In this unit, as in all of the Co-operative Arts and Humanities Magnet High Schools's (Co-op's) Creative Writing Curriculum Units, we endeavor to provide sequenced, relevant knowledge, skills, and rich content in a braided manner. In addition, this unit is devoted to an issue that I find is critically missing from our students' education: how to deal with grief. As recently as the day I began writing this unit, a crisis committee had to be called in our urban high school because there had been a shoot-out over the weekend in which three teenagers were injured and one died. None were Co-op students, but all had close friends at Co-op. Students were crying, afraid to stay in school, afraid to go home, afraid of the coming Spring vacation, when many students would be on the streets with nothing to do, and already dreading the summer vacation. "Things are going to pop-wild over the summer," one of the students said through her tears.
I am hard pressed to find a class in which more than 25 percent of the students haven't experienced violence, death, or significant loss first or secondhand this year alone. How do students, children, and the adults they look to for guidance and stability learn to incorporate such experiences into their lives? Does wearing an RIP (Rest in Peace) pin with a picture of the deceased help the student understand or explain the root of his/her grief? Does putting teddy bears, signs, and candles at the spot where a friend died give a student the vocabulary to discuss where his/her grief lives? Is one Crisis Team Meeting, on one day, out of 180 school days, enough training in the process of moving through the stages of grief when students don't even know that there are identified stages to move through? Each of these actions is an attempt to memorialize and each is certainly important. These actions give students a feeling of control over one small part of an event that is uncontrolled and uncontrollable. But I think there is something to be learned from the process of grieving that requires language to examine, interpret, express, and in the end to decide what things you will let go of and what things you will carry away from grieving.
I am not about to make the argument that writing is the cure. It's not. But I do want to make the anecdotal observation that over the last ten years of teaching Creative Writing to urban high school students, who have deep and intense life experience, but seldom have deep and intense literary experience, reading and writing can change the way they see themselves and their lives. I strongly believe that if we do not begin teaching students methods for incorporating, for learning how to carry the weight of what they experience, see, feel, fear, and do, we will be creating a society of people who act and react in a violent cycle too reminiscent of A Clockwork Orange.
As the lead teacher for Creative Writing at the Co-op, I seek to develop a creative writing curriculum that is artistically and intellectually challenging, mindful of form and the elements of writer's craft, engaging, text-based, and sophisticated, and that builds each student's authentic voice. There is no question about what a tall order this is; however, the filling of that order (unit by unit and in collaboration with my department colleagues) usually comes down to three questions: what do we want our students to know that will stay with them and help them now and in the future; what do we want them to read to learn it; and what do we want them to write as evidence of their ownership of the new knowledge?
Another way of looking at how we attempt to scaffold learning in the Creative Writing Curriculum is expressed well by the updated version of Bloom's Taxonomy, which proposes that learning occurs best in the following way: remembering, understanding, applying, analyzing, evaluating, and creating. (Wilson) This version of Bloom's Taxonomy is different from the original, better-known version in three ways: it is in verb rather than noun form, the order of how knowledge is acquired is different, as it places creativity at the highest point of knowledge, and as John Hattie says of the new Bloom's "This is a major advance on the better-known Bloom's Taxonomy which confuses levels of knowing with forms of knowledge. (29) Of course, as creative writing teachers, we believe that every student has the ability to use his/her knowledge both as a basis to learn more and as a means of creating something original and authentic. And guiding students to that level is always our overall objective.
No matter how student-centered a classroom is the tone and educational environment are set by the adult actions of the teacher. I have included some pedagogical thoughts, concepts, and strategies that I have found successful in creating a student-centered, adult-lead environment in which students understand what I mean by Authentic Voice, The Master Apprentice Method (aka MAM), Making My Process Visible, and Feedback.