Honors Students in the Creative Writing Classroom: Sequence and Community

Article excerpt

It is the end of the semester here at Gasoline Alley in Springfield, Massachusetts, and the creative writing students are about to give their readings. It is an artsy setting, the SEE cafe and gallery. Some of the students who will read today hope to transfer into the engineering program at the University of Massachusetts. They are computer-wise, bright students. Others are candidates for the nursing program. Three women hope to transfer to Mt. Holyoke or Smith. But here they are today, reading their poems at a gallery they have never visited before, with African masks all around them. The favorites today are blues poems, and Leanne concludes hers, "Sweet thing, I thought you were the one, but now I know that I was wrong./ Yeah, I thought you were the one but now I know I was so wrong/ Cuz baby if that were true, these blues would be a sweet love song." Leanne hopes to be a pharmacy major, but, after some initial fretting about what her grade would be, she enjoys writing poems.

"I can't have a B in this class; I want to transfer to Mt. Holyoke next semester." Honors students often say this in the first days of the class. They sometimes have a difficult time adapting to the creative writing classroom. For those who are unused to arts classes, adjusting to different ways of thinking (including metaphorical thinking) and a different way of being graded (i.e., by portfolio) can be a challenge. Honors students want to do not only well, but brilliantly-in every class they take. The purpose of this essay is to propose some ways of helping honors students feel comfortable in a creative writing course. The following strategies will be discussed: giving the students a chance to adjust to the arts classroom; beginning with exercises that help students understand the strategies of poetry; designing an alternative grading system based on portfolios; and easing into the teaching of poetic structure through the study and creation of list-poems, poetic personae, object-poems, haiku, and various traditional European verse-forms.

My first college class of creative writers taught me that honors students need time to adjust to the arts classroom. Over many years of working as poet-in-the-schools and frequently teaching poetry-writing to gifted children and teenagers, I had already learned that some bright grade-schoolers are made anxious by creative writing, that they are comfortable only with essay writing and its logical content. I did not expect college students to feel so vulnerable.

Stress was palpable on this particular first day. I made things worse by saying that I sometimes revised poems twenty times. Students gasped. They had not imagined that writing poems would require such attention and diligence. They thought they wanted to be in this classroom, but what was this strange planet anyway? I could hear them hyperventilate. They were so used to their own excellence in nearly every class and so afraid they would get a lower grade than usual that I wondered if they could even hear my instructions. I soon learned that this group of students and nearly every group to follow would feel awkwardness and self-doubt coming into the creative writing classroom. "Everyone else in the class is so talented," students moaned.

I have learned to help honors students feel at ease in a number of ways. In my experience, introducing students right away to free-writing exercises helps them relax and explore a new kind of learning. Every creative writing teacher has her own set of techniques. I try to warm students up to writing and build their self-confidence before I ask them to create anything we might call a poem. An interest in language is important for poetic growth--a love of words and a fearlessness about playing with them. It is my impression that students need to learn playfulness with language before they start writing their own poems and lapse into jingly rhyme or cliche. I learned from Madeline DeFrees the use of headlines to get the class thinking about multiple meanings and playfulness in their writing: "Tuna Biting Off Washington Coast," "Drowned Man Seen in Florida Airport," "Robber Holds Up Albert's Hosiery," "Elvis Appears in Holyoke," "Slow Men Working in Trees," "Alarmed Exit. …

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