One of my favourite classes to teach is my twelfth grade general English class. These are the kids who made choices that pushed them off the academic track, choices that often have very little to do with their intellectual ability and a lot more to do with what has gone on in their lives. Currently I have a teen dad who is putting a lot of time and energy into being there for his three month old son. I have another guy who has spent most of his life in a group home. He loves to rap and write poetry but he sees no sense in most of what we do in school. Beside him sits another young man who is off drugs for the first time in two years, and he is working so hard to stay clean and to do well in school . Two girls have come here from refugee camps and are grateful to be in the class, but their English skills are so poor that the work is often too difficult for them. You get the picture, because it’s one you’ve seen many times before.
These classes can be difficult to manage, but the rewards are great, especially when you can find a way in through the hard crusty exterior some of these kids have put up to protect themselves from school. The general classes in my district are designed to be a watered down version of the college prep classes. The students see much of the material as irrelevant and boring. And they’re right.
I’ve done a lot of things over the years to make their lessons more relevant to their lives, but this semester I’m trying to do more creative writing with them as well.
ACTIVITES THAT WORKED FOR ME:
The fist thing I did was to buy everyone of them a writing notebook. We use them to experiment and explore without worrying about mechanics. They like that. The pressure’s off. There will be many other opportunities for us to work on their spelling and grammar.
One of their favourite activities for notebook writing is to contribute to the Encyclopedia of An Ordinary Life. If you’ve never checked out Amy Krouse Rosenthal’s very original spin on memoir writing, do so. Following her format, the students record encyclopedia type entries about whatever strikes their fancy. Under “A” they might write about what makes them awesome or anxious. Or, they may expound on their love of apples or, as Kevin did, why he believes he is above average. When we work on their encyclopedias, I provide coloured pens and stickers, so they can pretty it up a bit. They love it.
Two weeks ago, because it was Halloween week, they worked through learning stations that had them plan, write, revise and edit a spooky story. They loved the direction that the stations provided and they worked well at creating their stories.
The end result was a pile of spooky tales that are not going to put Stephen King out of business. Some of them were hard to get through because of broken English, misspellings and mechanical errors. But I loved reading them, because I could tell they cared about their stories. They tried their hand at foreshadowing. There were many similes and metaphors, and there was a lot of scary detail. I have to push and prod to get much detail out of them in more traditional assignments, so it was wonderful to see so much of it, even if I had to wade through blood and gore and zombies to get it.
In years past, I shied away from creative writing with this group of students. This year, I stretched outside my comfort zone and I’m so glad I did so. Now, almost every class starts with one of them asking, “Are we going to write today?” Music to my ears.