Rethinking “Creative” in the Common Core Era: “Let’s not tell them what to write”

In Has Common Core Lost the Plot? (posted at Anthony Cody’s Living in Dialogue), Paul Horton considers Common Core’s potential impact on literacy instruction—specifically the place for narrative fiction and creative writing:

A recent Stanford study has indicated that the number and complexity of words that a parent or guardian shares with a baby before eighteen months might partially determine the rate of a child’s acquisition of literacy in later years.

Perhaps more studies are needed to determine whether there is a similar bundled connection between exposure to narrative stories and creative writing and the development of social and emotional intelligence, empathy, tolerance, and sensitivity to the needs of others. To take things a step further, our codes of ethics, morality, and connection to the spiritual dimensions of experience have always been intertwined with our reading and writing about sacred texts, great poetry, and great literature.

Cody adds at the end of Horton’s piece:

What do you think? Should fiction and creative writing be sacrificed in schools to implement an untested Common Core Curriculum?

As well, while I remain a strong critic of CC and have posted a number of pieces explaining my concerns, Yong Zhao’s recent response to Marc Tucker captures well reasons to reject CC—but I want to focus on one point about creativity Zhao includes:

Very true, truly creative people know a lot and they have worked hard at learning it, but do they know a lot about what they are passionate about, or what the government wants them to know? Do they work hard at learning something that is personally meaningful, or do they work hard at learning something prescribed by others?

Should we be concerned about the fate of creativity under CC as Horton, Cody, and Zhao suggest?

I think that we should, but in a way that is grounded in how CC is likely to fail writing instruction (see HERE and HERE) and as an opportunity to reconsider how we use the term “creative.”

First, CC is not a unique assault on creativity; traditional practices, especially traditional writing practices, have always emphasized compliance over creativity—but I will concede that the entire standards era, including CC, has somewhat intensified how traditional practices limit creativity (especially because of the related high-stakes testing influence).

Now, let me explore creativity and its relationship to standards-based writing instruction through “The Psychological Basis for Creative Writing” by Lou LaBrant (1936).

LaBrant opens her discussion by confronting careless word usage among English teachers:

Although teachers of English should be an especially discriminating group when verbal products are concerned, unfortunately we have been as guilty as other educators in devising equivocal phrases and vague statements. We have talked about “tool writing,” “mechanics of reading,” “creative writing,” and “functional grammar.” We have suggested a knowledge as to where grammar ceases to be functional and becomes formal, although grammarians have assured us that all formal grammar is derived from speech. We have verbally separated good usage from grammar, reading skills from reading, and implied other such distinctions. “Creative writing” is probably another one of these vague inventions of our lips. (pp. 292-293)

These opening points lead to a powerful and, I fear, ignored redefining of “creative” by LaBrant related to student writing:

For in truth every new sentence is a creation, a very intricate and remarkable product. By the term “creative writing” we are, however, emphasizing the degree to which an individual has contributed his personal feeling or thinking to the sentence or paragraph. This emphasis has been necessary because too frequently the school has set up a series of directions, to this extent limiting what we may think of as the creative contribution: the teacher names the topic, determines the length of the paper, and even sometimes assigns the form. For the purposes of this paper I shall, perhaps arbitrarily, use the term “creative writing” to include only that written composition for which the writer has determined his own subject, the form in which he presents it, and the length of the product. (p. 293)

In other words, “creative” is traditionally used in writing to denote fiction or poetry compositions by students, but LaBrant argues for using the term to stress the importance of students being creative in all their writing as long as certain conditions are met: “that written composition for which the writer has determined his own subject, the form in which he presents it, and the length of the product.”

Students are being creative, then, according to LaBrant, when they are allowed their autonomy as writers, when they are given opportunities to make the sorts of decisions adult writers make instead of simply producing written text that fulfill the traditional paradigm: “the teacher names the topic, determines the length of the paper, and even sometimes assigns the form” (and during the standards era this occurs as a result of high-stakes accountability around those standards and correlating tests).

Anticipating her critics, LaBrant clarifies later in the piece:

Before continuing I should make it clear that in discussing creative writing and its basis in child need, I am not suggesting that this is the total writing program. There is no necessity for deciding that formal, carefully organized papers have no place in the high-school student’s writing; but neither is there need to conclude that the necessity for writing assigned and limited history papers precludes the possibility of creative work. In my own classes both needs are recognized. (p. 294)

That said, LaBrant offers in the following discussion why creative writing, as she defines it, remains important—a message I believe that should inform how we respond to points raised by Horton, Cody, and Zhao:

Creative writing provides an almost universally available outlet for creative energy….

Closely related to the point already made is the fact that free or creative writing has a social and a therapeutic value….

Free writing offers an ideal medium for the development of correct sentence structure, punctuation, and form….

Creative writing stimulates observation and understanding….

Creative writing also makes the pupil more conscious of values in literature. (emphasis in original omitted, pp. 294, 295, 297, 298, 299)

For LaBrant, her conception of creative writing demands more than traditional approaches from not only students, but also teachers:

The foregoing are the chief reasons I see for a program of creative writing. Such a program as here outlined is not easy to direct nor is it a thing to be accepted without careful thought. It demands a recognition of each pupil as an individual; a belief in the real force of creative, active intelligence; a willingness to accept pupil participation in the program planning. I have heard many teachers argue that, given a free hand, pupils will write very little. I can only say that has not been my observation nor my teaching experience…. (p. 299)

And with her own emphatic flair, LaBrant ends her piece: “Let’s not tell them what to write” (p. 301).

The standards era from the early 1980s and including adopting and implementing CC has eroded, if not erased, best practice in writing instruction—practices that had begun to fulfill what LaBrant envisions above. Teachers and students are currently mostly focused on raising test scores at the exclusion of creative writing; CC and the connected high-stakes tests are poised to continue that trend, not change it.

“Creative” as LaBrant defines it is important, and I believe we continue to ignore its importance as we rush to implement yet another set of standards destined to be reduced, again, to what is tested.

Reference

LaBrant, L. (1936, April). The psychological basis for creative writing. The English Journal, 25(4), 292-301.

2 comments

  1. Pingback: Rethinking “Creative” in the Common Core Era: “Let’s not tell them what to write” – @ THE CHALK FACE
  2. Dr. Judy Rowe Michaels

    Creative writing and student choice are important aspects of any effective Language Arts curriculum. As teachers and administrators, we need to remember that each individual school community is expected to develop its own curriculum as it considers how best to meet–or go beyond– the Common Core Standards.

    Several recent publications that make a case for the value of creative writing in today’s schools also explore ways to incorporate student choice and how to assess the work that results:

    Tom Romano, “Fearless Writing: Multigenre to Motivate and Inspire (Heinemann, 2013)

    Judy Rowe Michaels, “Catching Tigers in Red Weather: Imaginative Writing and Student Choice in High School” (NCTE, 2011)

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