Each year for the past nineteen years, the International Reading Association has published a list of What’s Hot and What’s Not in literacy education in their magazine, Reading Today. The list is based on surveys of twenty five of the world’s top literacy gurus, such as Richard Allington, P. David Pearson, and Timothy Rasinski. Survey respondents were asked to evaluate a list of literacy topics using the following categories: What’s Hot, What’s Not, Should be Hot, and Should Not be Hot.
Disconcertingly, but unfortunately not surprisingly, creative writing was voted unanimously to be “Not Hot.” However, more than 75% of the respondents suggested that this topic “Should be Hot.” To be fair, it was not clear from the article the reasons that creative writing was considered not to be a hot topic. It could be that creative writing is so integral to so many curricula that providing time for it in the school day and delivering plenty of great instruction to support it are accepted as matter of course. Perhaps creative writing isn’t a hot topic because there are no longer debates raging about its merit.
However, my hunch is that the above is not the case. My hunch is that creative writing was voted a not hot topic by survey respondents because no one is talking about it. And no one is talking about it because there are a million other initiatives, demands, and “hot topics” taking its place. (Including, perhaps, some of this year’s hot topics, such as the Common Core Standards and high-stakes assessment.)
So, how about this for a 2014- 2015 goal? Let’s make creative writing a hot topic again. Let’s talk about it, teach it, refuse to let it get slowly pushed out of the curriculum. But first, it might be helpful to think about ways we currently think about creative writing, and ways we could think about it.
According to Wikipedia (yes, yes, I know, it’s wikipedia, but I’m going with it), “Creative writing is any writing that goes outside the bounds of normal professional, journalistic, academic, or technical forms of literature, typically identified by an emphasis on narrative craft, character development, and the use of literary tropes or with various traditions of poetry and poetics.” The entry goes on to discuss the work of Mary Lee Marksberry, who quotes Witty and LaBrant in her book Foundations of Creativity. Maskberry (quoting Witty and LaBrant) writes that [creative writing] is a composition of any type of writing at any time primarily in the service of such needs as: 1. the need for keeping records of significant experience, 2. the need for sharing experience with an interested group, and 3. the need for individual expression with contributes to mental and physical health.
According to that definition, essentially any writing we channel kids to do in writing workshop is creative writing. The notion that creative writing is something that might happen once or twice a week after lunch when kids are waiting to start the real work, or that it is something they should do in their free time, that notion doesn’t hold up. In a writing workshop classroom, where each writer is taught to work with agency and independence, each and every day across a school year can be a creative writing day. When we teach kids to try out a variety of craft moves in their narratives before settling on just the right one, we are teaching creative writing. When we teach them to aim to evoke a certain emotion or mood in their essays, we are teaching creative writing. When we teach them to include a bit of their experience with a topic in their information reports, we are teaching creative writing.
Then, doesn’t teaching kids to write creatively really mean we are teaching them to take ownership of their work? To make choices about how to make their work better? To find their own voice and style as writers?
Let’s start a list. What are some of the ways you teach kids to make creative decisions while writing, in any genre? Together, we can make creative writing a hot topic again. And, more importantly, we can make sure that there will always be plenty of room in the curriculum for students to write, not just to learn, and not just to demonstrate knowledge, but to create.
Anna is a staff developer, literacy coach, and writer, based in New York City. She taught internationally in places such as Sydney, Australia; San Pedro Sula, Honduras, and Auckland, New Zealand in addition to New York before becoming a staff developer for the Teachers College Reading and Writing Project at Columbia University (TCRWP). She has been an adjunct instructor in the Literacy Specialist Program at Teachers College, and teaches at TCRWP where she helps participants bring strong literacy instruction into their classrooms. Anna recently co-wrote Bringing History to Life with Lucy Calkins, part of the 2013 series Units of Study in Opinion, Information, and Narrative Writing (Heinemann). She has been a researcher for Lucy Calkins, contributing especially to Pathways to the Common Core (Heinemann, 2012) and Navigating Nonfiction (Heinemann, 2010).