As an adjunct instructor in a developmental education department, it is easy to get tunnel vision when teaching my students the nuts of bolts of writing, especially when these courses target struggling writers and English language learners. Developmental writing courses are required for students who do not meet the college’s minimum writing requirements upon acceptance, which means students do not personally elect to take them. Those who enroll in these classes often have a less than favorable view of writing, and they also tend to lack confidence in their written work. These are not easy hurdles to overcome for students or for instructors. However, after refocusing my course content and offering students more opportunities to engage in creative writing practices, a pleasantly unexpected outcome emerged. Students have become more confident in their own writing, especially when engaging in political and social justice-driven material.
Creative writing and creative methods helped me engage my students on a new level. Sure, they still learn MLA formatting, proper citation techniques, and appropriate use of punctuation. However, creative writing exercises and assignments have transformed my class from a general foundational writing course to one where students are more engaged. My classroom is now a place where learners actively seek to participate in class discussions and respectful discourse. It is a space where students are more comfortable with taking risks in their written work. The students’ confidence in the classroom has skyrocketed. They enter the room with their heads up. They greet each other with smiles, with jokes and asking each other about their well-being. Of course, it is natural for class participants to form bonds over time. However, the course’s new creative focus seems to help this natural progression occur more quickly than usual. Additionally, the creative approaches are linked to motivating some participants to become more politically active in their homelands, as well as here in the United States.
This connection between creative writing and my students’ political interests became apparent two years ago when I was teaching a Tuesday evening foundational writing course. More than two-thirds of the class were international students and learning English while living in New York City. For some students, this was also their first time experiencing life in the United States. The first two class sessions were quiet and uneventful. The students were timid and painfully shy; they avoided eye contact with each other and with me. They kept responses to questions brief and barely spoke above a whisper. I left that second class feeling a little discouraged, but determined to help my students learn their foundational writing skills in a less conventional and more meaningful manner. So, I ditched the standard grammar lessons. I began offering writing prompts that invited students to use their imaginations, or to describe meaningful experiences and significant moments in their lives, all while incorporating some of our target grammatical techniques. The transformation was incredible. Students were sharing information about their personal lives, cultural struggles, and even political reasons for choosing to receive an education in the United States. The students were buzzing with conversation, questions and even praise for one another’s written work. If you walked into that classroom the previous two weeks and then again on the third session, you wouldn’t believe these were the same students, or that I was the same instructor.
In this class, a student named Cynthia P. raised her hand to discuss one of her responses to a descriptive writing exercise. She chose to share her personal fears regarding a local government’s disregard for environmental protection in her home country. She informed the class about her village’s fear of speaking out against the government, because they knew that if they did “there would be serious consequences.” Cynthia’s classmates and I listened intently as she described how her village’s local water supply was poisoned from industrial waste for decades. She explained that people in her home village are falling ill with mysterious conditions, and how the local politicians are denying any responsibility for it. That evening, the other students in the class stepped into action. They began asking Cynthia about ways to get involved. Native English speakers and non-native English speakers were pairing up to learn more about her home country and about ways to help educate those in her town when she returns home at the end of the semester.
Needless to say, that evening set the trajectory for the manner in which I would approach my developmental courses. As I reflect on that beautiful student-centered evening, I wonder if Cynthia would have shared her story with the class and voiced her concerns if she had not had a creative outlet to do so. It is quite possible, because the major assignment for my class is typically a research paper that focuses on the students’ own personal interests, so she could have written about her experience and shared it with her classmates, but this would have happened at the end of the semester. Cynthia’s influence and her courage to speak up about concerns she had for the people in her home village, was palpable throughout the rest of the class. Her influence also crept into some of her classmates’ final papers. That semester, a majority of the class chose to write about environmental concerns and ways to get themselves and others involved in educating others about their cause or taking political action where they live. These papers were also some of the most organized, concise, well-researched, and creatively written works that I have received in my experience instructing developmental education courses.
The transformative power of creative writing and alternative approaches to formal written works is apparent. Once their voices were engaged, they felt empowered. I encourage all instructors, especially those who teach required developmental writing courses to step outside of the standard instruction practices and include opportunities for students to engage in creative and personal writing. The results can be life-changing.
Holly Spinelli proudly serves as an English teacher in New York’s public schools. Her experiences range from teaching 7th -12th grades in New York City’s Lower East Side, to partnering with fellow members of the Andover Bread Loaf Teacher Network to run local writing workshops. She was a partner instructor with C.U.N.Y. LaGuardia Community College’s “College NOW!” program. Additionally, she is an adjunct instructor in the Developmental Education Department at Berkeley College’s mid-town Manhattan campus.