Recently I had short post on the iTDi Blog about how and why I use literature in a language classroom. Like most of what I write about lately, the post focused on reading activities. While a good chunk of my classroom time is spent around having students read and interpret texts, I do try and do a fair amount of writing exercises in my class as well. But not without some mixed feelings. My students are pretty low level, and when they do write a creative text, their sentences are often riddled with errors. My friend and mentor John Fanselow has told me, more than once, that if my students are producing writing with an error in each and every sentence, then I’m probably asking them to do something they're not ready to do. Which puts me in a pretty difficult position when it comes to creative writing activities. Anything I ask them to do which allows for a modicum of freedom is often going to result in students trying to produce a text which is beyond their current level.
So the question is one of how I can give students the freedom to produce original texts, and at the same time provide the support they need to write sentences which model the type of language I'm hoping they can produce on their own. Recently, after reading a brilliant post over on Creativities, I decided to have my students play with 6 word memoirs. 6 word memoirs are similar to a haiku in many ways. As a genre form, they can allow students to focus on what they want to get across, without having to think much about grammar. And the memoirs they produce don’t have grammatical errors, because in a very real sense, the sentences they write are degrammaticalized. Here’s a sentence produced by one of my students in class the other day:
“Life unusual, all friends in Australia”
The student was pretty happy with his sentence. Actually, most of the students seemed to enjoy the activity and without any urging from me, they began to share their 6 word memoirs with each other. Y-Chan’s “Loves her body more than her,” was particularly popular. Partly, I think, because R-chan often shares stories about her boyfriend with her friends during class. In Japanese. When she is supposed to be doing just about anything other than sharing those stories.
I had planned to just have students spend about five minutes producing a 6 word memoir, but the students were keen and I wondered what they could do with the memoirs if pushed a bit, so I asked them to grammaticalize the memoirs. Here’s an example of what happened:
“Only old books, very very loved”
“I have many books, but I only love my old old book.”
In general, students produced a sentence without any glaring errors. The two-step process of producing a sentence in which they only had to focus on content, and then fleshing out the sentence with grammar seemed to provide the kind of support they needed to bring their grammar knowledge actively into play. So I had all of the students write up their original 6 word memoirs on the board and then had them each pick one memoir they liked that was written by another student and grammaticalize it. Once again, students produced pretty well constructed sentences. One my favorites was the following conversion from 6 word memoir to complete sentence:
“Young in junior high school, return.”
“I was too young in junior high school and had to return to third grade again.”
At this point I could have stopped the activity and maybe I should have. Students had created short texts focused on personal expression, had striven to produce a grammatically accurate sentence, and had even engaged in interpretation of another student’s creative work. But the students were having a good time, and as I watched the students compare each of their grammaticalized sentences, I decided to take it one step further. I asked the students go up to the white board and write their interpreted grammaticalized sentences under the original 6 word memoir. Then I asked them to pick a new set of 6 word memoir/grammaticalized sentence and write a short short story (3 to 4 sentences long) which expanded on what was written on the board.
When I do a creative writing activity, I set up my teacher’s desk in the back of the room as an “advice corner.” This is mostly to keep me from meddling as my students are working on their first drafts. When I see students struggling to produce, I get all itchy. This sometimes leads me to making suggestions, and more often than not, those suggestions knock students right off the path of creativity into a thicket of my own expectations. So I set up my desk in the back of the room and try to get out of the way. If students want some help with vocabulary or grammar, they come to me and everyone ends up less frustrated.
As students wrote and came back for suggestions, I noticed that the language they were producing for the expanded story had, like most of their creative writing tasks, an error or two each sentence. But the students were working with, and enjoying working with, the language. I know this for a fact, because when they are not enjoying an activity, R-chan will talk about her boyfriend and the other students will happily listen. But there was no boyfriend talk in class the other day. Instead, after a lot of one-on-one advice and 90 minutes of class time, students ended up turning in things like:
“Miss you but cannot meet you”
I miss you, but maybe cannot meet you because I was kidnapped. I’m sorry my darling. This is my last letter for you. I’m really loved you. Did you love me, too?
“Yesterday in bed. Tomorrow, on cloud.”
One day a girl quarreled with hers parents. That night, she cried in her bed and she was tired from crying because fell asleep. The next morning she woke up and said, “Amazing.” Because she was on a cloud.
I think I know what John is getting at when he urges me to make even my creative writing activities level appropriate. Activities that are set up in such a way that students have an opportunity to mostly use the language that is within, or just within, their grasp are probably going to promote better language learning. But I also think that, as language teachers, we need to recognize and respect that sometimes the language students want to produce is just not going to be level appropriate. Which leads me to my own 6 word memoir:
unfolding stories of mistake laden beauty