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The Educational Forum

Inviting Joy into Classroom Writing Instruction: An Exploration of the Use of Creative Writing within the Neoliberal Context of Standardization

By Writopia Lab's Danielle Sheeler, Director of Camps and Curriculum (Read Danielle's Bio)

This paper focuses on the partnership between Writopia Lab and PS 89, a K-8, Title 1 School in the Bronx, to explore concrete ways of inviting joy and play into the classroom while interacting with the embedded obstacles within our education culture.

Cultivating wholehearted teaching and learning is much like cultivating a meaningful conversation with a friend. There are three necessary elements. First is play: jokes, funny stories, witty banter, games, puns, shooting hoops, and inside jokes. Second is authenticity. Far from an exchange of pleasantries and small talk, a wholehearted conversation is full of processing worries, venting complaints, talking about scary decisions. Third is listening and giving feedback. One person recognizes what the other person is saying. Sometimes the feedback may be nodding and saying “good point!” Other times, it may be telling your close friend something they may not want to hear.

These three components are at the core of the instructional framework at Writopia Lab, a national nonprofit whose mission is to foster joy, literacy, and critical thinking in children and teens from all backgrounds through creative writing. For the past ten years, I have been teaching with Writopia Lab, running after-school workshops and in-school workshops with youth across New York City. We often refer to ourselves as a “third space”: not home, not school, rather a hybrid, ever-evolving space where youth come for both an educational and communal experience (Klein et al., 2013; Zeichner, 2010).

We are intentionally casual, working to create a salon-like environment. Our students, whom we refer to as “writers,” sit on couches, some opting to stretch out and take their shoes off. Now on Zoom, our writers are often unmuted with entertaining backgrounds on display. We make use of play, incorporating instructor-led, student-driven writing games. In the tradition of Dewey (1916), we believe that an activity-based curriculum that is responsive to the needs and wants of our writers is the best way for them to grow as writers, thinkers, and people. Thus, we gamify instruction, pairing lessons on literary concepts and grammar with on-your-feet, improvizational storytelling games. We have a host of guessing games, worldbuilding games, peer-to-peer playwriting games, and literary sports aimed at teaching narrative arc, point of view, and craft. Play has been linked to growth in both developmental learning and academic learning (Fisher et al., 2013; Weisberg et al., 2013). Not only do children learn cognitive skills, such as literacy and math through play, but also, they learn problem-solving, conflict resolution, and self-regulation skills (Danniels & Pyle, 2018Danniels, E., & Pyle, A. (2018). Defining play-based learning. Encyclopedia of Early Childhood Development (pp. 1–5). [Google Scholar]).

When we go into classrooms, whether in person or online, we collaborate with teachers to cultivate a joyful space where writers are free to play, invent, express, and share. In the 2019–2020 school year, we were asked to run an eight-week “progressive” ELA test prep at PS 89 in the East Bronx. This was our third year working with PS 89. Formerly, we had been bringing in creative writing workshops to their students in grades two to eight. PS 89 is a magical school bursting with 1,550 elementary and middle school students. The space is filled with eye-catching, galvanizing murals and dedicated, thoughtful teachers. The majority of the students are Latinx and Black (New York Department of Education, 2020New York Department of Education. (2020). [Google Scholar] ). Ralph Martinez, the principal, is an energetic, passionate education leader who is committed to giving his students the same opportunities as students in wealthier neighborhoods. He can often be found handing out Broadway show tickets to classes, speaking rapidly about the significance and beauty of theater. “Have you seen the work that our robotics team club is doing?”; “Did you see that the author of All American Boys came to speak at our last assembly?”; “Come see the 4th grade perform at the music concert today.” He is always eager to share the students’ latest achievements.

Writopia and PS 89 were a great match straight away. We are both deeply invested in both the “hard skills,” such as writing and reading, and “soft skills,” such as the ability to problem-solve and collaborate (Hendarman & Tjakraatmadja, 2012). Growth in non-cognitive skills or social and emotional learning (SEL) is linked with positive long-term outcomes, such as improved academic performance and workforce readiness (Kautz et al., 2014). Furthermore, SEL is linked to increased self-esteem, improved interpersonal relationships, and decreased risky behavior and emotional distress (Catalano et al., 2002; Durlak et al., 2011; Greenberg et al., 2003; Zins et al., 2004).

Writopia Lab and PS 89’s first year working together in the 2017–2018 school year was a success. Over the next two years, we ran multi-genre creative writing workshops in 45 classes. These young writers were writing poignant, beautiful, well-structured pieces that explored mature topics like identity, loss, injustice, friendship, and coming of age. The complex, nuanced characters that they created ranged from displaced couches in search of human company, formerly friendly zombie neighbors thrust into conflict, and a big sister tired of babysitting. The kids were on fire. Many of the writers would work on their writing pieces outside of class. As a rule, Writopia doesn’t give homework. Our goal is to cultivate intrinsic motivation and we feel that giving homework often undermines that goal. Regardless, the writers were signing onto their Google documents throughout the week adding dialogue, imagery, and backstory. They were also signing onto each other’s documents writing comments like, “Good job with this story,” and “I love this character’s reaction to his family.” Late night emails asking us, “did you read what I added to my story?” were commonplace. The investment was clear.

And the research supported our inclinations. We found that after an average of 15 hours of creative writing instruction in nine 4th grade through 8th grade classes, 97% of the students improved in at least one SEL category—Positive Identity, Self-Management, Academic Self-Efficacy, Social Skills, or Social Capital—that is directly tied to long-term positive outcomes, such as college readiness and career success (Hello Insight, n.d).

Not only were the writers crafting beautiful prose, but they were also sharing parts of their inner world and daily experiences. When reading their work, whether they are talking about a french fry that wants a friend or a boy who wants to find his long-lost father, I am often struck by the sentiment that all art is self-portrait. We see who they are in their stories: the topics that are on their minds, the events that they are looking forward to, and things that they dread.

One day in the fall of 2019, my co-instructor and I were playing a storytelling game with a group of fourth graders. We were discussing main characters and the obstacles we put them through. The students had been writing short stories for the past few weeks and we were jumping into the concept of “raising the stakes.” We brainstormed a group character. They decided our character was to be a giraffe named Neptune who was always worried and wanted everything to be safe. Together we imagined a hypothetical: Neptune lost the keys to his mailbox. What will happen to Neptune if he can’t access his mail?

The kids were calling out, eager, giggling, climbing out of their seats to give the next idea of what would happen to Neptune if he does not open his mailbox. Iyman shouted, “his winning lottery ticket is in there and now he won’t win a million dollars.” Roxanna offered, “He won’t see a birthday invitation to Chuck E. Cheese from his best alligator friend and if he doesn’t get it, she’ll think he doesn’t want to go and then they won’t be friends anymore.” Justin said, “he won’t be able to get his food stamps and his family will go hungry.”

Justin may or may not have been expressing a real concern of his. At PS 89, approximately 80% percent of the students qualify for free lunch (New York Department of Education, 2020). To qualify for free lunch, a family must have an income of up to 130% of the New York City poverty line, which is an annual income of $32,630 for a family of four. Whether or not Justin was struggling with food insecurity, this open-ended story-building game gave him, and the other writers, a chance to draw from what they saw around them. Playfully crafting a fictional story invites them to share their hopes and fears. Fiction is a much-needed vehicle of self-expression; students often explore the adversity they are facing in their stories. Indeed, over two-thirds of children reported experiencing at least one traumatic event before the age of 16 (Copeland et al., 2007). Expressive writing is a therapeutic activity linked to improved health outcomes, such as reduced stress levels and fewer health care visits (Pennebaker, 2018). Creative writing workshops give young writers the opportunity to process their experiences and share them in a safe environment.

While the PS 89 teachers and Writopia instructors were seeing SEL growth and an increased love for writing, the writers’ test scores were not going up. In the 2017-18 school year, only 31% of the students at PS 89 were proficient in math and 34% were proficient in ELA, far below the NYC city average of 43% in math and 47% in ELA (New York Department of Education, 2020). The test scores remained relatively the same the following school year. Research showing that high test scores lead to long-term positive outcomes is thin; nonetheless, high test scores do open doors for children. For example, a high ELA test score in the 4th grade and 8th grade is a deciding factor in admission to selective middle school and high schools, which in turn places a student on a solid trajectory to gain college admission. In order to ensure our students get into college and complete it, we need to level the playing field regarding test prep access while also insisting that they receive the SEL support that they need to do so. Only 11% of low-income youth, compared to 58% of high-income youth, across the country earn a bachelor’s degree within six years of graduating from high school (Cahalan et al., 2019). The goal of our initiative with PS 89 was to prepare these writers for academic advancement, while cultivating SEL growth through creative writing.

The leadership team for this initiative, including school administrators, teachers, and Writopia curriculum designers and instructors, met to discuss how we could retain the heart of the creative writing workshop while integrating test prep insights and strategies. We drew from our past experiences. Four years ago, we began our partnerships with the Exam School Partnership Initiative: City Smart Scholars, an organization that provides support for academically advanced students from low-income and racially isolated neighborhoods in hopes of helping them into elite NYC exam schools, such as Stuyvesant, Bronx Science, Brooklyn Tech, and Hunter College High School. They find writers who score high on the state exams and offer enrichment to not only help these children gain admission, but also to give them the SEL skills and creative arts exposure that they need to thrive in these environments. Andy McCord, the founder of ESPI, and I often refer to Writopia’s test prep as “subliminal” because we teach test-taking strategies in disguise. What felt like a fun, even lighthearted, storytelling game for the young writers also served to help them use more analytical verbs in their short responses on the exams.

Back at PS 89, we worked diligently to expand this ELA preparation aimed to bridge the gap between creative writing and essay writing in the classroom. How could we keep play, authenticity, and workshopping at the forefront while also teaching the typical, oft-used responses and canned phrases (“for example, in the text it states”; “I know this because the author says…”)? In other words, how do we create a wholehearted curriculum that prepares the students for their upcoming standardized testing? We were wary that teaching toward the test had the potential to shift our curriculum to a more formulaic, homogenous approach where honing the ability to respond to highly specific exam questions took priority over joy and critical thinking (Respress & Lutfi, 2006). But we knew that art programs provide stimulating environments that are required for higher-order thinking (Respress & Lutfi, 2006). We would not lose sight of that promise. We set out to retain the art and add the test prep.

The irony, of course, is that because of COVID-19, the New York City ELA exam in the 2019-2020 school year was never administered. So, the question remains, apart from preparing the students for the exam, what purpose did this course serve? Did it invite as much joy into the classroom as our creative writing curriculum? What obstacles emerged in the process?

Here’s how it went.

In total, we were in 14 classes, grades 4th through 8th. (We doubled up on our 4th and 8th grade classes since they are high-stakes testing years.) We began the first day of class similarly in each grade. Instructors handed out a state of being—or complex emotional state—to each writer. Next, writers were asked to write a scene from first person where a character is feeling the emotion they were given. Why does the character feel this way? What led up to this moment? The tricky and game-like part was that the writer could not state the emotion or use any synonyms. Rather, the writer had to use imagery, sensory detail, and dialogue to paint a picture that showed how the character is feeling. For example, if a writer was given the word “proud,” they could show us how a character got a high five from Couch Alice after completing a dynamite backflip. Next, the class had to guess what emotion the character in the scene was feeling. Here is an example from a 7th grade writer:

I felt as if I had a rain cloud over my head as I walked to my classroom. I walked over to my desk and started packing up my belongings. While packing my books, I replayed the moment in my head. “Miss McFurry, I wish I didn’t have to do this but…you’re fired.” I try to hold back my tears. Putting away all my belongings reminds me of the first time I introduced myself, the first time I yelled at my students. *Sigh* I wish it didn’t have to end like this. I walked down the hallway with my box full of memories and the tears started pouring out. I felt my dark rain cloud over my head growing larger and larger…but now it had thunder.

Next, we added an analysis component specifically geared toward test prep. After everyone was done writing, they swapped their pieces with a classmate. The reader then had to write three to five sentences about the author’s claim (what is the character feeling?) and provide two pieces of supporting evidence (how do you know?). This is one writer’s response to the passage above.

The emotion in this story was sadness. I think it was sadness because in this story the author says, “I wish it didn’t have to end like this.” This shows how she is probably feeling negative. In the story, the author also says, “I walked down the hallway with my box full of memories and the tears started pouring out.” This shows that she was crying tears of sadness.

Our intention in pairing creative writing with an analysis exercise was to demystify questions that appear on yearly state exams. We postulated that if we used our writers’ pieces as the reference texts, then they would feel an added authority over their work. They’ve been writing stories for years. Now they had to reflect on a classmate’s text through a test-taking lens.

We also predicted that their confidence in their creative writing would more readily translate to their academic writing if we bridged the two endeavors. For over a decade, educators have been urging for the eradication of the dichotomy between creative writing and essay writing in the classroom (Bishop, 1993; Drew & Yost, 2009). In order to stop students from viewing essay writing as a boring endeavor forced upon them by their teachers and creative writing as fun, engaging, albeit trivial, the two must be joined. This is what we aimed to do.

Activities like the aforementioned Emotion Game worked well. However, as the weeks unfolded, as the exam neared, we spent less time on creative writing and more time on sample test questions. No matter how fun we tried to make the practice responses—we incorporated rap music and classwide debates—kids were noticeably less engaged. One of my co-instructors, Janelle Williams, reflects on this shift:

I think the biggest difference I saw was the amount of joy in the classroom decreased with test prep exercises, and it felt like writers weren’t able to find their own, unique writerly voices, which is something I think is very important to writing, reading comprehension, and building social emotional skills. I can say that writers gained a better understanding of how to respond to test questions. What they gained seemed to be more specific to helping them pass a test rather than a true understanding and love for language

We began to receive push back from our young writers. They were used to authoring their own stories, learning structure and grammar in order to execute their own ideas. We empathized with our students greatly. We knew that high-level creative writing instruction on its own provides the foundation for literacy and critical thinking success. As Writopia Lab’s founder, and Executive Director, Rebecca Wallace-Segall (2012) wrote, “…all good writing requires lucid communication. It is impossible to teach any form of writing without applying and celebrating analytic concepts and mechanical precision” (para. 7). So why bother with the seemingly formulaic aspects of writing required of standardized tests if our writers were shutting down in the process? Is a high test score more valuable than a positive association with learning and writing? Which is a stronger predictor of successful adult outcomes?

When transitioning to the hybrid curriculum, we experienced losses. We learned a lot less about our writers. They had fewer opportunities to process the conflicts around them. And maybe even most glaring, they were less likely to work on their writing outside of classroom hours. We saw a decline in intrinsic motivation and excitement to write. However, there were some wins. When we saw writers’ test scores rising on diagnostic exams, we celebrated, exhilarated to imagine more doors opening for our writers and the school.

If our writers had taken the ELA state exam in spring 2020, we and the PS 89 teachers believe their test scores may have improved. But they didn’t have the chance. External factors rendered the test prep components obsolete. Meanwhile, their love of writing, and their higher SEL capacities skills during COVID-19 were vital. Students across the country plunged into a world of remote learning requiring more self-motivation and academic self-efficacy than ever. Intrinsic motivation and love of learning, problem-solving skills and the ability to collaborate, were exceedingly more useful than supporting a text-based claim with two pieces of evidence.

As educators, we all want our students to grow up and have successful, meaningful lives, to be academically prepared to go to college, and to secure gainful employment afterward. What is the best way to get there? How do we give young people a robust joy-centered toolkit that allows them to dismantle all barriers so they may grow and thrive ultimately on their own terms?


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