(Alexandra Cohl is an academic and creative writer who is currently an MA English Literature candidate at The City College of New York. She is also a writing instructor to writers ages 6-18 and professional development program leader for in-school teachers at Writopia Lab, a national literacy nonprofit. Her fiction can be read in Luna Luna Magazine.)
“You mean we can write about anything we want?” It never gets old seeing those incredulous faces of blossoming writers when I tell them they are going to create their own stories over the course of one semester. I am in my third year of teaching creative writing in a third grade classroom at a NYC public school with Writopia Lab’s student-driven methodology and uncensored approach. This year, I keep going back to the fall semester and the memory of Amar,* a student who was most excited by this sentiment. But at first he was hindered by it.
On the first day, I worked with each student, ensuring that each had a clear idea for a character and opening scene. When I approached Amar, he was receptive but apprehensive. In his high-pitched, soft, yet expressive voice, he said, “I just…don’t know. I don’t have anything to write about.” I could tell this wasn’t due to disinterest. So, I started asking him questions about himself and stories he liked. He then told me about his parents, how he practiced Islam, and which TV shows he watched. When I finally prompted him with “Who is your character?” he settled on a 21-year-old man, named Anthony*, who was of Iraqi descent. Anthony wanted to find a home for himself and his parents, who were still in Iraq.
I felt we made progress. But, the same thing happened the following session. After Amar said he understood what to add next, I noticed him scraping his pencil on his paper. He only had down the one line we talked about. Instead of becoming caught up in why he wasn’t able to take the direction, I refocused on the following questions: Why wouldn’t Amar write down what we had talked about? How could he understand plot structure but not know how to progress his own character’s story? What was stopping him?
The next session, he was unsurprisingly stumped, and I resolved to figure it out. The questions began. He shared more about Anthony and suggested, “Maybe he is running from the police because they think he is a part of the Iraqi army, and he lives in the sewers.” I stopped him. That was it. When I told him to start writing it down, he was confused. He stretched his arms over his face and declared with a half-smile, “I can’t write that.”
When I asked him “Why?” he couldn’t give me a clear answer. I realized then he was genuinely at a loss for what he could write about. It seemed he had learned only certain ideas were “appropriate” or “good.” I assured him he absolutely could write this idea. I continually challenged him to write any idea that popped into his head no matter how serious, silly, or scary. He wasn’t allowed to self-edit but could brainstorm in any form.
It’s funny. When I work with in-school teachers in Writopia Lab’s professional development courses, they have expressed frustration and dismay at their students’ unoriginal ideas and hesitance. Yet, when it’s their turn to write, they have a similar reaction as the third graders. Permission to write about anything is both daunting and exciting; some adult writers handle the freedom more easily, whereas some need a bit more direction and encouragement like Amar. As teachers, we need to remember what it is like to be in our students’ shoes as they hone their writing skills. It is equally important to recognize what we may do as teachers or instructors that could inadvertently silence creativity and imagination.
When Amar no longer felt inhibited, something amazing happened. He created a story, titled “An Immigrant in New York,” that reflected on racial and religious prejudice in America and its upsetting effects, all at eight years old. He also unknowingly alluded to and used similar symbolism as Richard Wright in his novella The Man Who Lived Underground. In fact, Amar’s wacky and unrealistic elements helped illuminate this complex topic in a new way and showcased his newfound understanding of wins and losses, figurative language, and dialogue.
In the end, a “plastic doctor” changes Anthony’s face to Spongebob Squarepants’, ultimately showing how Anthony felt it to be his only option in escaping prejudice. While reading from his piece, Amar was joyous, and it seemed he had been able to release some thoughts on how the media represents his faith. Rather than telling students certain ideas don’t connect or may be too mature, let’s challenge them to prove to us how they can maneuver them. That way, they will feel like any idea is possible, and they will then know how to execute them with tact.
*Names have been changed.