I had the opportunity to teach a lesson this week on Edgar Allen Poe's, The Tell-Tale Heart in our Inclusion Reading class. Our students, for the most part, are below grade level in their reading and bore easily, especially when the reading is filled with difficult vocabulary (or is more than a page in length and doesn't involve other teenagers doing teenage activities). I found two versions of the story on audible.com which I thought might hold their attention through the end. One version, read by Gary Zupkas and K. Anderson Yancy was only fifteen minutes, very dramatically-read and was the exact story which was in our Reading text. The other featured an old classic radio show with Boris Karloff reading an adaptation of the story and was a bit longer, but which gave a prequel to the story and gave more information behind the ghastly deed.
We started with a vocabulary exercise during which the students were in groups, selected four words from the story and guessed the meanings based on breaking the words down into roots and prefixes/suffixes and by word associations. After that, we listened to the short version and read along in our texts. I was happy to note the kids did an excellent job of attending.
The next day, I talked with them about the difference between adapting a literary work and plagiarizing, something we continue to work on in this class. There was no text to read along, but aside from a few disruptions (cell phone going off and locating its owner), the students hung in there until the end.
I got a bit of grumbling when I announced the writing part of the lesson would be having them write a prequel of their own for the original story we had read on the first day. They had about fifteen minutes to begin a story to be finished during the next class. Several questions arose about beginning the activity, but the main one that has stuck with me was, "Can we use our imagination?" It makes me wonder why the question would even occur to a student to ask.
Are we denying students the chance to use their imaginations at school? I don't think so, but then we do ask them to write quite a bit in the non-fiction category. Essays, such as analyzing part of books read, call more on opinion about a topic using critical thinking skills but not really "making something up."
Thinking back on the years that I've worked with eighth grade in the Resource capacity or in the Inclusion setting (I'm the added special ed teacher assisting my students in a regular classroom setting now), we really don't spend a lot of time writing from our imaginations. I don't blame the teachers; it just seems that the curriculum itself doesn't leave much room for this.
In order to become a good writer, one must continuously write. This is true for non-fiction writing as well as fiction. The imagination, left unused, will dry up and be blown into a corner of the mind, dark and forgotten. As educators, we need to nurture this imagination in all of our classes, not just in a writing class.
Maybe instead of writing about just an opinion of why a historical figure in a novel did what he/she did, we could ask the students to write as if they were the heroine/hero and to write about how their feelings were affected by the situations. Even after asking the students to put themselves in the role of the murderer in their prequels, I still had at least one student writing in third person. I am happy to note that the majority of papers so far are intriguing and mostly original.
For the past several years, I've sponsored craft clubs at our school. I feel compelled to add another next year, even if it's held after school to fit it in. It's too late this year to start a Creative Writing Club, but next year this, hopefully, will be possible. With the angst students in middle school seem to suffer on a daily basis, creative writing would serve as a channel for all the drama in their lives and help them with their changing self-identities. One hour a week (at least) to take time to pour their souls into writing could have only positive effects on a school's atmosphere. Too little imagination in our students prevents them from focusing on what the world could be rather than just what it is.