Teaching Creative Writing High School

Teaching Creative Writing High School-39
Creative writing was an elective course and, maybe, reputed to be easy.There were no huge textbooks, no intimidating tests, ''and this new teacher, you know, he has us singing every Thursday and reading every Friday.'' Students clamored to get into my overcrowded classes. If there was such a demand for my classes it meant I gave out too many high grades.There was structure, abundance of detail, humor and descriptions that had my students swooning with hunger.

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We sang American and Irish folk songs and it didn't matter that my students were Chinese, Hispanic, African, Russian, Jewish, Korean -- the usual New York City agglomeration.

We sang '' The Yellow Rose of Texas'' and '' The Rocky Road to Dublin.'' Not once in 15 years would they ask, '' Why are we singing all these songs in a writing class?

'' In 1972, the head of the English department at Stuyvesant High School in Lower Manhattan asked if I'd take over three creative writing classes.

I thought this might be a nice change after teaching ''regular'' English.

He said I should just go in there and do something about writing. I assured them that '' Once upon a time'' was good enough for the Brothers Grimm and Charles Perrault and even James Joyce. They were comfortable and middle class and everything was programmed and they were in this school because they were strong in science and mathematics.

They would graduate from high school to the best universities and have no adventures because that's the way it was with their families.He had ''had it up to here'' with teenage drivel.'' A hundred students writing 300 words apiece will write 30,000 words and that's what you'll be reading when you could be reading the best that has been thought and said -- Matthew Arnold, man.'' English teachers in the cafeteria scribbled on paper napkins to show that I would spend more than 10 hours reading, correcting, evaluating, grading. The head of the English department offered no syllabus. That's what I advised my students when they complained they had nothing to write about.I discovered that if my students liked singing they might like chanting narrative poetry and if they liked chanting narrative poetry they might move on to ''real'' poetry -- as long as it was musical and didn't require analysis.We chanted Robert Service's '' Dangerous Dan Mc Grew,'' Vachel Lindsay's '' Congo,'' parts of Tennyson's '' Morte d' Arthur'' and Dylan Thomas's '' Fern Hill,'' and even though it was all enjoyable I wondered: What does this have to do with creative writing?In any case, ''creative writing'' was a misnomer for what was happening in those classes.(I wanted to drop '' Creative'' from the course title but was told the one-word '' Writing'' simply wouldn't work.) There was writing, talking, scribbling, singing, oral readings, chanting, poetry, peer evaluations, silences, ring-a-ring o-roses a pocket full of posies around the room.And they did: Kate Milford's essay on sexual harassment in the subways landed on the Op-Ed page of The New York Times. Susan is still at it though Kate drifted away to become a photographer.Singing led to poetry -- no, not the usual high school situation where the teacher leads the class in drilling for the ''deeper meaning.'' I had tried that and hit rocks.They had no stories to tell, and in their lives there was no once upon a time.They envied me my miserable Irish childhood and wished (almost) they could be poor so they'd have something to write about.

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