Creative Writing was forced onto my schedule; I didn’t ask for it. But it ended up becoming my favorite class period of the day. While academic English courses can feel high-stakes and always short on time, Creative Writing can be a refreshingly relaxed elective class. In many districts with loose curriculums, Creative Writing is what you make of it. In this post, I outline six steps to show you how to teach creative writing to high school students.
Teach Creative Writing to High School Students Step #1: Decide on Your Standards or Goals
Your school or district may have a mandated syllabus or curriculum. Mine did not.
Whether you’re given student goals or have to create them, however, you must have an overall vision for what your Creative Writing class will accomplish.
Is this a laid back, engaging course designed to help students discover the fun in writing? Or is it a supplement to rigorous academics for college-bound high school students?
Once you have a general vision for your class, the next step is to nail down the standards and skills you want your students to reach. Personally, I wanted to use my Creative Writing course as a way to introduce students to great writing through mentor texts. To do this, I prioritized looking at, discussing, and analyzing writing before beginning our creative projects.
If you know your school’s student population well, I encourage you to think about their needs. Some students just need to write more–more of anything, but lots more. Some students are high achieving and ready to write their first novels! If possible, design your course around the needs and interests of the general student population in your school or district.
Regardless of how rigorous your Creative Writing course will be, deciding on these goals first will help you in backwards planning.
Teach Creative Writing to High School Students Step #2: Decide on Your Class Structure
Once you’ve decided on the end-goals for your Creative Writing class, you can use them to help create day-to-day plans.
What will your class look like? Will it be full of lots of quiet and independent work time? Will it be full of frenetic energy with students working in collaborative groups? Are students writing in notebooks or on laptops?
Of course, a successful class will most likely include a mixture of all of the above, but it’s up to you to decide on your ratio.
Again, I encourage to think about your school’s population. If you’re on ninety-minute blocks, is it realistic for students to be quietly writing that whole time? If you have high-achieving students, might they benefit from working independently at home and then getting and giving peer feedback during class time?
Use your goals to help decide on a general class structure.
When I initially began teaching Creative Writing, I just wanted to provide my students with more time to write. We began every class period with free writing. I would give them a couple of prompts to choose from each day, and then we’d write for about ten minutes.
(Those journal prompts are right here. Every day includes two prompts plus a third option of freewriting.)
Students were given the option to share part of their writing if they wanted to. Every couple of weeks I’d flip through their notebooks to make sure they were keeping up, but I only read the entries they starred for me in advance.
Later, I wanted to add some rigor to my Creative Writing class and leverage more mentor texts. I created a Poem of the Week activity for each week of the course.
This gave students the opportunity to study professional writing before using it as a mentor text for a new, original piece.
(You can read more about using these Poem of the Week activities here.)
As my goals for the class and my students change, so did the way we began class.
How can you begin your class in a way that supports the end goals or teaches the desired standards? How often will peers work together?
Teach Creative Writing to High School Students Step #3: Show Students What Quality Writing Looks Like
Have you ever tried putting a puzzle together without knowing what the image was going to look like? It would be pretty difficult! Similarly, students need lots of examples of strong writing to aspire to.
Without clear models or mentor texts, students will happily turn in unread drafts. They’ll choose the first word that comes to their mind instead of searching for a better one.
But if you surround students with great writing, highlight strong technique when discussing the writing of others, and challenge them to notice the details in their own writing, they’ll naturally become better at self-editing.
I don’t believe that you can provide students with too many mentor texts or examples of strong writing. As you teach Creative Writing, keep or take pictures of strong writing samples from students to use as examples later.
But when you don’t have examples from previous classes to use, turn to the masters. There’s nothing wrong with using Poe to show students how to craft suspense or foreshadowing. Help them get more creative with their creative writing by showing them how E. E. Cummings breaks the rules in his writing.
I wanted students to study the masters so badly, that I had them choose one author to focus on for an Author Study Project. After examining their chosen author’s style and technique, students attempted to write something original in that author’s style!
Combine Mentor Texts and Modeling
You can even use your own writing as an example. When I had students free write to creative writing prompts, I always wrote with them. Sometimes I would then put my notebook under the document camera and model reading my own work.
I would cross out words and replace them or underline phrases I thought were strong enough to keep. Model for students not just great writing, but the process of strengthening writing.
And then give them plenty of time to edit theirs. This is when having students engage in peer feedback is a game changer.
Imagine having students write freely. Then, showing them a model example, highlighting what the author did well and maybe what he or she could have improved upon. Students can then read through their own writing, editing and making it better. By the time students have swapped work and edited one another’s writing, it will be way better than the first draft.
Without great writing to aspire to, however, students easily become lazy and turn in work that is “good enough” in their eyes. Don’t let them get lazy in their writing. Keep throwing greater and greater work in front of them and challenge them to push themselves.
(This is another reason I love using Poem of the Week warm-ups–they expose students to a new writer every week!)
Teach Creative Writing to High School Students Step #4: Use Clear and Structured Expectations
While showing students excellent prose or perfect poetry should help inspire students, your writers will still need some hard parameters to follow.
Academic writing is often easier for students than creative writing. Usually, academic writing follows a structure or certain formula. The rubric dictates exactly how many quotes need to be included or how long an essay needs to be. MLA or APA formats tell students how to punctuate quotes and citations.
These rules don’t apply to creative writing. And while that’s exactly what makes creative writing awesome, it’s often overwhelming.
So do your students a favor and give them some clear expectations (without, of course, entirely dictating what they need to write about).
My Fairy Tale Retelling Project is a good example of this. For this project, students had to choose on fairy tale and then rewrite the story from the perspective of the villain. This accomplishes a few things.
First, students have limited creativity–they can pick any fairy tale they want, but they can’t write about just anything.
Secondly, students already know the story, so the don’t have to worry about a beginning, middle, and end. The open-endedness of writing a story completely from scratch has paralyzed my students before. Having them rewrite a story gives them lots of creative freedom without them being able to say “I don’t know what to write.”
The project also includes a rubric, so young writers know what should be included in their story: a basic plot similar to the original, some dialogue, properly formatted writing, etc.
Don’t give your students so much creative freedom that it paralyzes them! Your writers are still students; give them the same level of structure and organization that you would in any other class.
Teach Creative Writing to High School Students Step #4: Give Students Choices
So how do you give students frameworks, requirements, and uphold high expectations without stifling their creativity?
Give students choices. You can write about A, B, or C, as long as you meet requirements 1, 2, and 3.
Offering choices works with small one-day assignments or lessons as well as bigger, longer-term projects.
The previously mentioned Fairy Tale Retelling Project is a great example of offering a narrow selection of choices that uphold expectations without dictating what students write.
Another one of my favorite examples of offering students choices is my “Show. Don’t Tell” Mini-lesson. This lesson touches on everything students need to successfully learn creative writing.
First I teach them the concept of showing vs. telling in writing through direct instruction. I show them lots of examples of expanding a “telling sentence” into a “showing paragraph.”
Then I model for students how I would write a paragraph that shows crucial information, rather than telling it.
Lastly, I have students pick a strip of paper from a hat or a bag. Each strip of paper contains a “telling sentence” that they must then write as a “showing paragraph.” Students are limited by the sentences I provide, but they still have complete freedom over how they achieve that detailed paragraph.
If you wanted to give students even more freedom, you could let them pick their sentences or trade with a peer rather than blindly choosing.
Any time you can give students a choice, you give them permission to use their creativity and allow them to take some of the initiative in their own learning.
Teach Creative Writing to High School Students Step #6: Let Them Work with Peers
We can tell students something a hundred times, but they won’t listen until a peer says the same thing. Us educators know the value of positive peer interaction, so don’t limit it in a creative writing class!
There are a ton of ways to implement peer-interaction in a creative writing class. I often do this on the first day of class with a writing game. You’ve probably heard of it: everyone writes a sentence on a piece of paper, then everyone passes the paper and adds a sentence, and so on.
I highly encourage you to use peer feedback throughout the class. I usually start having students share their work from day one with my free “I Am” Poem Lesson so that they can start getting used to having their work read by others immediately.
Make getting feedback so routine in your room that students don’t even question it.
It’s really tempting to let students get away without sharing their work. We don’t want to make shy or anxious students uncomfortable. I mean, what better way to completely ruin creative writing for a student than to make them feel embarrassed all the time, right?
But keep trying to encourage shy students to share. Even if that you means you share it anonymously or read it aloud for them.
I recommend including some kind of peer feedback with every writing assignment, even short practice assignments, as a kind of “immersion therapy” for receiving feedback on more involved work.
After some time, you might find that your students even begin to share their work without your prompting!
I like to organize the desks in my Creative Writing class so that students are in little groups. I’ve found that at least half of my classes will begin talking and sharing with one another in their little groups while working on projects.
They’ll ask each other questions or to remind them of a word. They’ll read sentences aloud and ask if they sound right. Personally, I would much rather hear this kind of chatter in my class than have a dead silent room of boring writers!
However you decide to allow students to work together, be sure to provide the opportunity. Reading and getting feedback from peers could possibly teach students more about writing than any of your instruction (sorry!).
One of the truly great things about teaching creative writing to high school students is that there often isn’t a rigid curriculum. Of course, this is also sometimes one of the worst things about teaching creative writing to high school students!
You have total freedom over the assignments you give, the standards you teach, and how you organize and structure your classroom. After a few years of teaching Creative Writing, however, I’ve found that sticking to these six steps is a great way to have a successful semester.
If you’re excited about teaching your Creative Writing class, but are running low on prep time, check out my complete 9-week Creative Writing course! Included are two different types of warm-ups, poetry analysis activities from well-known authors, mini-lesson, projects, and more!