When it comes to creative writing, I feel scaffolding is especially important. But what is it? And what does scaffolding look like in a creative writing class?
The term scaffolding comes from construction. When new construction projects begin, usually supports are erected to help construction workers move materials, to give them a foundation to work on, and to otherwise aid in general construction. Likewise, when students are constructing their new projects, they, too, need scaffolding; without it, they have to create with very little support.
In the classroom, scaffolding can take shape in many ways. It’s the outline for an essay or the sentence starters for a classroom discussion.
In a creative writing class, however, where rules are meant to be broken, creativity is unrestrained, and student skill levels vary wildly, providing that scaffolding can be a challenge. How, then, do you guide students and provide support without limiting their creativity?
If the purpose of creative writing is to let students experience more freedom in writing, why even bother with scaffolding?
1. Scaffolding builds confidence
Even my best writers are often unsure of themselves. Providing some guidelines, requirements, or outlines reassures them that what they’re writing is “right.” Often, my students struggle in a class that has “no right answers,” so providing scaffolding helps ease their anxiety about writing a “wrong” poem or story.
2. Scaffolding gives students a starting point
If students know they have to get from point A to point B, generally they can at least get started. Too much freedom causes them to freeze up, write forever with no stopping point, or spend too much time brainstorming ideas and not actually writing. Scaffolding helps students get started and guides them through the process of making it to the end.
3. Scaffolding helps struggling writers without holding back advanced writers
One of my biggest struggles in teaching creative writing has been the huge difference in skill, talent, and confidence between my lowest and highest achieving students. Some students have been writing creatively for years and need little guidance; others are not even sure what “creative writing” is or why their guidance counselor signed them up for it. I struggled with how to guide students through their writing without also stifling them.
Scaffolding gives struggling writers the help and guidance they need to embark on learning a new skill, like writing for pleasure. Telling students exactly what to write about in each stanza for an assignment like writing a poem based on the style of Kwame Alexander really helped my students who had never written a poem prior to the class. It also helped them grasp the concept of blending others’ style and techniques with one’s own writing. I worried, though, that such formulaic writing would stunt and bore my writers who needed to be challenged.
However, I quickly realized that my advanced students weren’t letting the scaffolds stop or restrict their writing at all! I find that when they are inspired, they have no problem throwing away my scaffolds entirely or expanding on the structure I set in place. I learned early to encourage this with every assignment and to let students know that they should feel free to write according to what feels right for them, but that the outline was there if they felt lost.
4. Scaffolding prevents writer’s block
At some point, every student will say, “I don’t know what to write next.” When that happens, it’s great to have a handout or a graphic organizer to point to and say, “Well, what’s next?” or “What question haven’t you answered?” Usually, that’s enough for writers to begin again. Without those scaffolds, I would have to invest a lot of time looking at each piece of writing and trying to assess what the author may want to do next. The scaffolding not only cuts down on teacher time, but gives the students the tools to solve their writer’s block independently.
Ok, so we can all agree that scaffolding is a great tool for any class, even creative ones. But how can it be put in pace when the assignment’s final products can vary so much?
Ok, but how do we scaffold writing in class? What can we do to help our students not only, start, but persevere, finish a piece, and aim for even better results next time?
1. Graphic Organizers
When I was a student, I hated outlines. They seemed like a dumb tool for people who couldn’t remember their ideas for very long. When I started teaching, however, I saw how immensely beneficial they were for my students to organize ideas before writing, and now I use them all the time myself! Graphic organizers are my favorite way to have students brainstorm and consider a project before beginning. They’re great for visual learners and allow students to come up with all the “elements” of a piece before putting it together (which I think makes the final product less daunting).
For example, when we write cinquain poems in my class, students fill out a graphic organizer before writing the poem, even though the final poem only consists of eleven words! They write down their topic, adjectives, synonyms, and other details so that when they write the actual cinquain, they can choose the very best words for the finished product. It’s a great lesson on precision in language.
My free “I Am” poem lesson is another example of a graphic organizer. Students just need to fill in the blanks, and they end up with a whole poem!
2. Examples and Mentor Texts
It’s tough for an architect to build if they don’t know what the building is supposed to look like eventually. The same is true for young writers. If they don’t have a great example of what to shoot for, they won’t challenge themselves. This is where mentor texts come in.
For example, the poetry of Elizabeth Acevedo makes for excellent mentor texts in a creative writing class. Not only is her poetry mind-blowing, but her performances are as well. In this lesson, we watch her perform one of her pieces, read another, and then write our own poem based on a personal experience, just like Acevedo does. Watching her performance stays with my students, and they will occasionally remark on her performance even weeks later!
Knowing just how good and end result can be gives students something to aim for, rather than having them settle for something mediocre. And. really, who among us remains uninspired after witnessing truly great art? Our students deserve the same level of inspiration in their lives.
3. Guiding questions
Guiding questions are great to do on the fly when talking to students who are stuck. I sometimes incorporate them into worksheets and graphic organizers as well. For example, when we write short stories, the possibilities are endless! Some students write horrors while others write romances. Some stories start and end in a page while others go one for twenty. It’s difficult to structure an assignment with so many variations, so I use a lot of guiding questions that students can pick and choose from. When they work on character development, I provide a bunch of questions students can think about to get to know their characters better.
Guiding questions do just that–they guide. They give students’ thoughts a jumping off point, and once their mind gets going, they often find their direction.
Providing goals is another great scaffold because it keeps those struggling on track, while pushing those who are more advanced. What do I mean by “goals?” I mean targets to aim for other than simply what students will be graded on.
For example, when we read Elizabeth Acevedo, I encourage students to think about rhythm while they write. When we study the poetry of Kwame Alexander, we talk about rhyme and I encourage students to use it. When we write odes, I tell students they have to include at least three examples of figurative language. When students get stuck, I just point to the extra goals I’ve given them. How can you create more rhythm? What can you tweak to fit in an internal rhyme? What figurative language techniques haven’t you used? Knowing where and how to push themselves helps students to stay on track.
What other tips and tricks do you use in your creative writing classes? This is a pretty new endeavor for me, so the learning curve has been massive! I would love to hear some other methods you use in your classroom. Comment below!