How to Teach 'Hamlet' the Dave Eggers Way

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At this San Francisco-based program, movement, theater, and glossy publications are all part of learning to read and write.

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Left to right: Students involved with 826 Valencia programs sign copies of their books, read a new issue of their school magazine, and workshop in the computer lab. (826 Valencia)

The results at New Dorp High School, highlighted in Peg Tyre's "The Writing Revolution," are inspiring. We can learn from the school-wide teacher training, the introduction of expository writing across all subjects, and the review of sentence-level construction. We can be optimistic as many teachers across the country adopt similar models.

But there is danger is in accepting "lockstep instruction" as a replacement for creative writing in the classroom. With too many formulas, we lose a major piece of what fosters good writing and, as a result, innovative thinking. Through my work with students and teachers at 826 Valencia, a San Francisco-based nonprofit tutoring and writing center, I have seen firsthand that creativity is a direct and necessary precedent to analytical writing.

Started by an author, Dave Eggers, and a teacher, Nínive Calegari, 826 Valencia helps students gain skills and confidence by providing one-on-one tutor support and publishing their finished work. Strong proponents of analytical writing instruction might shudder at the sound of most of what we publish: personal narratives, memoirs, stories, and poems rooted in the students' realities. But these are the important building blocks for critical thinking, not the soft anti-essays that those craving a return to 1950s grammar drills oppose.

Peg Tyre explains that "kids that come from poverty, who had weak early instruction, or who have learning difficulties" can't absorb what they need to know about good writing from loose creative assignments, or the "catch method." However, a precursor to being able to write analytically is having the confidence to express oneself, and this is where creative writing assignments become so important.

At Downtown High School, a continuation school where we have an ongoing partnership, 826 Valencia tutors work each week with students in Eunice Nuval and Robert Ayala's semester-long class called "Acting for Critical Thought." Students first work with their tutors on writing monologues and 10-minute plays. At the same time, they take acting classes with American Conservatory Theater (A.C.T.). They watch theater, learn movement, practice diction, and read texts like Hamlet.

Students who are reluctant to write even a sentence see their peers acting out their own monologues, and they hear the writing tutors from 826 and the company members from A.C.T. commenting on their most powerful lines. They connect the monologues they've written to the soliloquies they see on stage, and when they get to analyzing Hamlet and writing essays about it, they are starting from a place of deeper understanding.

In this program at Downtown High School, like many of the robust writing programs we work with, students are learning how to write analytically. But they are learning how to write completely, over time, gaining self-assurance and momentum with creative writing.

Only when students know that their voices will be heard can they truly make an argument of their own. This crucial understanding cannot happen with a curriculum built solely on formulas and recipes for linking words and sentence structures. Reluctant writers, like many students in schools such as New Dorp or Downtown, may not engage readily with the text they are reading. The assignment to analyze it looms dauntingly in front of them. But when they can first identify a theme and then write about how that theme connects to their own lives, they can start to enter the world of the text and a more critical discussion of it.

Celebrating personal connections and self-expression alone does not make for successful writers. The tutors at 826 Valencia push students not only to relate what they are learning to their own lives but to use these links to create the highest quality of work. What students can learn through rigorous creative writing instruction is that writing is a process -- that hard work and attention to detail, not magic, help one complete the piece.

What's more, an argumentative essay may or may not have an audience outside the classroom, while a creative piece can make the leap to a larger audience more easily. When 826 Valencia publishes student work, whether in a school newspaper or a nationally distributed anthology, the students producing the publication become authors. They work with editors and meet publishing deadlines, and we honor their revision process as much as their final product. When they know their words are going to be read by people they've never met, the students take themselves more seriously as writers.

To help students take ownership of their stories and voice, and to demonstrate authentically that writing is a process, we do need to keep teaching creative writing. 826 Valencia, and the eight chapters of 826 across the country, can't publish a poem, story, or narrative by every student in America. But we can encourage the respect of teachers as they guide students through the creative process.

The kinds of frameworks teachers have adopted at New Dorp High School can help. But students need support at every step. And before anything else, they need to feel connected to what they're reading, analyzing, and writing. It's through this connection that students start to feel enlivened and empowered about what they have to say, and that's when the real critical thinking can happen.

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Emilie Coulson

Emily Coulson is the director of education at 826 Valencia, an educational non-profit cofounded by writer Dave Eggers.

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