Appreciating the Unteachable: Creative Writing in Formal Schooling

Benjamin Bloom’s eponymous taxonomy has been bastardized, oversimplified, and misunderstood for as long as it has been a staple of teaching.

My major professor for my doctoral work, Lorin Anderson, was a student of Benjamin Bloom, and Anderson has also spent a great deal of scholarship revising Bloom’s taxonomy as well as refuting the ways it is typically misused.

In the revised taxonomy, noting that seeing the taxonomy as linear and sequential is distorting, the earlier elements of “synthesis” and “evaluation” (often interpreted as evaluation being the highest) have been revised to “evaluating” and “creating,” again with the implication often being that “creating” is the highest.

I would argue that some elements of the taxonomy are more complicated but not necessarily qualitatively better, but it does seem credible to suggest that creating is an advanced act by anyone, especially a student, since it involves synthesis—the drawing together into a new whole parts that may or may not have previously been considered related.

And here we come to art, the hard-to-define product of synthesis, purpose, and expression.

Written art, fiction writing, has now been examined by neuroscience, revealing as Carl Zimmer explains:

Some regions of the brain became active only during the creative process, but not while copying, the researchers found. During the brainstorming sessions, some vision-processing regions of volunteers became active. It’s possible that they were, in effect, seeing the scenes they wanted to write.

Other regions became active when the volunteers started jotting down their stories. Dr. Lotze suspects that one of them, the hippocampus, was retrieving factual information that the volunteers could use.

One region near the front of the brain, known to be crucial for holding several pieces of information in mind at once, became active as well. Juggling several characters and plot lines may put special demands on it.

For teachers, especially English/ELA teachers or all teachers who teach their students to write, this study, although limited, should help push them away from traditional template and prompted writing assignments and toward a redefinition of “creative writing” that Lou LaBrant called for in her 1936 piece, “The Psychological Basis for Creative Writing.”

Consider these excerpts from LaBrant, urging teachers to foster authentic, and thus creative, writing by students:

Although teachers of English should be an especially discriminating group when verbal products are concerned, unfortunately we have been as guilty as other educators in devising equivocal phrases and vague statements. We have talked about “tool writing,” “mechanics of reading,” “creative writing,” and “functional grammar.” We have suggested a knowledge as to where grammar ceases to be functional and becomes formal, although grammarians have assured us that all formal grammar is derived from speech. We have verbally separated good usage from grammar, reading skills from reading, and implied other such distinctions. “Creative writing” is probably another one of these vague inventions of our lips. (pp. 292-293)

For in truth every new sentence is a creation, a very intricate and remarkable product. By the term “creative writing” we are, however, emphasizing the degree to which an individual has contributed his personal feeling or thinking to the sentence or paragraph. This emphasis has been necessary because too frequently the school has set up a series of directions, to this extent limiting what we may think of as the creative contribution: the teacher names the topic, determines the length of the paper, and even sometimes assigns the form. For the purposes of this paper I shall, perhaps arbitrarily, use the term “creative writing” to include only that written composition for which the writer has determined his own subject, the form in which he presents it, and the length of the product [emphasis added]. (p. 293)

Before continuing I should make it clear that in discussing creative writing and its basis in child need, I am not suggesting that this is the total writing program. There is no necessity for deciding that formal, carefully organized papers have no place in the high-school student’s writing; but neither is there need to conclude that the necessity for writing assigned and limited history papers precludes the possibility of creative work. In my own classes both needs are recognized. (p. 294)

The foregoing are the chief reasons I see for a program of creative writing. Such a program as here outlined is not easy to direct nor is it a thing to be accepted without careful thought. It demands a recognition of each pupil as an individual; a belief in the real force of creative, active intelligence; a willingness to accept pupil participation in the program planning. I have heard many teachers argue that, given a free hand, pupils will write very little. I can only say that has not been my observation nor my teaching experience…. (p. 299)

Let’s not tell them what to write. (p. 301)

Somewhat tongue-in-cheek, Kurt Vonnegut declared in “Teaching the Unteachable”: “You can’t teach people to write well. Writing well is something God lets you do or declines to let you do.”

Of course, Vonnegut was speaking about fiction writing, and although we may disagree with him about his broad claim that it is unteachable, his implication remains important: Teaching creative writing is extremely complex because creative writing itself is extremely complex.

But let’s also acknowledge that having students write creatively (“that written composition for which the writer has determined his own subject, the form in which he presents it, and the length of the product”) must not be reserved for gifted students only, but something every student deserves to explore.

Redefining creative writing in school (rejecting template and prompted essays) and inviting all students to write creatively raise expectations while also insuring equity.


6 thoughts on “Appreciating the Unteachable: Creative Writing in Formal Schooling”

  1. I love that you have challenged the almighty Bloom’s taxonomy. I have always believed it to be cons-tricking, and many times just down right wrong. Having taught remedial, regular ed and gifted students in middle school, some of the most powerful pieces of writing I have ever read came from unsolicited, unstructured writings that came from the heart and soul. There is no room for soul in structured, directed writing that only follows a rubric.
    Susan Houser

  2. I taught Creative Writing to students of all intellectual abilities grades 10-12. Though there was a structure to the skills I presented, topic choices were their own. I enjoyed reading their writing because they “spoke” in individual voices and avoiding “teacher-pleasing” content.

  3. I wish that as a high school English teacher I had done more of this. Generally, I had all students write a bit poetry, but never gave them full control. I was all about reading and analyzing literature, and of course, this is fine and good and sometimes great. But in 1995, the first year I taught full time after finishing my MA at Furman, we lost 3 kids in a terrible accident and had three more hospitalized for the remainder of the year. At the advice of a grief specialist, I took several days to allow/encourage students to write freely about life and loss and mortality. I was stunned by the depth and beauty of their work, especially one poem – I still have it somewhere – by a generally weak student in my “basic” class. He was a child of color who never mastered standard grammar. But he gave me permission to read the poem he had written (It was by far the most powerful piece from all of my classes) and at the end, after a stunned and respectful silence, his classmates burst into applause (and many into tears) – I mean, it was a serious Dead Poets moment. I even remember a simile from the poem: “Life seems a lot like the ocean. The deeper you go, the darker it gets.”
    Yes, we should spend more time encouraging all of our students to write freely.

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