How Teachers Have Killed Generations of Writers

First off let me admit that I am a teacher. I teach every subject: from math to reading. Yet, I’m also a writer. These shouldn’t be mutually exclusive, yet somehow they are.

Let me explain. I hated creative writing in school. From my third grade book project, where I got a C because of my atrocious spelling, up through high school and some off the wall assignments, my writing accomplishments were few and far between.

What repulsed me so about creative writing was The Prompt—that teacher generated idea that completely sucks the life out of any creativity students have.

Need some examples? Takes some of these:

  • Imagine you’re a snowflake.
  • What would a day as a squirrel be like?
  • Write about your most memorable day.
  • Write about one of your challenges.

And the list goes on. I mean, really? That’s the best the teacher could think up? Though the truth is somewhat sadder. Most of these ideas have been generated years ago and simply persist, like viruses, ready to infect the creative writing spirit in new hosts.

Let’s explore these narrative nuggets, shall we?

Imagine you’re a snowflake.
Sure. I fall. It’s cold. I land. I melt. Story over. Maybe, if I’m really creative, I’ll land on some kid’s sticky tongue and melt.

What would a day as a squirrel be like?
I don’t know. Boring? I collect some nuts. Climb a tree. Twitch my nose. A whole lot of nothing.

The problem with these two prompts is that most kids will write pretty much what I have. Then the teacher will glance at it and ask for more. Then the kid will sit in his or her desk and look busy for the next twenty minutes, frustrated that no more ideas come. Hey, at least these prompts give you a few sentences to jot down. Let’s look at the next two.

Write about your most memorable day.
Write about one of your challenges.
Even one of these is enough to cripple even the brightest student. I’ve seen it before. The kid sits there, for twenty or thirty minutes, wondering what to write about. Even starting is hard because first you must pick your “memorable” event. Or decide what has “challenged” you. These are the sorts of prompts colleges dream up as submission guidelines. That’s fine. Colleges are meant to challenge you. But a sixth grader could use more help.

Eleven years of this sort of torture might have obliterated my writing spirits, had it not been for one teacher. In my senior year at high school, I lucked into a new course by Susan Vreeland called “Writer’s Workshop”. Her writing prompts were entirely different.

She’d show us a photo of a barn and then ask us to describe it in 100 words or less. However, we couldn’t use the words: barn, red, paint, or hay.

Although there was some head scratching at first, these seemingly strict limitations actually freed me. I had the picture to start with, so I wasn’t stuck dreaming up what to write about. Yet with the word limitations, I couldn’t phone it in by describing the red barn with peeling paint and stacks of hay.

I recall that students came up with all sorts of stories. One guy had a murder in the bard. Another talked about the animals inside. I can’t even recall what I wrote. All I knew was the words flowed.

So is there a solution? Yes, as a teacher, I want to give my students some guidance—a direction—to write. Then I want to step back and let them create. I don’t want a prompt so arbitrary and restrictive that it makes it impossible for anyone to write.

Yes, there are certainly those kids who can and will write about their memorable day as a squirrel. I’ll let those kids go for it. For the rest of us, let’s try something that will kindle our imaginations rather than douse the fire.

Tim Kane

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3 comments on “How Teachers Have Killed Generations of Writers

  1. Naomi says:

    Wow, love this post! Thank you 🙂

  2. Karen says:

    Hi Tim!

    What a great post! I hated the “what did you do this summer” prompt most of all, I think. My favorite English teacher, back in 10th grade, got me interested in writing with the prompt “you’re at a window, what do you see outside.” Maybe I liked writing after that prompt because I got a good grade? 🙂

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