Success Through Structure

In January, during Moving Writers’ series on testing, I wrote about structuring a class when there’s that external test to consider. I really like having a structure. It’s nice to have touchstones and routines to ground things so you can go and explore the things that come up as you go.

I’m currently teaching a creative writing course. We’re almost done, as I’m only teaching them for a term, but the structure has been key to the successes we’ve had. I tweeted a piece earlier this week, and it got a lot of likes and retweets. Rebekah suggested it become a post, so here we are.

At the outset of the course, I had, of course, a plan in my notebook for the structure. However, knowing that there were students who had chosen the course to grow as writers, I made sure that we had an open discussion about goals. I asked what forms we wanted to work on, and how much freedom we wanted. In a great moment of serendipity, their input aligned quite closely with what I had on paper.

My goal was to have them writing, throwing them “provocations” every day but Thursday. Each day, they would write, drafting something from that day’s offering, going back and forth between pieces that they felt needed attention. On Thursdays, I gave them nothing to write about, but rather time to polish a piece that they’d be submitting for evaluation. (For those curious about assessment, I kept a checklist, throwing a minimal grade their way for attempting each provocation. I assessed each polished piece using a rubric that echoes the one used in our Grade 12 Provincial Assessment for consistency.)

Mondays were dedicated to something I call Line Mining. Each writer comes in and adds a “golden line” to our bulletin board. A golden line is something that popped for them throughout the week. Lyrics, lines from their reading, quotes from TV and movies are added. Then, each writer chooses a line, and they write from that. They have total freedom, and can work in a form of their choosing.

Bits and PiecesLine Mining actually generated the poem that I tweeted. In my room, I have the phrase “You are free to choose, but you are not free from the consequence of your choice.” Quite openly, one of my writers was struggling with coming up with a golden line, and added that to the wall. Jayda chose it, and inspired by where it came from, wrote a found poem using the stuff she saw on the walls and boards in the room.

I was struck by it when it showed up in the polished pile. What a powerful way to measure the messages that are displayed in a space. Another class is working on poetry inspired by school, and I’m tempted to send them out into other spaces in our school, just to see what we get.

On Tuesdays, we do poetry. I’ve been using the model inspired by Get Lit Rising, which I shared recently. It has inspired so many wonderful pieces of poetry. It has presented challenges for me, planning, because I look hard for poems that I think will be inspiring, or that will engage them. It’s worth it though, and is the best kind of thing – their good work inspires me to work harder, which inspires them, and, well, you get the idea.

PEW National WalkoutBecause I like giving things ridiculous names, we have Personal Essay Wednesdays, mostly because the acronym is PEW, which justifies the tiny Han Solo graphic I put on the slide with their prompt. Knowing that I have a group of opinionated young folks who like to express themselves makes this a perfect fit for the class. Generally, I pull our inspiration from what’s going on around us, or in the world on Wednesday. My morning scan of Twitter has been where a number of these have come from, and we’ve written about topics as diverse as #NationalSchoolWalkout, using the r-word, school spirit and Valentine’s Day.

All These Things Are On Your Phone NowWe end the week with Flash Fiction Friday. (Yes, there is a picture of The Flash on the slides, why do you ask?) I love the idea of the constraints of Flash Fiction, and working to stay under 1000 words. I love the idea of actively encouraging brevity, focusing on ideas over length. I also like the idea that this is a short first draft for them, and that if they feel the need, in polishing a piece for submission, they are more than welcome to expand these pieces beyond the Flash Fiction limits. Their prompts are a wonderful combination of stuff from the digital archives that I’ve enjoyed in the past and the wonderfully random madness that pops into my Twitter feed.

What’s been enjoyable about this structure is that it gives all of us a level of consistency. I know what I need to plan, they know what we’re going to be writing. To balance that consistency, this structure gives us a lot of freedom. Writers can choose the pieces they feel are best for deeper assessment. There are days that writers openly tell me they aren’t in a poetry place, and they collect the poem, listen as we discuss it, but they work on another piece of writing. They are writing almost all the time, but they’ve got control over where they focus their energy.

The structure has been, in my opinion, the reason for the successes we’re having. It’s been engaging for the students, and for me. It’s a manageable workload for all of us, giving us room to breathe, and time to focus on what we feel matters. I have taught a version of this course a number of times, and this time, hands down, has been the best.

How have you structured your classes that has been successful? Do you have regular things happening on regular days? What are they, and how does it work?

Leave a comment below or find me on Twitter @doodlinmunkyboy!

-Jay

3 Comments

  1. Glad there’s something here for you! That’s the goal in sharing!

    As it stands, this course is a writing course only, so there isn’t a lot of reading assigned. We usually spend a max of 30 minutes (of our 55) with the poem, and then move on to writing.

    The class will be transitioning into a literary analysis focused class in a couple of weeks. The original plan was to split the two aspects of the course between two teachers, which is why I only focused on the creative writing. A few hours after this post went live, we decided that I’d be doing both sections. This actually puts me into a similar position to you. I’ve got to figure it out, but there is a very good possibility I may take that writing day without prompting from me, and transition it into a reading day. Half of my class are graduating this year, so I also want to encourage them to get used to doing reading outside of the allotted course time, so I’ll try to push them to read outside of class.

    I sometimes streamline my dealings with a mentor text, and just point out what I’m hoping they’ll learn from. I’m also a big fan of telling them to read it, noting what “pops” for them. We then discuss what they note, and how we can use it in our writing.

    I’m likely going to keep the poetry activity as is, because the analysis we do is good, and has a purpose attached to it. With the rest of it, well, I have a lot of thinking ahead of me.

  2. I love this idea and think it could work really well for me next year in tweaking how I structure a class. My question is, when do you find time to read?

    Even some mentor texts I struggle to fit in a (45 minute) class period and still devote enough time to really dive in and write. As a similar struggle, there are longer pieces (short stories, a few novels, etc) that I want to expose my students to. Have you found a way to work those in?

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