Presently, part of my responsibility as an instructor at the Cooperative High School for the Arts and Humanities requires that I teach two (2) creative writing classes: Play Writing and Introduction to Creative Writing. The play writing unit was developed as a result of my participation in the Yale Teacher’s Institute in 1993. Entitled:
The African Playwright as a Griot
, the curriculum is designed to teach the art of play writing to high school students. Now, a standardized component of the creative writing department, the class, exposes students to the works of three (3) playwrights of African descent from three predetermined time periods: Antiquity, Slavery and the Harlem Renaissance.
The impact of this curriculum thus far on my effectiveness as a teacher and the ultimate benefits to my students has been overwhelmingly beneficial. The results were immediate and easily measured. In 1994, when the curriculum was first implemented, my students entered the
Yale Dramat Play Writing Competition
. The outcome was most encouraging. One of my students won the Grand Prize, two were finalists and a number received honorable mention. Likewise, this year (1995) an entry submitted by one of my students has been awarded the Grand Prize, two placed as finalists and a number of them again received honorable mention. Needless to say such incentive is profoundly advantageous to the students’ self-esteem and their development as writers.
Through this paper I hope to develop a curriculum for my Introduction to Creative Writing class, comprised primarily of 9th grade students, that proves to be equally as effective. The overall demographic make-up of the classes is significant in-so-far as the choices I have made pertaining to the written material to be utilized.
The majority of the students assigned to this class are not avid readers. Those who are, have had limited, if any, exposure to the ever increasing number of African, African-American, Latin, Native American writers and their work. Likewise, I have recently noted that there seems to be a decrease in the emphasis on works by contemporary third world male writers or themes which reinforce positive self images for my male students. Thus I intend to include works and themes which fulfill this need. I feel this I important because I have found that my male students seem to struggle with written communication to a greater extent than my female students. Additionally, for some reason they have a warped impression of men who write. For some reason they seem to feel it is not a “manly” pursuit.
Lastly, because of the fact that the media (print and electronic) has painted such a negative portrait of minority men, I want to (1) give them images that provide them with positive self images as well as (2) assist them in developing the tools (writing ability, grammatical skills, etc.) to tell their stories and record their perception of themselves on their own terms.
Therefore, I have set out to develop a curriculum which includes poetry, short stories, essays and excerpts from select novels of both renowned and emerging African, African-American, Latin, Native American and Asian writers. It is my objective to utilize these works (much like Kenneth Koch used the works of European and Western poets in his books
Rose Where Did You Get That Red?
Wishes, Lies and Dreams
) to construct writing exercises suitable for my first year creative writing students that contain themes with which they can readily can readily identify. As luck would have it school was still in session during the preliminary stage of this paper. Thus, I was afforded with the opportunity to test the effectiveness of a number of these lessons in an actual classroom setting. The lessons included in this paper fall under the following categories:
1. AutoBiography (prose)
2. Ego Trippin’ (poetry)
3. As Far As I’m Concerned (essay)
II. WORLDS CONVERGING
1. The Ties That Bind (short story)
2. Those Who Don’t (prose)
3. Crossing the Abyss (poetry)
III. BUILDING ‘BUFF’ IMAGINATIONS
1. Mind Dump (Flow of consciousness)
2. Bigger Than a Bread Box? (poetry)
3. Words and Images (poetry/short story)
It is anticipated that the scope of these exercises will entail more than to just enhance writing. They are also designed to encourage reading and provide students with alternative perspectives from which to view themselves, the world and their place in it. Hopefully they will provide and assist students in discovering options heretofore they had not considered.
The exercises that fall under the category of “ME” are designed to foster introspection as well as furnish students with the space to claim their future selves and realize dreams (“Ego Trippin’”). Through the lessons in the section labeled “WORLDS CONVERGING” the students have an opportunity to gain a new appreciation of the world view of people from diverse cultures. Additionally, they will re-examine their own environment and the people closest to them from a new vantage point. The assignments devised for the segment designated “BUILDING BUFF IMAGINATIONS” apply varied techniques and mediums to stimulate the imagination.
The decision to develop a curriculum unit of this nature is based on a numerous factors:
1. To expose students to writers and works they may not as yet have discovered.
2. When applicable provide a historical, political, and/or social backdrop.
3. Cover a gamut of genres and cultures.
4. Develop an appreciation hunger for the written word.
5. Widen students interest in reading.
6. Most specifically hone students written and oral communication skills.
To begin I have found it is important to know each student as well as possible. It is also vital that students feel they are operating in a “safe environment” That is, an environment that will allow them to freely express themselves and their feelings, opinions and ideas void of criticism or judgment in so far as the content is concerned. To facilitate the development of such an environment I am careful to advise students that they will:
1. not be judged or graded on their choice of subject matter;
2. be graded on the strength of their use grammar, vocabulary, spelling and structure.
However, profanity is inappropriate thus disallowed. Likewise slang is not permitted because it is essential that students have a strong command of the “English language”. I explain to students that the application of slang in the their work does two things, neither of which is positive. First, it restricts the number of readers who might read their work by confining it to only those familiar with the vernacular. Secondly, the use of slang shortens the “life expectancy” of their work. Popular slang today may very likely be pass’ tomorrow. Thus any work in which the outdated slang is utilized will become “old fashioned” (a deadly term among teenagers) the moment the slang is replaced with something new. These explanations are usually enough to dissuade the majority of students from employing the use of slang in their work.
The door to this matter is, however, left slightly ajar but only slightly. Slang is permissible once students have displayed that they have a good command of the language and they use slang only when appropriate. For example: if it establishes and/or clarifies the persona of a particular character. Under any other circumstances the use of slang is unacceptable and will have a detrimental effect on the grade they will receive for the work in question.
There are usually no more than two students who “test” this boundary. Once they realize it is non-negotiable they learn to work within the perimeters exhibited. Amazingly I have noted that students quickly learn to search for “new words” in the dictionary and thesaurus (which they are at first resistant to use) to take the place of the slang. Once this takes place students seem to no longer desire to use slang.