Saturday, April 16, 2016

Creatively Teaching and Assessing Creativity: Some Baby Steps

What does creativity and doing our discipline look like in a high school class that’s also supposed to be learning literary content? This year I decided to try an experiment in my 10th grade short story unit. Rather than assess students’ mastery of the genre and the examples we’d studied by giving them a test on characters, settings, styles, themes, etc., I asked them to write a short story. 

I told them that we’d been watching professionals play and analyzing their game—now we were going to try it ourselves. Just a pick-up game. Nothing huge. No pressure. Just messing around, trying it out, having fun. A 45-minute period to plan, a 90-minute period to write (you don't even have to finish the story), and a 30-minute period to share what we’d tried, and then reflect in writing on what we had learned. 

Was the assessment rigorous enough? Would it really show content learning? I was a little worried. But reading over the products, there was no need. In their fiction—wildly varying—as well as in their reflections, students gave ample evidence of having absorbed the stories, techniques, themes, and styles that we’d read, remixed them with their own ideas, interests, and experiences, and even had fun doing it.

The “professional players” we’d observed were Leo Tolstoy in “How Much Land Does a Man Need?”, Franz Kafka in “The Bucket Rider,” and Gabriel Garcia Marquez in “A Very Old Man with Enormous Wings.” 

One student wrote about a girl who gets sucked into a book. Not into the story, but into the actual book, where the physical labor of reading by jogging the lines of print and pulling over the huge pages makes the story she was formerly bored with come alive in her mind.

Here’s the student author’s reflection on what she tried and what she learned (see below for her whole story if you’re interested): In my short story, I tried to use magical realism and motifs. The girl being sucked into the book was my attempt at magical realism, while the constant mentioning of technology (machine, robot, computer, typewriter) was my motif. I learned that when writing with a style of magical realism, it is important to include realistic ideas to avoid turning it into a fantasy.

Other students were equally as creative, writing stories like the following:
  • A post-apocalyptic fantasy featuring Justin and Thyme, their pink house on wheels, and their friends Life, Death, Nostalgia, and Memory.
  • Pahom, the bucket rider, and the angel meet in front of heaven’s gates.
  • A sort of riddle where the narrator describes many wonderful adventures, then what those experiences lack without the capacity to respond emotionally. It wraps up with an exhortation to cherish the life you’ve been given: “If I could only feel something, just one time, I would be the most grateful bunch of particles to ever roam this planet. But sadly I can’t, for I am only a molecule of water.”
  • The bucket rider is rescued from the ice mountains and opens his own coal business, determining always to be compassionate. But what will happen when the coal dealer’s wife who turned him away shows up at his door in need?
  • A Yemeni girl gets married off against her will. 
  • A less cynical re-write of “A Very Old Man with Enormous Wings” where the angel meets a shining example of humanity rather than it’s every foible. What would this look like? Is it possible to make it into an interesting story?
As you can see, some students used characters directly from the stories. Many tried magical realism. One wanted to try to write a final sentence like Tolstoy’s that answered the title question, wrapped up the story, and implied the moral: “Six feet from his head to his heels was all he needed.” Another just tried to use a lot of semicolons like Kafka. 

I want to share a lot more of students’ writing and reflections—after we get back from spring break on Monday and I can ask their permission. For now, I’d just like to share the story of the girl who was sucked into a book.


“Reading is to the mind what exercise is to the body.” —Joseph Addison

     Flip. She turns to the next page without much interest. In fact, her mind is off elsewhere while her eyes scan the words on the page like a robot or a machine. Flip. Her back is sore from sitting in the same position for hours on her stiff wooden chair that has no armrests. Flip. The book would yell for her attention if it could speak, but it remains restrained and neglected. Flip. She is close to the last page. Flip. Skipping a few lines will do no harm, right?
     The book comes to an end, but the story was left untold. Yet, she takes a moment with her hands rested on the back cover to feel accomplished. She takes a deep breath and sets the book down on the round coffee table beside her. Eyes slowly closing, she leans back onto the hard backrest and sighs in heavy languor. The strong wind rocks her into a sound sleep. Meanwhile, the pages of the book flip quickly, racing with the wind. 
     Page 92, 91, 90… The book wants to wake her up; it wants her to try again. 
     Page 55, 54, 53… It sees its chance. 
     Page 21, 20, 19… Read!
     Page 3, 2, 1...

     Chapter One. Now wide awake, she looks around and sees words lying across the paper--sentences after sentences. There are no pictures in the book. Around her, the pungent smell of an old library is thick like a blanket. She walks along the spaces between each line, reading the words one by one, like a small child attempting to type a sentence for the first time on a computer keyboard. Growing weary and bored from reading so slow, she breaks into a jog, the sentences coming to her more fluently. When she reaches the end of the line, she looks across the page and jogs to the beginning of the next line like a typewriter. This time, she runs, excited to read the next word, the next sentence. She runs faster and faster until she finds herself sprinting. Unable to keep her balance, she gives up on staying in the spaces between the lines. By the time she is done reading the page, her sweat is dripping onto the paper, turning it a damp, brown color. She pulls the corner of the page and flips the page ever so heavily, shaking her head at how cumbersome flipping a single page could be. Finally succeeding, she wipes her forehead with the back of the hand and resumes her reading. If only she had read the book this properly the first time! Ten minutes has passed and she is still on page two: time does not wait for her. She reads with the same sprinting speed, only stopping to turn the pages. Though there are no pictures printed on the old, brown pages, images begin to dance around in her mind--bright and colorful. The book does not speak its dialogues, but she can hear it. Life seems to grow like tree branches, sprouting from the very words printed onto the pages. She reads and reads, until her legs give in. She crawls on her hands and knees, struggling to get to the next sentence. When her hands and knees give up, she drags her body with her elbows, struggling to get to the next word. A trail of sweat leaves the book wrinkled and damp. 

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