Something I Learned from Working with Young Writers

by Adrienne G. Perry

On Wednesday mornings during the school year, I get up early and head to Travis Elementary School to teach creative writing to fourth-graders. I am a WITS (Writers in the Schools) teacher and I love this job. Loving this work doesn’t make my WITS day a piece of cake, especially not at the end of the school year, when the students are ready to come out of their skins. Still, the work offers deep rewards and is unlike anything else I do. Imagine walking down a hallway, being spotted by a fourth-grade writer, and hearing them say, “Yay, WITS!” with a huge smile on their face—a welcome to warm the chambers of even the coldest writer’s heart.

From 8:30 a.m. to 3:00 p.m., I move in and out of classrooms, working with writers on simile, creating scenes, or incorporating emotion into poetry and prose. Outside of honing their creative writing skills, part of my job involves giving writing and creative expression a good name. Admittedly, this has been an easy sell for students who generally relish the chance to read, write, draw, and share stories. Some of my students at Travis can take the seed of an idea, plant it immediately, and have a bumper crop within 15 minutes. However, for most of them, and for most of us, productive writing requires considering example texts, brainstorming, and testing the concept together before trying it out on our own.

If I want to teach a lesson on nature-based advice poems, for instance, I need to take these steps: introduce the concept of an advice poem; share and discuss an example; brainstorm, alongside the students, elements of nature, as well as the advice such elements might give; work together to generate a list of associated words. If we’re going with an advice poem from a tree, we might think of terms related to trees: leaves, shade, bark, bugs, oak, maple, roots. From there, the students come up with a few lines based on our list—“always let the wind rustle your leaves,” or, “don’t be afraid to grow deep roots.” Then we share.

Once it looks like students have grasped the overall concept, they move on to repeat the steps and generate their own advice poem. When we take these steps together, confusion gets corrected along the way and students write more thoughtfully on their own. (FYI: Pandas, koalas, guinea pigs, flowers, bunnies, hamsters, koi fish, and butterflies have a lot of advice to give.)

In working with adults, I’ve found writers often feel pressured to create writing that is instantly brilliant, cogent, smooth. They sit down with the expectation that “real” writers are able to bust out a poem or story. Even if they acknowledge “it’s just a draft,” the very act of writing starts out high-stakes. Working at Travis has taught me to invest in low-stakes writing: list-making, freewriting, collage, and mind mapping, among other prewriting exercises, as a way to engage, generate material, and play. In the community-based classes and workshops I teach for adults, I’ve adapted my lessons to include more time for brainstorming. Typically, I lead the workshop through a series of prompts designed to generate ideas before asking writers to focus and freewrite.

None of the above is particularly revolutionary; I realize I’m sharing insights that writers and teachers of writing have given us for years. But common wisdom doesn’t always compensate for the disconnect between our theories and practices. Who doesn’t need, from time to time, to be reminded of a basic truth?

This coming Wednesday is my last day at Travis. This summer, I will move from Houston to start a new adventure on the East Coast. Next year, I will miss meeting a new class of fourth graders, but I take with me the thrill of watching a reluctant writer get excited about a line of poetry. I’ll take with me the pride of seeing their writing (and handwriting!) become stronger over the course of eight months. The brilliant staff at WITS, these young writers, and their teachers have taught me volumes about teaching and writing over the last two years. The importance of pre-writing and brainstorming is just one of the many insights I’ve stitched into my pockets.

Adrienne G. Perry grew up in Wyoming, earned her M.F.A. from Warren Wilson College in 2013, and is a Ph.D. candidate in Literature and Creative Writing at the University of Houston. From 2014–2016 she served as Editor of Gulf Coast: A Journal of Literature and Fine Arts.  Adrienne’s work has appeared or is forthcoming in Copper NickelBlack Warrior ReviewIndiana Review, and Ninth Letter.


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