If you are in the AP or IB track at school like me, room for expanding your creative side is very limited in the English curriculum mandated by College Board or the IBO. Even regular English classes have state requirements to fulfill and no time to spare. English classes have consisted mostly of discussions of books on the suggested reading lists, writing practice essays, and answering practice multiple choice questions. See a trend there? Yes, almost everything that we do seem to be directed toward preparing us for the AP exam at the end of the year (in other words, teaching to the test). Now there is nothing wrong with this. Despite the seemingly negative way I’ve phrased this method of teaching above, I have actually quite enjoyed reading and talking about the literary themes and devices that contribute a book’s themes.
However, if you take a step back and think about it, the study of literature and English is supposed to add to your appreciation of the artful way the authors transmit their message. In addition, English classes are supposed to help hone your own writing skills so you can transmit your own messages to the world in an effective and creative way. Now, effective might be achieved by all those practice essays you write for the rhetorical analysis prompt or the persuasive writing exercise, but most English classes lack a component that challenges students to think and write creatively. There is little flexibility in that the students might write according to a strict five-paragraph template — intro, body, conclusion.
Over the past summer, I found myself on YouTube watching a series of slam poetry rounds. I admired the poets’ eloquence and creativity. Their words were impactful and colorful. A few days later, I tried to write my own poetry. However, as I stared at the blank page before me, pen suspended midair, thoughts that seemed so potent and fluid in my head dried up. I could not find a way strongly enough to express what I had to say. The last time I had to write poems was fifth grade. The last time I creatively wrote for school was…oh dear, I could not recall.
This year, I had a teacher who recognized this exact issue and did something about it. She encouraged us to think outside of the myriad of literary technique terms when we analyzed characters in prose writing. She urged us to empathize with the characters on human terms. Why would the kid run away from his family? Why did the woman commit suicide? These were questions that eschewed the big abstract vague ideas about racism or idealism and focused on the practical and the real.
I want to share with you how we incorporated creativity into our English classroom. We started out with a creative piece that represents who we are. The only purpose or limitation this piece had was to present ourselves as an individual. It had to capture the essence of who we are. We did not have to worry about form or structure. It just had to convey the message and sentiment. Gradually, interspersed in our regular study of great classics like the Iliad and King Lear were invitations to illustrate a theme or write a poem responding to a chapter.
Then, one day she says, “instead of writing an essay about this work, your other option is to write a slam poem and perform it.” Slam poetry. This was my chance. She explains the whole spiel about the lack of creativity, and she encouragingly allows us to experiment without worrying about grades. And this is how our snaps and laughter ended class the next few days instead of the usual hurry to leave.
What was so great about that opportunity to write slam poetry in class? Why not do it at home as a hobby? Sure, I tried. For some, that might be perfect. As for me, I needed support in the form of instruction, tips for improvement, and company as other people attempt the same feat for the first time simultaneously. I did not really have the full initiative to take the project on my own to figure out the ropes. The argument is similar to the one made for finding a good violin teacher to start a young child off on his music career. Plus, I think the stress-free environment for creativity is a brighter spot that students will look back on among other English class memories.
So with this, I encourage you to talk to your English teacher this coming semester about doing something similar. Make your argument and share your thoughts. Let them know that they can always find ways to use the creative writing segments to complement items in the syllabus. Further, it’ll be a gift for their future and not just for the AP test looming in May but quickly forgotten.