Some fiction and memoir programs are a waste of classroom time. Others sharpen students' thinking and provide them with unmatched insight. Good teachers know the difference.
"I'm not sure if eight-year-olds should be permitted to have death or murder references in their short stories," said a New York City public school principal to me at the end of the day today. "But I'll set a meeting with my teachers tomorrow to discuss your views and theirs and see where we get."
Three hours later, I am still moved and humbled by the principal's thoughtful consideration of a topic so new and strange to her. We had just started a residency in her school. We had discussed a no-censorship approach for this workshop and the children had immediately come to life when they were told they could write a fictional story about anything they wanted.
But by week two, some of the teachers were concerned to see the heavy material that emerged, here and there, throughout the grade, from the special ed class to the "gifted and talented." Human beings young and old love exploring dark, fantastical themes. But what are we supposed to think when our youngest members do it? When should our admiration turn to worry, and when does it become a school's responsibility?
It is not easy to teach creative writing within the confinement of school. It is not easy to tackle the issues that arise, and it's not easy to learn how to teach fiction and memoir writing well. But it is possible. And many teachers are doing it, and doing it well, across the country.
David Coleman, the cynical architect of the new curriculum that will be imposed on public schools in 46 states over the next two years, is trying to reverse an education trend "that favors self-expression and emotion over lucid communication." But skilled teachers of creative genres have always known that all good writing requires lucid communication. It is impossible to teach any form of writing without applying and celebrating analytic concepts and mechanical precision.
If young people are not learning to write while exploring personal narratives and short fiction, it is because we as educators need more training -- or the specifics of the curriculum need development. It is not because those forms of writing in themselves are of no use.
Where will we be if we graduate a generation of young people who can write an academic paper on the Civil War but have no power to convey the human experience?
There's a reason fiction and narrative nonfiction outsell all other genres in the U.S. It's the same reason there are 56 million WordPress blogs and 76 million Tumblrs. Human beings yearn to share, reflect, and understand one another, and they use these reflections to improve the state of things, both personal and public. If we want our students to have this kind of impact, we have to teach them to express themselves with both precision and passion.
My own non-profit partners with schools on serious fiction and memoir writing programs. We know it is possible to implement high-level creative writing instruction for young people because our students win more Scholastic Writing Awards each year than any other group of children and teens in the nation. Not all creative writing curricula are created equal, and we stay true to our vision as we help eight-year-olds learn to write compelling, coherent short stories with creative transitions, character wants, obstacles, climax, dialogue, and resolve.
In our work, we're reminded again and again that fiction writing is as important as any other genre for children and teens as they learn to write. It not only provides them with a safe space to make sense of the human dynamics around them, but it teaches them writing at the highest level, going beyond lucidity into the realm of literary tension, and then further into humor, narrative complexity, abstraction, and metaphor.
Our writers put arguments forth, embedded within well-organized, linear narratives in various voices. The themes of their fiction then inspire the deepest of dialogues in the classroom, spur debates about race and class assumptions and other social issues, and invite empathy. As we like to say at Writopia, plot builds character. This type of dynamic discourse helps our students grow as people and thinkers -- and of course, as writers.
And, on top of it all, it's engaging. When we work with students on creative pieces, they become riveted by their stories before the end of the first lesson. Children with class-based literacy issues love trying their hand at fiction; elite children of famous authors love it as well. Students across America should write fiction before anything else, and they should continue to work on it side-by-side with academic writing. They should be given creative assignments as a reward for writing a fabulous research paper.