minimum to reach beyond the easily accessible low hanging fruit. With coaching and teaching, high achievers can shine brilliantly.

Struggling Students

The struggling student may be unmotivated because of internal or external triggers. They might struggle with comprehension, logic, or self-discipline but that does not mean they don’t have an opinion, or don’t have feelings. Most times they tend to be creative, personable, warm-hearted, and imaginative, but simply have a hard time expressing it. These students generally put so much energy into getting through the typical academics like language, reading, and arithmetic that they don’t have any margin or motivation to do the arts yet too. I’d like to argue that instead of cutting out artistic work due to time constraints, we should be putting more emphasis on allowing them to explore and pursue the arts-such as creative writing. Remember that imagination is their learning mode and happy place, but logic and academic rules are difficult. Their ideas are valuable to the world and encouraging exploration of different artistic fields is healthy for development. We’ll look at a few ways that we can adapt and change lessons to fit the needs of the struggling student, but for now, hold onto the necessity of including them into classes such as creative writing.

How does our curriculum apply to both kinds of students?

Our lessons are like the V formed by a flying flock of geese. There is room for the strong and weak geese in the formation. There are academic students that have good endurance and can handle the harder things just like the lead goose, also there is a spot for the struggling ones that can perhaps only lead for short times. Our lessons have parts with tight boundaries and rigid instructions that are geared for those high academics. We have other parts that are a bit shorter or looser. Since not quite as long-winded, that short stint can be brilliantly led by the struggling student. With little strategic adaptations, our books are achievable by all student types. Students don’t have to be masters at grammar, punctuation, or spelling to still be able to interact with the lesson and create valuable content. We don’t encourage heavy grading; we encourage heavy teacher interaction. We don’t expect perfectly polished pieces; we expect to stimulate creativity. Students get to work with their peers, be exposed to new and novel ideas, and express their opinion and viewpoint. Sure, there is discipline in writing, but there is also flexibility and fun.

Included in both student types are those that fly through their work and want to disappear out the doors. They ask, “how many sentences do I need to write?” and “Is this good enough?” before they slam their books shut and race outside. They want easy come, easy go. My students have learned over the years they will never get me to answer if “this is good enough.” Instead, I help them decide if they have done their best. I do show them approval, and yes, there is time and place for good effort to be enough. We don’t want our students overwhelmed. Part of the maturing process comes when a student knows that he has done his best, maybe even gone beyond the normal, and created a superb piece. It’s tempting as a teacher to just give that pat answer and not engage in what the students are accomplishing, but we’ll get better results is we don’t let them manipulate the class. Both high academics and struggling students try that trick.

Utilizing academic strengths

For high academics I like to sometimes do something I call “extend a lesson”. When they have buckled down, comprehended well, verbalized well, put effort forth into creativity, and still are done before everyone else: I like to give them a bit of an additional challenge. For poetry, it could be as simple as copying their work onto a clean sheet of paper and adding some creative doodles. For choosing better words in sentences, it could be more elaborate such as giving them two extra sentences to write or coming up with a different example. If we’re looking for alliteration, also have them look for figures of speech. I tend to be a little harder on weak word usage, cliché ideas, and passive voice when commenting on the academic’s work. Unequal expectations are fair because God didn’t create everyone equal. I want them to develop strong writing habits, not bad habits.

Accommodating the struggling

For struggling students there are endless ways to make the lesson approachable and doable. They can observe, feel, and think just like everyone else. However, they may need someone to write out what they say onto the paper. Maybe they need several sentence starters that they could pick from when crafting topic or summarizing sentences in a paragraph. If it’s a reading response and they find it hard to read, simply read the story excerpt aloud in class and do the questions out loud with everyone participating. Most times giving the struggling student the allowance to be different, feel different, or even express himself differently gives him the confidence to do it. Instead of giving ten options on what to write about, just give a student one. It helps them focus and stir imagination on one topic, not on the twenty that would float around in their heads, immobilizing them. I like to think of these students as a painter that is painting a mural. It takes awhile for the picture to take shape, but if you inspire on one element at a time and embody enthusiasm, I’m pretty sure the struggling student will find a way forward.

In conclusion, we as teachers carry the responsibility to constantly be getting to know our students. I know from personal experience that the relevance to the different student types is largely dependent on the teacher. Sometimes we have blind spots. Maybe you feel you need someone to sit in your class and coach you on how to help each kind of student. I would love to come visit and have a one-on-one discussion with you after I’ve sat in your class. Too bad I don’t have a personal airplane and lots of time in the world to come to all your classrooms! If you’d like a breakdown of which lessons in our books I think would work better for high academic or struggling students, feel free to send us a message and I’d be glad to give you the details. Also, please know that you as a teacher have the freedom to pick and choose or modify lessons to best fit your classroom dynamics. We have each lesson in the book for a reason, but we understand if one simply does not work for you. Maybe leave that one for your high academic in his spare time! 😊

God bless! Jennifer

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