Students began the quarter by learning about the basic narrative elements and writing a Personal Narrative about their summer breaks. They dove head-first into the process of writing a first draft, peer editing, and revising. Before finalizing their drafts, they listened to a TED Talk by Nigerian author Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie about “the danger of a single story,” wrapping up the lesson on personal narrative by inspiring students to risk being more personal. They discussed the real-world impact stories have—who tells them, how many are told, what they are about, and who reads them. This introduction to storytelling served to get their wheels turning on the stories they’d like to tell, as well as get them to reflect on the stories they read from their peers and practice empathy.
Whereas in English class students might approach a story with the aim to figure out what it means, something they focused on in Creative Writing is how it made them feel—and the techniques the author implemented to make them feel that way. Whether they liked it, hated it, were creeped out by it or moved by it were all valid ways to discuss a given story. Students could then dissect their reactions to find out how the author produced them, with the intent to apply those techniques to their own writing. They learned that elements like setting and character affect how the story is told and inform their impression of the story as they read.
These ideas about narrative were applied by mapping the narrative elements of a short story (in small groups or individually), and then reconvening with the class to connect them. This visually demonstrated how the narrative elements are interconnected and inform each other throughout a narrative’s development. Rather than meet a quota of elements and call it a narrative, the activity showed how each of the author’s choices in developing the elements contributes to the overall impact and meaning of the story.
After this introduction to narrative, students switched gears to learn a little more about language. They wrote a paragraph in which they could not repeat any word twice, including “I” and “and.” The assignment challenged students to vary their vocabulary and write precisely and concisely, while producing some playful responses to the prompt. This segued into a lesson on haiku, the Japanese form of poetry famous for its brevity and strict syllable count. Students were given a photo and tasked to write a three-line poem about it. The output varied widely, but what the activity revealed was that students’ preconception of poetry required quite a lot of words and a rhyme scheme. Students wrote their poems on the board and pinned their photo next to it; then we pinned a few classic haiku associated with the images and read them as a class, professional and student work alike. Students discussed what all the poems had in common, what made them poems, and what type of poetry they thought was being presented. Through this discovery approach, they came to define haiku as a brief poem describing an image, which reveals some insight through juxtaposition or contrast.
The lesson ended with a game in which students were presented the first two lines of a haiku and tasked to come up with the final line. When the real line was revealed, students directly experienced the surprise ending (or juxtaposition) that makes such few words effective. The game motivated them to beat the original poet to the punch, and their interpretations produced compelling poems in their own right.
Finally, after learning the basics of narrative and language, students revisited Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie in her short story, “Hair.” They compared it to the classic fairy tale, “Rapunzel,” by the Brothers Grimm, thus defining the nature and purpose of a retelling, adaptation, and modernization. They then had the opportunity to choose a fairy tale and write their own retelling. This is where many students’ creative impulses really flourished; they seemed eager to put their own twists on their favorite fairy tales and see where their imagination could take them. They ended the quarter by sharing their first drafts in small group workshops, which also seemed to motivate them to put more effort into their work. As a retelling, this assignment eased them into the world of fiction writing and will prepare them for more in the next quarter.