Big Time Magic: Creative Writing Pedagogy in the Accelerated Learning Program Classroom
Quick: what is your favorite course to teach? Chances are, this isn’t a particularly difficult question for most teachers to answer. If you’re like many teachers, the subjects you’re most passionate about are those that tip your meter from enthusiasm to happiness.
For many MFA degree holders moored in composition positions, this class is our only creative writing section: the fun, talented, slightly unruly kid you prefer to your less brilliant kids with only a pang of guilt. . Since the course is universally optional at community colleges, there is the added benefit that students want to be in creative writing. They choose to be there. When I first heard the term “concurrent remediation”, it sounded like something that is done for you, like a painful spinal adjustment. Billy, stay still so we don’t have to hold you up for your co-requisite remediation. What it doesn’t look like is anyone’s favorite class, teacher, or student.
When my dean approached me about creating a pilot course in developmental writing, I wanted to move away from the deficit-based correction workbook structure and create a more engaged and inclusive experience for learners. Like many community colleges, we were streamlining our development offerings and were very excited about the Community College of Baltimore County (CCBC) Accelerated Learning Programs (ALP) research. I had the great benefit of attending a pre-conference workshop at the Conference on Accelerating Developmental Education (CADE) with Dr. Peter Adams the summer before teaching my first developmental writing section . The topic was non-cognitive issues, something I thought I had a good understanding of, as I am a believer in both relationship-based and compassionate pedagogies. Such strategies rely on our capacities as educators to bear witness to traumas, large and small; we asked the students for their stories, and we can’t let them want an empathetic ear. What is the creation of an art if not a balm for the soul? Non-cognitive issues for developmental writers take on a whole new dimension when immersed in the ALP philosophy, which strives to both eliminate developmental stigma and give students more agency. Listening to Dr. Adams talk about perseverance, self-efficacy, emotional health, teamwork, community, and responsibility, something about the way he characterized the “cohort effect” began to sound familiar (Adams, 2015). The end of the semester is a writing party! The students, even the most introverted ones, weave real bonds of friendship with their classmates. That’s what any professor who leads a creative writing workshop hopes for by the end of the semester. If these phenomena occur frequently in a course like creative writing, why not in my other courses? More importantly, what is really so different about this environment? Students? Maybe my approach to the subject could use a little more magic and a little less spine adjustment.
Enthusiasm for your subject does not make a pedagogy; therefore, the scaffolding of assignments and the structure of the cohort itself in any related accelerated development course is essential. We decided on a student ratio of 14 to 10, with the 10 developing writers meeting directly after the credited composition section. In addition to forming strong bonds as a small group, the cohort effect is also based on the idea that exposure to college-level writers as peers in the composition section allows developing writers “d ‘access role models who are stronger, more savvy writers on ‘getting a college education.’ (Adams and McKusick, 2014, p.18) We talk a lot about the cult of influence in creative writing, in which emerging poets and fiction writers examine and analyze the craft elements of writers they admire and aspire to model. A student in a writing workshop with a single, beautiful simile might be seated next to the one who produced a snap of a snap. Instead of “I can’t do this,” the student with the clunker asks, “How? ‘Or’ What Did you do that?” Luckily, writers of all persuasions like to talk about process.
After the burst of inspiration that I experienced at CADE, I went in search of an additional text. Let me tell you, it’s a confusing world for those of us who aren’t experts in developmental learning or training. What I really wanted for the pilot class was something like a common reading selection. Libraries, reading groups, and First Year Experience (FYE) programs everywhere are having great success with titles that seem like non-required reading for students. Choose an interesting book and let it be the basis for everything from class discussion to minor assignments to fun and engaging reflections. I tell my students on the first day of class that writing is about ideas. Why not assign a text to reflect this, especially a text that could also serve as an inspirational model for developmental writers? What if the big idea of the whole semester was creativity and not splicing commas?
Enter Elizabeth Gilbert great magic. This book is unabashedly clunky and belies its no-frills, kick-your-muse-off-the-couch self-help vibe with equal parts pixie dust and how-to advice. The chapter titles—Courage, Enchantment, Permission, Persistence, Confidence, and Divinity—directly touch on so many non-cognitive marks essential to ALP that it immediately felt like a perfect match for an accelerated workshop. Since I normally cheat my regular composition classes by treating the first few weeks of the storytelling unit exactly like a creative writing class, what if I continued to immerse my developing writers with topics tackling and inspiring creativity throughout the semester? ALP pedagogy tells us that students need to see the big picture, the big thing that we want them to do well. In a composition course, the important thing is to master the academic essay, and not its isolated working parts. Imagine taking a carpentry course. First, we’re going to test your carpentry skills with a wrong and unfair measurement. Looks like you have real deficits. In a small stigmatized group, work on sanding here, hammering nails there. Professor Voldemort will show you the plans for the birdhouse we want you to build only after you have mastered these tasks. Every time I’ve heard a student mumble some version of “that’s stupid,” you can bet the most direct translation is, “That makes me feel stupid.” According to reformers like the much-missed Mike Rose (2012, p. 12), a workbook approach to developmental writing breeds the kind of “deeply ingrained misbeliefs about learning that shape most remedial programs.”
An ALP course worthy of including the word “workshop” in its title may borrow some ideas from creative writing, where everyone is a beginner. Here, in the foreground and in the center, are the big, complicated shots of the poem or short story we want you to write. Make mistakes; try different tools. We’re all going to become better writers along the way. Not only can you construct this birdhouse/essay/poem, but you are also capable of creativity, humor, clarity, ethical inquiry, and yes: eloquence. One handout I still give to students—so vintage it still looks fresh from the mimeograph machine—is Kurt Vonnegut’s excellent essay “How to Write in Style,” which, like Gilbert’s book, treats writers as if they were able to do all the great things we want for them, and not the lowered expectations version. “Have pity on the reader,” advises Vonnegut. A biting way of emphasizing a concept every writer needs a reminder about: writing is for someone, received in the brain of another human: your reading audience.
What does it look like in the classroom? For me, it’s about borrowing the best activities of creative writing and applying them to another writing context: a collaborative workshop part with its laughs and its risks, a First Year internship part with its practical advice , its positive psychology confidence boosters and one-on-one attention, and another book club with the chaotic, insistent expression of ideas, opinions, thoughts, and inspirations. Gilbert has a marvelous notion about the origin of ideas: that they are a kind of magic force without a body which seeks to express itself. In great magic, she writes: “Ideas are driven by a single impulse: to be made manifest. And the only way to realize an idea in our world is to collaborate with a human partner” (Gilbert, 2015, p.35). Every semester in my developmental writing workshops, I hope the same for my students: that they are both receptive to the great magic of time ideas trying to get their attention, and ready to get the job done. enriching with creativity and rhetoric in order to inaugurate them. in the world.
Melanie Dusseau holds an MA in English Language and Literature from the University of Toledo and an MA in Creative Writing from Southern Illinois University, Carbondale. She has taught composition, literature, and creative writing full-time at Northwest State Community College since 2011. In creating the co-requisite developmental writing pilot program, the power of storytelling and creativity became guiding pedagogy, and this focus continues in both composition and ALP/developmental writing at NSCC.
Adams, P., & McKusick, D. (2014). Steps and Missteps: Redesign, Pilot, and Scale a Development Writing Program. New directions for community colleges, 167, 15-25. doi:10.1002/cc.20107
Adams, P. (2015, June). Non-cognitive issues in the accelerated class. Pre-conference workshop presented at the 7and Annual Conference on Accelerating Development Education, Costa Mesa, CA.
OnlineGilbert, E. (2015). Great Magic: A Creative Life Beyond Fear. New York, NY: Riverhead Books.
Rose, M. (2012). Back to school: why everyone deserves a second chance at education. New York, NY: The New Press.