Slice of Life: Opening Our Imagination

Last week, I spent two days working with middle school teachers on curriculum revisions. We got a lot accomplished and had some very productive discussions. But on Monday, one teacher commented about how sorry she was that she couldn’t do any creative writing anymore. This surprised me, because in my mind, creative writing and narrative writing go hand-in-hand. 

When I asked her why she felt this way, she had difficulty explaining. “It’s just not the same. We just don’t have time.” She went on to explain a project that she had done in the past, but skipped this year. In previous years, she had displayed an assortment of pictures she’d gathered from magazines. Each kid chose one that intrigued him or her, then wrote a story to go along with the picture. The finished story was shared with the class, and the students had to guess which photo inspired the story. 

This really upset me. This is exactly the kind of writing kids should be doing more of, not less! So the next morning, I rounded up a collection of post cards from art museums and clippings from magazines and newspapers. These were laid out on the table when the teachers arrived. The teacher laughed when she saw them because she knew exactly what I was thinking. 

Everyone chose a picture and wrote for ten minutes, telling the story they imagined their picture contained. We each got right to work and stayed completely engaged with our writing the entire time. In fact, I think everyone could have kept writing.

We shared, complimenting specific writing moves others had tried. The variety of techniques was impressive, considering the size of our small group.

After this, I read the CCSS narrative writing standards for grade 8. Our work touched on them all except “Provide a conclusion that follows from and reflects on the narrated experiences or events,” and that was because we had only worked for a short time. I pointed out that we now had writing that could also be used to address the language and vocabulary standards. 

My colleague still didn’t seem convinced. “This will take too long,” she said.

“This only took about 15 minutes,” I said.

“Why don’t you start class with this? You know, do it as a warm up,” another teacher suggested.

“They don’t have to finish it, it doesn’t have to become a polished piece,” added a third teacher.

Those were the words she needed to hear. The words that helped her realize that any writing time is better than no writing time. Her students could return to these pieces if they choose to, or not.

Coincidentally, Vicki Vinton had just written a lovely tribute to Maxine Greene, “a champion of the imagination and the arts in education,” on her blog To Make a Prairie. In it she, shared these wise words of Greene’s:

“Opening ourselves to encounters with the arts awakens us, prepares us for deeper living because our imagination is at work, and with imagination, a possibility of our transformation.”

I shared these words with my colleagues when we finished our writing. Everyone agreed that their imagination had been sparked in some unexpected way, and that this was an activity they would turn to again and again. The possibilities are endless.

Young Woman with Ibis, by Edgar Degas Metropolitan Museum of Art
Young Woman with Ibis, by Edgar Degas
Metropolitan Museum of Art

This is the painting I chose to write about. I want to know why this woman looks so wistful, and I want to know more about the birds by her side. Whatever the answers turn out to be, I know my life will be richer because I opened myself to these questions.

Please be sure to visit the Two Writing Teachers blog to read more Slices of Life. (This is my first attempt to post by phone. My apologies for any errors.)

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9 thoughts on “Slice of Life: Opening Our Imagination

  1. I have my bachelor’s degree in Art so this makes my heart sing. Even with that background I have felt like the teacher you described. Alas! I believe you enriched lives, teachers and their students by taking time to listen! You listened and then something that advanced her learning. Wonderful!

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  2. Thank you for posting this. As someone who works in the same capacity in my district, I’m grateful to read about how you approached, felt, and “addressed” this concern of many teachers across the U.S.

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  3. Your phone worked fine, Catherine!

    “They don’t have to finish it, it doesn’t have to become a polished piece,” added a third teacher.”

    For some reason, this sentiment really trips people up in my world. THere is so much pressure to have students produce finished, polished, publishable pieces, and yet, it is the process that really drives improvement, I think. Important post about all of the ways to incorporate and integrate creativity in the writing worlds of students.

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  4. Oh my gosh! You did this on your phone! I never would have guessed. I think creative writing should be renamed/repackaged under the CCSS. But wait, you just did it!

    AND…So wonderful to meet/be with you! This evening was a great gift I’ll cherish.

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  5. I echo the awe that you accomplished this post with your phone. WOW!! I love how you met that teacher where she was and allowed her, and the others, to experience it and problem solve! So wise!!! 🙂 Hope you’re having lots of fun this week!!

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  6. Thank you for sharing this. Even though we spoke about it, I appreciate having the chance to read about your and the teachers thoughts. You were able to make a difference, especially for one teacher.

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