Puppies Fix Everything: A Tale of Creative Writing
I was given the best class ever this semester. It’s Creative Writing, and the class is full of sophomores, juniors and seniors. They’re all girls, and they’re all NICE. Seriously nice. Twenty-five of the brand of high school girls who giggle and blush and give each other compliments and make up silly mystical family trees combining them and the cute guys in the school.
With this kind of class, no assignment can go wrong. One day, I had them make up silly rhyming poetry involving animals. They had to pick pieces of paper with the name of the animal out of a bowl. The poems I got back were all pretty awful, but it didn’t even matter. What mattered was that the girls were laughing hysterically as they wrote, and they would shriek and grin as they read their poems to one another. And I realized, as I watched them, what the real winning product of this class was. It wasn’t the writing, or even the knowledge that the girls received.
It was the ability to TRY.
So many teachers take the fun out of learning. I don’t think they do it intentionally; they do it because of state standards, or because of behavior problems, or simply because they don’t know how to incorporate it. My first “real” teaching experience was at a school for kids with learning differences. I ran the summer creative writing program for elementary school kids. These kids were DONE with writing. Seven years old or so, and absolutely finished with even trying. Everything they had ever written had been ripped apart, marked for grammar or spelling or even intention. They were scared to attempt to put anything on paper.
It was hard to figure out where to begin with those kids. I was 21, and not too intelligent, and worried about silly things that 21-year-old girls obsess about. I tried encouragement, and funny poems, and music and movement. They worked, a little. But I didn’t have that ONE lesson that made kids dive into writing.
Then, one day, I asked the director if I could bring my brand-new puppy, Ruckus, into the class. Ruckus was tiny and wiggly and a veritable champion at Death By Licking. The director, a simply wonderful older gentleman who really earned my respect that summer, said that he thought it would be a great idea. So, the next day, Ruckus got to come to work with me.
My first class was the 6 and 7 year olds. I gathered them up and took them outside, where Ruckus was waiting. You would have thought that I had brought them a full-grown elephant with built-in speakers on his ass. They cheered; they yelled; they dive-bombed poor Ruckus, who began licking them with the enthusiasm typically reserved for million-dollar lottery winners. They rolled and played and laughed. After twenty minutes or so of this, I moved everyone inside, and we talked about what it felt like to play with the puppy. They were full of adjectives; they shouted out ‘cute’ and ‘fluffy’ and ‘soft’ and ‘funny’. I wrote the words on the board, and we came up with a huge list. And then, using those words, they wrote poems.
Previously, it was a struggle for these kids to write two words on paper. They had no motivation. Now, though, they were eager to write about Ruckus. They could feel what it was like to play with a puppy, and they wanted to get it down on paper. And when they were done, we read the poetry, and their poems were pretty good. Having fun – and getting to use their kinesthetic sides – helped inspire them to actually WANT to write.
That was years ago, and those little kids are now probably seniors in high school. Their lessons have stayed with me throughout my entire teaching career. So I get to remember fun, and how throwing fun into a lesson is the best way to get kids excited. It’s not always possible to make English really fun, but it’s pretty easy to do so on a daily basis with my Creative Writing class.
These last few weeks, we’ve been studying character creation. We each made a character, and gave them very detailed traits. Then we started putting our characters in various situations. We made them mug shots. We wrote their eulogies. We put them in fights. We had them meet one another. We sent them on first dates. We became these characters.
We’ve also studied other characters. This week, we watched Disney’s Aladdin and each student followed a character to note character development. We’ve looked at short stories and read about author’s character-building techniques. And we’ve also looked at bad characters – characters in books who are unbelievable, or who are barely formed. And through it all, we shared, and we laughed. Because that class is filled with such wonderful students who are so excited about learning and writing, we have had an outstanding time. Because the girls are comfortable enough to TRY, they produce writings that are creative and insightful – or hilarious. Or terrifying. Or whatever they want.
I think we should all work to give students the ability to TRY in our classrooms. They should be able to have fun, and they should be able to play and laugh and fail and succeed. Although this isn’t always possible, it would be great if we could all plan lessons with this goal in mind. Students would learn more, and they would be able to see just how far they could progress. And that, of course, if exactly what we want for every student. It’s a win-win situation.
Plus you get to watch Disney movies.