Sometimes I worry about the effect of standardized testing on not only the teaching of writing, but what we're teaching our kids about writing as well. I fear that the fallout of a test-inspired curriculum will be a generation of kids who think that "writing" means responding to a prompt in a sterile, formulaic way, and who are deprived of the opportunity to connect the creative dots in their heads to a brand new piece of writing -- a story on a page.
And then last week, I got to co-teach a creative writing class to nine middle school kids who'd chosen -- without duress -- to spend four summer afternoons connecting those dots. Against the odds, these kids love writing. While they would have been content to curl up and write during the entire session, my co-instructor and I felt that the concept of "class" implied instruction of some sort, so we discussed the elements of a story, ways to create characters and how to write a pitch. We made character collages, went outside to soak in sensory experiences to lend credibility to their imagery and Googled things like French phrases and Star Wars memorabilia. And the kids -- a group ranging in age from 11 to 13 -- spent at least half of each class putting words on the page or the computer screen, turning creative sparks into stories on fire.
The week flew by, leaving us with less time than we'd have liked to have had on Thursday to share pitches and masterpieces. Some stories were laced with humor, others took my breath away. And every single one had at least one sentence that was an absolute gem -- a perfect crystallization of a writing concept acquired along the way that had nothing to do with the ratio of topic sentences to concrete details and commentary sentences.
There are other kids out there who give me hope for the future of writing, too. My niece, Madison, who thinks that writing -- whether using words or music -- is something to revel in. The group of teens who approached an English teacher at their high school because there was no creative writing club and they wanted to start one. The two girls in our class who didn't want to share their stories, representatives of the countless kids who keep journals or write poems that never see the light of day, yet allow them to indulge the muse, free from prompts, formulas and rubrics.
These are the kids who will write the books of the future, rendering arguments about e-books vs. print books and traditional publishing vs. self-publishing moot in the face of literature that offers escape, edification and relaxation, no matter its form. But if we don't honor their desire to do something with their words now, their loss will be ours as well. If we teach our kids how to write efficiently, but fail to honor their need to write creatively, we are asking them to turn off a shower meant to sprinkle the world with so much more than topic sentences and concrete details. I don't know about you, but I'd much rather be hit with a sprinkling of creative ideas than succession of concrete details.
And to my kids from last week, and my niece, and those high school kids and journal keepers and poem writers: Thanks for sprinkling my world with hope.