Léna is also a Regional Manager for Writopia Lab whose mission is to foster joy, literacy, and critical thinking in kids and teens from all backgrounds through creative writing.

"Well, the question is, what do you want to believe? Do you want to live in a world where things are possible, or in one where they aren't?" Cin, Edges.

Monday, May 7, 2012

"I Hate Writing," and Other Lies

I'm a proselityzer, I admit it. And my Gospel is Creative Writing.
Last week I was invited by a Parents Association to bring Writopia Lab to fifteen classes of sixth graders and I'll be doing another fifteen this week. I had met with all of the English Language Arts teachers beforehand so they would know that I wanted to support what they were doing in the classroom: that I was friend, not foe.

Middle school is where you may both find and lose your voice. Where you often start developing and trying out different personae not only to be socially accepted, but to become individually defined.

Who doesn't remember that?

So, my mission was to get the kids to write their own short story, and to inspire them to start thinking of themselves as writers. To help them see that they can use writing as a tool for discovery, for thought and for fun.

I had forty minutes each class.

I started these classes using myself as an example of a "secret" writer who was too ashamed to admit it, who didn't think she had the right to write, to have a voice. I had loved writing, but until recently lacked the moxie to call myself a "writer". Then I asked the students what their experience with writing had been.

Here's a crazy statistic: over half of my students claimed to "hate" it. Yes, and this is at one of the better public schools in the state! Add to that some crazy statistics my dad quoted to me over the weekend from a book he was reading: After high school, 80% of students never read another novel.

When I asked the kids why, the a common answer (along with hand cramping and being intimidated by grammar) was that they had trouble thinking of things to write. 
"Do you like stories?" Most nodded their heads, but there were of course, a few kids who gave me the hairy eyeball. 

"I don't like to read."

"Well, there are other ways of ingesting stories. How about TV shows? Movies? Video games?"
We talked about story, and how TV shows, movies and books all have the elements of character, plot and setting. (The rest can be debated another day.)

I had them. "If you like TV, then you like story. If you like story, then I guarantee that you can tell one."

I gave each class a different first line and last line. Then it was up to each student to write the middle, and it could be as silly and/or weird as they wanted it to be, as long as the main character had an objective. ("Every character has to want something - even if it's a glass of water," - Kurt Vonnegut.) The teacher and I would go over to the students who were stuck and write a line in their story to "unstick" them, or ask them for more details if they had "finished" before the fifteen minutes of free writing was up.  I talked about story structure, asking questions of them to ask their characters.

Every student wrote. Some were brilliant: true diamonds in the rough. Invariably, the writing-"haters" all wanted to share, and were gleeful about it. Some thought they were just being silly, and were going for laughs, but I was able to point out that even stories about CIA agents in CandyLand can make a certain kind of sense. And more than a few said they would be willing to change their attitude toward themselves and writing.

I encouraged everybody to go home and type up their stories - to add, revise, continue, and I am certain some will. 
The teachers are amazing - they are all so dedicated and genuinely fond of their students, so open and creative in their own teaching practices, and I tip my hat to them. They have their hands full with large classrooms, a mandated curriculum, and testing to prove that indeed they have taught that curriculum. It was awesome of them to let me disturb their classrooms last week, and again this week where I will bring in another, completely different fun writing game that will focus on showing vs. telling.

Just don't tell me you hate writing!


  1. Awesome. Thanks for being the spokesperson for writing! :)

  2. Such valuable work. Can you clone yourself a few thousand times? It kills me that kids aren't even learning handwriting anymore. And that statistic about 80% of high schoolers never reading another novel. That's just sad.

    1. Oh Jayne, thank you for your encouragement!

  3. Thanks for sharing--and posting on Monday! :)

  4. I know it well -- that gratifying feeling of bringing out the resistant writer in a student, especially of the middle school variety. One good line was enough to make my day.

  5. Lena- wish I had you to teach me about creative writing when I was in school. The arts were "nice" but the school forgot that it could have been the fuel to fire us all up. Well done, my friend. elizabeth

  6. I teach a creative writing class that is interactive-focused on helping the kids express themselves honestly; versus via a regimented formula. They are young (2-4th graders), and yet already many of them (more boys than girls) already "hate" writing. I'm on a mission to change that-as you are. It's funny-some of the other teachers can't figure out why the students are smiling when they leave my class! This was one of the best things I heard all year.

    1. That's awesome - so glad you are part of the revolution!

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