Letting Go: An Experiment


Please ignore my sad, disorganized bookcase.  Trust me.  I KNOW.

So, I guess I went gradeless this semester, but it was an accident.

I’m the luckiest teacher in our school because I get to be Yoda to the young-jedi-creative-writers of James Bowie High School.

Wait, let me re-write that, The luckiest teacher I am because Yoda I get to be… okay, I tried.

We have one section of Creative Writing at our school, and it’s my baby.  Don’t worry.  It’s not weird.

This semester was my third semester teaching this class, and I decided to go full-choice as an experiment.  You see, in prior semesters, my units were centered around modes of writing.  We worked on character development and dove into short stories, we focused on powerful connotation and tone and dove into spoken word poetry, we wrote personal stories that exposed our souls, shared them and became a family.  I watched as they supported each other, got to know each other, and tried to hide my excitement and shock when we could go from laughing to crying to intense work and focus.

However, the only thing missing was buy-in for every single mode of writing.  Even with choice of topic within the mode, it was inevitable that some students gravitated more intensely toward poetry, fiction, real-life writing, humor, etc.

At the beginning of the semester as I got to know my students, I asked them if they would rather our sections of writing be organized by mode or thematic topic.  Unanimously, they voted for topical organization.

Then, we brainstormed broad topics that would allow for a myriad of interpretations and modes of writing.  They came up with the following list:

  • Power
  • Turmoil
  • Control
  • Kindness
  • Grudges
  • Beauty
  • Music
  • Addiction
  • Open-mindedness
  • Fear

Within these topics, we found stimuli and mentor texts along the lines of the idea, talked, wrote, wrote, and talked.  I put together mini-lessons quite similar to those from my modes of writing approach.  What I found can be described in one sentence.

Free students result in free writing, and free writing is what will change our world.

This is along the lines of what Cornelius Minor said in the Heinemann Fellows session at NCTE: In order to have free students, we must have free teachers.

At first glance, freedom seems easy.  Of course we want to be free, who wouldn’t want to be free?!  But what I’ve learned is that freedom doesn’t mean the work, stress, and weight of it all goes away.  Actually, quite the opposite.  As a free teacher, I find myself still up at night because of the weight of it all.  If free writing will change our world, what’s the next step for me in supporting my writers in their freedom?

Here are a few of the amazing writings that resulted from this experience:

  • Students wrote about addiction, and surprised me at their jarring use of sensory imagery that described addiction from every angle.  They wrote about addiction to a substance, addiction to a person, addiction to a feeling or a conception of oneself, but they were all rooted in that visceral, physical experience of being tied to something with such fervor.  They also decided that for read-arounds, we all needed to speak in a British accent.
  • Alexis wrote about a blind person’s experience with beauty.  Here is a line from her piece:
  • Maddie has written about 20,000 words over the course of our class, and is in the process of world-building for a future novel.
  • Jerrell wrote a mega-creepy horror piece describing the relationship between a stalker and his victim through the mode of letters, social media, and other correspondence.
  • Mecca draws with everything she writes.
  • Terrianna finally worked up the courage to write her brother’s story, but more on that later.

I realized last week that my class was essentially gradeless.  Ironically, it was not a conscious decision, but simply a natural result of being so entrenched in the writing process that I forgot to grade!  There was also really no need.  This semester I’ve been in constant writing conferences, teaming up partners with strengths to match weaknesses, asking students to help me with my own writing struggles, etc.  To me, this is what an entirely engaged classroom looks like, and it also resulted in better writing.

Now, as I mentioned in my last post, all of my classes do not look like this, completely.

Here’s why letting go sometimes sounds easier than it actually is:

  • Sometimes you don’t have all the answers.
  • Sometimes things fail. (But shouldn’t we be showing our kids HOW to fail?)
  • Sometimes students have not been conditioned to invest in learning as a process rather than a way to check boxes.  (But, I mean, that HAS to change, right?!)

Sometimes images are better than words:

letting go

Creative Writing gives me grounds and hope for experimentation, and helps me to be brave and think outside the box in my other preps as well.  I hope that more time, talk, and investment in the real work of allowing students to be seen translates more intensely to my other classes in the Spring!

Have you ever happened upon a Happy Accident in your classroom?  Tell us about it in the comments!

P.S. For more about going gradeless, talk to Amy, or visit The Paper Graders’ blog!  I will be visiting in the next few days, and would love to chat about it with anyone!

Jessica Paxson teaches English IV, AP Lang, and Creative Writing in Arlington, TX.  She runs on coffee and exaggeration, and is overjoyed to be in a graduate program because that means she has access to a better library. Also, you can probably find her humming Christmas tunes over the sounds of her students’ pained groans.  They frequently describe her as “an annoyingly cheerful person who thinks all her students can change the world.”  Yep, pretty much.  


2 thoughts on “Letting Go: An Experiment

  1. Amy Rasmussen December 7, 2017 at 4:30 pm Reply

    I love this post, Jess. I hope we get to read some of your students’ writing. Your class sounds like just the place they need to be to write freely. I am still working on the gradeless part. Maybe if I try to be more like you in this creative writing class, I will get there.


  2. mrsturnerblog December 6, 2017 at 9:49 am Reply

    I love this! It sounds like an amazing class!


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