The Wonder of Workshopping
It takes work to empower peer critique, but it's worth the effort.
Welcome to From the Teacher’s Desk, where we take turns further reflecting on our episodes and applications to the classroom.
I know creative writing doesn’t always fit well into traditional English curricula. And as soon as we open the door to student expression, we’re either going to risk the major mental health confession or the melodrama of adolescent expression.
But after leading an after-school creative writing club and semester-long creative writing class, I also know it’s important to teach students about the creative process. It invites more personality into their communication and empowers students to participate in one of the most crucial activities to a full life—play.
Here are the top three lessons I think we can all learn from the creative process:
Students can be powerful critics
This process requires a tricky balance. First, a student needs to be open enough to sharing their writing with a small group or the whole class. Second, their peers need to feel like they can give actual feedback to an author without being rude to their friend.
You can start this work by modeling how you do this yourself. Give students a short sample piece (maybe write a poem or flash fiction yourself), and ask them to prepare responses to the following questions:
How do you feel after reading the piece?
Where do you feel is the main focus of the work?
What do you like about the piece?
What suggestions can you make for change/growth?
End your response with a question that you have for the author after reading their piece.
Then the next day in class, have a roundtable discussion of the workshop piece. The only other rule is that the author can’t talk while everyone else is talking.
As you continue to practice this process throughout a semester or school year, it’s amazing to see what students can learn from looking at others’ writing in this way - and what they can learn from really listening to feedback from others.
Genre study helps us better understand language and flow
Because I am a regular writer, I innately pay attention to rhythm and repetition in every sentence I compose. But students are not born knowing this on their own.
So when you study the next poem or short story with your class, take some time to address the artistry of the work as well. I highly recommend Mary Oliver’s A Poetry Handbook or Creative Writing 101 as great resources for this work.
(Or you can check out my poetry writing unit slides and short story writing unit slides on my Teachers Pay Teachers store.)
Creative writing doesn’t have to steal a lot of class time
I know I’ve said it before, but it bears repeating. Even beginning your class period with a daily journal prompt is a great ritual to help ground everyone and get their brains a little decluttered.
During my time as a creative writing instructor, I really came to love the New York Times picture prompts that you can access for free on their site. Or you can always make up your own. After all, you know your students best.
We need to create
To end, let me leave you with one of my favorite quotes from Elizabeth Gilbert’s Big Magic (and if you haven’t checked out Sarah’s and my latest episode about the creative process, you can listen to it here):
“You do not need anybody’s permission to live a creative life….The earliest evidence of recognizable human art is forty thousand years old. The earliest evidence of human agriculture, by contrast, is only ten thousand years old. Which means that somewhere in our collective evolutionary story, we decided it was way more important to make attractive, superfluous items than it was to learn how to regularly feed ourselves” (Gilbert, Big Magic p.86-87).
Humans need to create. It’s part of our basic instincts. Give your students healthy outlets for this energy in your classroom. You won’t regret it!
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As to class time: big yes! To starting class with a prompt. It was always a great opportunity to check in, and set the expectation.