Creative Writing Workshops at the High School Level


"Most people's relationship to the process of writing is one of helplessness. First, they can't write satisfactorily or even at all. Worse yet, their efforts to improve don't seem to help. It always seems that the amount of effort and energy put into a piece of writing has no relation to the results." (Elbow 12)[1]

Quite often, students find themselves in a state of trepidation when confronted with an overwhelming amount of strictly academic writing. Thus, a creative writing workshop can offer many students a 'break' from formal style guidelines, as well as a valuable tool to sharpen their skills as an author, not only in developing voice and structure, but also in clarity of writing and general confidence when it comes down to putting words on paper.

A writing workshop at the high school level is a great way to allow students to explore the possibility of a career in writing, be it creative, professional or, otherwise. Many students flourish in the Language Arts and English curricula at an early age, and often flock to writing-oriented courses due to strong personal interest. Creative writing workshops, though not explicitly emphasized within the realm of the formal educational curriculum, can become a powerful teaching tool to help students develop and polish their writing skills and enable them to enter a university program, like a BFA, for their writing, or even get started in a career in writing.

The Ontario Curriculum calls for a variety of skill sets to develop over the course of the intermediate and senior grade levels. Among the other strands, such as Oral Communcation, Reading and Media Studies is, of course, the Writing strand which dictates the following expectations:

Curriculum Expectations

  1. Developing and Organizing Content: generate, gather and organize ideas and information to write for an intended purpose and audience
  2. Using Knowledge of Form and Style: draft and revise their writing, using a variety of literary, informational, and graphic forms and stylistic elements appropriate for the purpose and audience
  3. Applying Knowledge of Conventions: use editing, proofreading, and publishing skills and strategies, and knowledge of language conventions, to correct errors, refine expression, and present their work effectively
  4. Reflecting on Skills and Strategies: reflect on and identify their strengths as writers, areas for improvement, and the strategies they found most helpful at different stages in the writing process

The English curriculum expectations for writing in general serve as a great starting point when thinking about student writing, such as deconstructing the pre-writing process (gathering and organizing ideas) through the writing process, and into finished drafts which, as you can imagine, ideally wind up being sent in for evaluation to some authority figure, who will then grade it and hand it back. That being said, the English curriculum provides very little in terms of evaluation and assessment for the creative aspects of in creative writing, a teacher may want to take into consideration the curriculum expectations from the Arts curriculum, such as its focus on the creative process, elements and conventions, as well as its ideas with respect to critical analysis and assessment.

Creative writing can also serve as an excellent tool for reflection and assisting a student in connecting with texts covered throughout a given unit. A regular creative writing assignment affords the student the opportunity to explore the discipline of creative writing. However, as students progress, especially students going into the Academic and University Preparation stream, the focus of writing assignments are typically geared more towards 'serious', academic writing, with very little room to maneuver in non-academic ('not serious') writing, such as creative endeavours. In their book Writing Workshop, Fletcher and Portalupi plainly state: "It is cruical for students to have frequent, predictable time set aside for them to write." (Fletcher 3)[2] They come down hard on sporadic, "randomly assigned writing assignments" as ineffective with respect to teaching writing, and state that "fe of us had the chance to discover what happens when you get into a rhythm of writing regularly." (Ibid)

Having the opportunity to explore creative writing fully is an activity best suited, not to a unit, but an entire academic course with which students may explore a variety of genres, styles, voices and activities suited directly to their interest in writing. As an open elective, a writing workshop can enable students from all levels of academia to, as Peter Elbow described, 'grow' their writing, isolated from other academic commitments.

Workshop Structure

Right down to the positioning of the desks in the phyisical classroom itself, it is of dire importance that the workshop be an open, inviting place that students not only feel comfortable to write, but also allows for students to clearly share their not only with the teacher, but also with peers, as peer collaboration can be invaluable to the students' creative process.

In the video above, Laura Minnigerode from stresses the importance of the workshop as a space for writers, as opposed to those learning to write. Typically, the mechanics and functions of language are integral more towards core English Language Arts education, what Stephen King, in his book On Writing, alludes to as "tools in a toolbox". Naturally, the workshop becomes the place to apply these tools and "create something".

In the above video, Laura Turner states that often, students merely require a deadline in order to "get writing done". She gets into logistical details as well, about focusing on specific writers on specific days, and having students run off copies of their work for peer revision, as well as stating that not only should students read the work alone, but also have the work read aloud so that the review and criticism process is open. She also states the importance of including positive and negative feedback.

Fletcher and Portalupi also have a fairly straightforward and easy to understand structure for the actual courses within a writing workshop: a brief "minilesson", a large block of "writing time", followed by a "share time" of moderate length with which students can, if they choose to, share their work with the class. As outlined on pages 10-11, their "minilesson" component serves one of several categorical purposes:
  • Procedural (important information about how the workshop runs-- how to get or use materials, where to confer with a friend, etc.)
  • Writer's Process (strategies writers use to help them choose, explore, or organize a topic, cut and paste techniques for revising a piece, etc.)
  • Qualities of good writing (information to deepen students' understandings of literary techiques: use of the scene, influence of point of view, strong language, leads and endings, etc.)
  • Editing skills (information to develop their understanding of spelling, punctuation, and grammatical skills)

There are literally hundreds of differing opinions on how exactly to run a writing workshop, whether or not the expectation of the workshop is for students to wind up with a diverse portfolio or only one finished work is ultimately up to you, the workshop leader. Much like writing itself, it's difficult to give an exact recipe or prescription to explain exactly how to run a workshop. Typically, the common threads seem to be fairly clear:
  • Students must write, and in doing so, experiment with styles and genres with which to expand and improve their own writing
  • Students must review their work with others, so that they can improve their writing by having 'another set of eyes' assist them not only with revisions, but also even just to have a reason to write.

However, a writing workshop can also provide students with an environment to explore creative writing as a potential career move. A teacher can provide students with brief lessons on proofreading, manuscript format, as well as help students gain confidence not only in their writing, but also in their skills as editors.

Other than that, the format of the workshop is entirely up to you, the teacher.

Additional Web Sites with Creative Writing Lesson Resources

The English Teacher: Lesson Plans For A Creative Writing Course
The Teacher's Desk: Writing Plans
Creative Writing Prompts
Common Proofreading Symbols
Manuscript Draft Formatting Tips
Proofreading and Editing Tips

  1. ^ Elbow, Peter, Writing Without Teachers. New York: Oxford UP, 1998.
  2. ^ Fletcher, Ralph and JoAnn Portalupi,Writing Workshops: The Essential Guide. Portsmouth: Heinemann, 2001.