Innovative Sources for Teaching Creative Writing to Adolescents with an Emphasis on the Discovery of Voice and Supporting Social Activism

Developed by Kathryn Hulings, Spring 2008

Christensen, Linda. Reading, Writing, and Rising Up. Milwaukee: Rethinking Schools, 2000.

Linda Christensen sites her impetus for writing Reading, Writing, and Rising Up in the introduction to her text. She explains: “People who lack reading and writing skills have difficulty expressing who they are. Their words are strangled and they learn to be silent. Their lack of literacy becomes internalized self-hatred” (VI). Christensen quotes a litany of the most notable proponents of literacy for all people: Frederick Douglass, Jimmy Santiago Baca, bell hooks, and James Baldwin, just to name a few, as the luminaries who inspired and support her ideologies. This text is geared toward educators interested in joining forces with the aforementioned advocates to discover innovative ways to enact social justice through reading and writing. Christensen’s range of topics is relevant and imperative. She provides fresh approaches to discovering and creating community; deconstructing myths; finding voice and honoring personal experience; challenging the limitations of Standard English; digging into the poetry of protest; examining the realm of immigration; and building equitable education for all.

Gruwell, Erin. The Freedom Writers Diary Teacher’s Guide. New York: Broadway Books, 2007.

The Freedom Writers Diary Teacher’s Guide is a welcome follow-up to Gruwell’s best selling book of 1999, The Freedom Writers Diary and its film adaptation of 2007, Freedom Writers. While the 1999 book is a compilation of Gruwell’s students’ writing, and the 2007 film is a dramatization of the events leading up to the creation of the book,The Freedom Writers Diary Teacher’s Guide shows educators how to replicate some of Gruwell’s success in their own classrooms. Gruwell has had her share of naysayers who charge her pedagogies as impractical; this book seems to be Gruwell’s academic response to prove such thinking as inaccurate. The text explains the myriad practical ways that Gruwell developed to “revitalize . . . classrooms using meaningful lessons infused with a real world context” (4). A “three-stage process,” (11) named “the engage, enlighten, and empower model” (4) leads the reader through a curriculum that is standards based and includes: lesson plans; templates for activities; rationales; and innovative assessment suggestions. The lessons can be used in conjunction with The Freedom Writers Diary, but most can stand alone. Not every lesson plan suggestion will work for every classroom, yet there is enough depth and variety (241 pages worth) to pick and choose the best ideas and practices for individual tastes and environments.

Lown, Fredic & Judith W. Steinbergh. Reading and Writing Poetry with Teenagers. Portland: J. Weston Walch Publisher, 1996.

Lown and Steinbergh, long-time Massachusetts educators and celebrated writers, have crafted a teaching text that manages to reinvigorate the teaching of poetry to adolescents. The authors have compiled a thematic guide of poetry that spans eras and topics with a keen sense of adolescent interest instead of utilizing a staid approach that privileges classic poetry as the only genre worthy of academic study. In addition to their worldly methods for the study of poetry, the authors also suggest an equitable way to evaluate the writing of poetry, based on credits for participation and a final project graded on meeting requirements in format. The thematic units given attention in this text include: Nature and the Environment; Animals Sports; Childhood, Adolescence, and Growing Up; Family and relationships; Social and Global Issues; Form and Content: Sonnets, Villanelles, and Sestinas; and Praise Poems and Odes. A sample of the featured poets include: Denise Levertov, Sylvia Plath, Emily Dickinson, Mary Oliver, Edgar Allan Poe, William Stafford, Maxine Kumin, Joy Harjo, Rita Dove, Gary Soto, Yusef Komunyakka, and Gwendolynn Brooks.

O’Connor, John S. Wordplaygrounds: Reading, Writing & Performing Poetry in the English Classroom. Urbana: NCTE, 2004.

O’Connor, an educator, musician, and poet living in Chicago, states that “I want my students to see their writing as part of their lives, not an end in itself. To do this, we must eliminate, in John Dewey’s words, ‘the gap between the child’s experience and the various forms of subject matter that make up the course of study’ (Selected 344). Poetry writing allows their experiences to be the course of study” (1). Such is the philosophy upon which O’Connor’s text is built. Educators are offered progressive lesson ideas that incorporate five main foci: playing with words; emulating professionals; experiencing revision as an adventure; creating student authored books; and diving into the performance aspect of poetry. Each of the lessons can be used as a foundation for the next, but they also work well as stand alone strategies. O’Connor divides his text into chapters which are cleverly enumerated in ways that reflect their respective contents. For example, “Avenues out the Past” includes instruction in writing poetry that incorporates memory using (just to cite a couple) Joe Brainard’s whimsical I Remember and Raymond Carver’s “Photograph of My Father in His Twenty-Second Year” as both samples and templates. Each of the other chapters are equally charming; they are made even more so by O’Connor’s inclusion of adolescent writing from his own classrooms that can just as easily, and to great effect, be used alongside the work of the masters for instructional purposes.

Singer, Jessica. Stirring Up Justice: Writing and Reading to Change the World. Portsmouth: Heinemann, 2006.

Stirring Up Justice: Writing and Reading to Change the World is the outcome of Singer’s work as an English teacher in Oregon and her participation in a new program that aimed to “implement a system of learning where students were no longer divided by earlier success or failure [and] everyone [had] a chance to receive a ‘honors’ education” (viii). Needing to formulate a curriculum that could reach students from a multitude of backgrounds all situated in the same room, Singer came upon the idea to create a “Stirring Up Justice curriculum to provide multiple perspectives for students to understand and define activism” (ix). Stirring Up Justice: Writing and Reading to Change the World is a goldmine of resources, philosophical musings, succinct lesson plans, and bibliographic entries suggesting highly applicable and relevant readings for adolescents. Singer offers only six units, but each one is meaningful. First, Singer outlines a process for collaborative writing that emphasizes reading stories of justice and then relating the themes to students’ personal experiences. Second, Singer celebrates the act of reading by listing books (ranging from Lance Armstrong’s It’s Not About the Bike to Williams’ Life in Prison) as possible texts to engage adolescent reader with societal themes while addressing diverse interests; additionally, she provides reading and writing strategies to increase comprehension and facilitate text-to-self involvement. In the remainder of the book, Singer elaborates on methods of teaching students to write essays that tell the story of an activist of their choice; reviews how to implement the songs of activists into the curriculum; and ultimately, instructs educators on how to help students devise their own projects to create social change.

Sitomer, Alan & Michael Cirelli. Hip-Hop and the Classics. Canada: Milk Mug Publishing, 2004.

Sitomer and Cirelli, who are prolific writers and experienced educators, have written a text that helps teachers, “make the academic study of poetry accessible, relevant, comprehensible and enjoyable to students in our contemporary, multicultural classrooms” (2). For educators who are intrigued by the evolution of language and how the construct of similar meanings changes over time, Hip-Hop and the Classics offers unique ways to share this literary reality with students. The authors put forward lesson that attend to form and literary elements (i.e., alliteration, allusion, irony, metaphors, and sonnets) by attaching the study of classic texts with contemporary texts. For example, to teach the concept of meaning, Sitomer and Cirelli connect Dylan Thomas’s masterpiece, “Do Not Go Gentle Into That Good Night,” to Tupac Shakur’s equally stunning work, “Me Against the World,” by “unearthing” similar meanings and interpretations that unite the two seminal pieces, and, ultimately, directing students to writing their own work with “personal meaning using introspective reflection” (39). Each chapter uses a similar format to teach to a specific technique, from, or idea.

Weiss, Jen and Scott Herndon. Brave New Voices: The Youth Speaks Guide to Teaching Spoken Word Poetry. Portsmouth: Heinemann, 2001.

Weiss, who serves as director of the YOUTH SPEAKS program in New York City, and Herndon, a YOUTH SPEAKS mentor, have compiled the best practices and lessons from several years of the YOUTH SPEAKS after-school poetry programs in Brave New Voices: the Youth Speaks Guide to Teaching Spoken Word Poetry. Weiss shares why building community with spoken word poetry is imperative: “The more teenagers I meet, “she confides, “the more I realize how many are writing, often in isolation, without even the sense that what they are writing is important” (xvi). She further explains the pedagogical approach of the text to combat and transform this situation, explaining that “through spoken word poetry, we encourage young people not only to think, but also to find the clearest path possible by which to communicate. Whatever teenagers are saying, we want to hear it” (xvii). For the educator who concurs with Weiss’s sentiments, Brave New Voices: The Youth Speaks Guide to Teaching Spoken Word Poetry, outlines a comprehensive program for the implementation of a spoken word poetry component in their classrooms. Weiss and Herndon carefully chart the journey, step-by-step, from setting up a classroom conducive to spoken word poetry; creating a literary community; investigating hip-hop origins; embracing the political power of the spoken word; and learning to revise work for the purpose of public performance. Throughout, applicable exercises (i.e., writing Howl for a New Millennium), students examples, and supporting quotes from such scholars as June Jordan and Audre Lorde, are interspersed and applied to the pedagogical rationale.

Wood, Jaime, R. Living Voices: Multicultural Poetry in the Middle School Classroom. Urbana: NCTE, 2006.

Wood’s educational roots are at Colorado State University, where she received her Masters Degree in English Education. The lessons in Living Voices: Multicultural Poetry in the Middle School Classroom revolve around chapters revolving around by three distinct writers: Nikki Giovanni; Li-Young Lee; and Pat Mora. Within each chapter, a different focus is elucidated, supported by specific writing examples from each respective author. For example, the chapter on Nikki Giovanni teaches to the idea of perspective, point-of-view, and persona, using Giovanni’s poems “Habits” and “Choices.” In addition to said lessons, Wood offers information on author background; revision exercises; samples of student generated work; grammar in context; and possible extension activities. Each successive chapter follows suit.