Teaching Creative Writing
Creative writing is definitely one of those areas with which parents struggle teaching. I can see why. There is a plethora of dull, lifeless material out there in Curriculum World. Kids are cross-eyed with frustration after spending 30 minutes staring at a candle, struggling to find creative ways to describe it. (Yes, this was an actual creative writing assignment in a popular curriculum.)
Candles schmandels. Kids deserve to love words, and describing a stick of wax does not promote a love of words!
Because I teach creative writing classes for our local support group, I am often asked by parents for my thoughts on a particular writing curriculum. I’ve perused about a dozen of the myriad creative writing options out there. I can say that most of these are very similar in approach, so you could probably go with any of them and provide an adequate creative writing foundation.
However, I’m all for moving beyond adequate, so I’ll give some suggestions as to how to make creative writing a more exciting experience. Warning: some teacher preparation will be required for this!
First of all, this is a good time to reiterate that nothing will prepare your children to be good writers better than to fill their hands and heads with good books. Read to them every day. We have literally been reading to our children from the day we brought them home from the hospital. I’m sure our firstborn didn’t understand much of Western Civilization or The Journal of Systematic Botany when he was 48-hours old, but he did hear words and language and the cadence of our voices. I can’t imagine a day going by when we don’t read at the very least a chapter of a current book to the kids. [Note: We don’t read aloud to our teenager anymore in the evenings, but I do read-alouds every day as part of our curriculum. The younger one gets a full dose of read-alouds during the day and his own chapter book at bedtime.]
So, first of all, don’t expect your kids to understand how to write creatively if you aren’t reading aloud to them—or if they aren’t reading books themselves.
Next, a problem that I have found across the board with creative writing guides is that they try to put writing into a box: here’s how we write a story, here’s how we write a form poem, here’s how we write about ourselves. Now while these are the three basic genres of creative writing (fiction, poetry, and creative nonfiction), a whole lot of other good stuff is waiting anxiously just between the lines.
The best book I’ve found so far is a little gem called If You’re Trying to Teach Kids to Write, You’ve Gotta Have This Book! by Marjorie Frank. This book is absolutely packed with fun writing exercises. It will take you some time to go through the book yourself and pick exercises, but it is well worth it. Two other books I like are WordPlay Café by Michael Kline and Kids Write by Rebecca Olien.
Drawing from ideas in the books above, you can then create your own creative writing curriculum. You can take a page or idea each week and easily have a year’s worth of really stimulating creative writing exercises. I’m not talking about sentence structure, paragraphs and essays. I’m talking about letting your kids explore creatively with words and language. I know that may sound daunting, so let me give you some specifics. You can also visit my blog, where I offer free creative writing lessons. I call this the WordSmithery, and I am always in the process of adding more lessons.
- One day a week, have an actual lesson in creative writing. Start at the beginning—with words. Explain that all writing is made up of words. Make a list of words that sound really interesting: sassafras, oozing, buttery. Be word collectors. Try putting words together in odd ways, such as “The oozing sassafras sleeked and slithered onto the buttery Birkenstock.” Read “Jabberwocky.” Encourage your kids to collect words that they like throughout the week. (You might post this in a central location, like the refrigerator.) Your kids will start thinking about words. That is step one. They need to learn to appreciate and really get to know words intimately.
- The next week, talk about synonyms and adjectives. Give them a list of “bad words” that they absolutely cannot use: big, good, nice, pretty, small, very, cool, went, said. Have them make posters OUTLAWING those words (like a “no smoking” sign with the word crossed out). Encourage them to think of more descriptive words, and fill those in around the poster. For example, instead of “said,” they can write, “chattered,” “shrieked,” “whispered,” etc. This is a good time to introduce them to the thesaurus.
- The next week, talk about strong verbs. Have them come up with exciting words for everyday words, such as eat (e.g., gobble), walk (e.g., lumber), and talk (e.g., chatter). Try to get them to outdo each other (and you) by coming up with outrageous words for simple actions. Look for poems with strong verbs, or find examples in stories where the author chose to use a word like “tiptoe” instead of “walk.”
- The next week, teach them how to turn boring sentences into exciting ones using adjectives and strong verbs. This has been a favorite exercise for all my writing classes: take a sentence like “She ate dinner” and turn it into “The headstrong acrobat insisted upon slurping her spaghetti upside down.” Make up lots of sentences and expand them together. (Did I mention yet that Mom or Dad should be doing this with the kids?) In class recently we turned “The man went to the city” into “The aging rock star rode his psychedelic tour bus into Chicago for his final performance.” Come back to this exercise again and again. They love this.
So there are just a few sample lessons, but add this to the above:
1. In addition to your one-day-a-week short lesson, let your child pick out a writing journal. Then get your kids to write in it at least 3 days a week by giving short writing prompts. Start small. Let’s say that you are beginning with adjectives (and this is a very good place to begin). Give an assignment Tuesday, Wednesday, and Thursday, such as: On Tuesday, write three words to describe your brother, three words to describe the smell of your dirty laundry, and three words to describe the taste of the color orange. Follow a pattern like this for those three days. (If your kids are older than 3rd grade, increase the number of required adjectives if necessary.)
The options for writing prompts are limitless. Your writing prompts could be lists: List 10 ways to catch an armadillo; list the top ten things you’d like to do on a rainy day; list 10 ingredients in elephant pie. Here are just a few sites for writing prompts. I’d recommend wading through and finding the most exciting prompts—and some I would avoid completely (such as, “what do you dislike about yourself?”):
2. Share your work. This is a very important part of the process. Mom (or Dad) needs to do this, too. Sit down with your kids and do the assignment, too. Then share your work! There is something immensely gratifying to a child to get to share his writing in this way. I can’t explain it, but I have seen it work again and again. Even if you decide to stick with a traditional writing program, YOU should do the work, too, and share your writing with your child.
3. Consider a traveling mascot. In my creative writing classes, we have a special friend who goes home with a different child each week. One session it was Philip the Frog, a plastic tree frog. The lucky student got to take home Philip and the notebook, and their job was to record Philip’s adventures at their house. I’ve had students take photos of Philip’s week, and I even had a girl send Philip to Chicago with her father on a business trip! You can easily translate this into your own family. Find a special critter. Encourage your child to take the Critter with him to various activities and to write from that Critter’s perspective. Parents should do this, too. So, one week can be the child’s week (rotate through the kids if you have more than one), the next week mom, then dad, etc. You could even send the critter to grandparents and ask them to write about the critter’s week with them.
4. Don’t worry about grammar and spelling. Please, please don’t stifle their creativity for a misspelled word! There are plenty of other opportunities for correction.
There isn’t anything inherently wrong with books that teach creative writing. It’s just that most of them are dull and much too often kids begin to dread writing because of boring assignments. Kids are sometimes terribly upset with their moms for signing them up for my creative writing class. Their mothers tell me that they hate writing. Usually by the second week of classes, these kids are practically jumping out of their seats to get to read their journal writings and assignments aloud in class. My main point in all of this is that you can make creative writing more exciting by venturing outside the traditional books.
Creative writers must first learn to love language, and that first step is too frequently neglected in guidebooks.
As the poet William Cowper once penned, “Variety’s the very spice of life, That gives it all its flavor.” If your kids are struggling with creative writing, check out the books I listed above. Search the Internet for “how to teach creative writing.” Don’t rely on some “approved” curriculum provider’s crummy guide. If you take the time to give them just one fun lesson a week, you’ll change their view on writing creatively—and you’ll get your own creative juices flowing as well.
Sarah Small, who holds a Master’s degree in English/creative writing, has been homeschooling for over a decade. Her oldest son, homeschooled from second grade all the way through, just graduated from high school and is headed to college. She is happy to still have two more at home. She and her husband, a professor at the University of Tennessee, and their family live near the Smoky Mountains outside of Knoxville. She blogs at SmallWorld at Home, where you can find her WordSmithery lessons.