Lesson Plans for a Creative Writing Course
*This page contains the complete lesson plans for a thirteen week course in creative writing which I taught for Lane Community College for 22 years, most recently spring quarter, 2002.
The longer units in this lesson plan are designed to develop specific skills in a certain order during the class. The shorter units can occur in a different order in the class than given here, according to the teacher's experience and preferences.
Some of these units are presented in more or less detail on individual pages on this website.
When you view the students' writing samples, please use the -back button- on your browser to return to your place in these lesson plans.
* Work on reading skills so that students can present their writings in the best manner. All the assignments except the first one using Haiku's are presented orally by the students before they turn them in. Therefore they need to have their assignments completed by the due date. If the teacher lets the students volunteer, it causes a better class spirit, but some students may put off finishing on time because they rely on others to volunteer. All assignments are to be typed except those written in class and as journals.
Haikus are underestimated in their challenge and value as a writing assignment. I assign only two or three. When possible, I assign them the week before spring break so the students can work on them over the vacation. Haikus are intended to convey a Clear Picture [Mental Image], a Distinct Emotion, and a 'spiritual' Insight. I don't work much on defining 'spiritual' but simply confine it to an 'aha!' or 'light goes on' experience. This assignment requires very little writing but requires much thought and focus and if done correctly, the benefits carry on to longer assignments.
Excellent sample haikus may be found in 'A Net of Fireflies' by Harold Tran Stewart. [See the section on Teaching Haikus for some sample 'classic' haikus.] As Stewart illustrates, the Japanese haikus translate better into English couplets than into the traditional haiku form of three lines of 5, 7, 5, syllables. Stewart's haikus contain the other more important elements of haikus and I use them in class to illustrate these elements and use a few more conventional haikus to teach the haiku format of three lines of 5, 7, 5, syllables.
I hand out two pages of Japanese haikus which we read and discuss in the same manner as we will later discuss student haikus. I have the students take turns reading these model haikus and discussing them in relation first to clear picture, then distinct emotion, then spiritual insight.
This discussion helps students realize what qualities a haiku should possess, which is image, emotion, and insight, and it also begins a right brain shift so students can write more creatively. Since the focus of the class is on the short story, this is the only poetry that they write, and the purpose is not actually to teach a poetry form. It is rather to learn to use image, emotion, and insight in a creative way that avoids the beginning writer's tendency to wordiness.
A discussion of students' works when read by the instructor also helps the students to begin being involved in discussions without being as self-conscious as they might be after reading their own writing. I read an 'anonymous' student haiku. Then I ask the class what the 'mental image' is. As various people comment, the writer can see how the writing is perceived. Next, we discuss the 'distinct emotion,' and then the 'insight.' Sometimes the writers may anonymously want to state the purpose that they thought that their haiku contained. When this unit is done with accuracy, tact, and consideration, the students learn how to give and take feedback, and they do not mind reading their own assignments next time. Note: creative writing classes work best when the seating is in a circle.
To read samples of student writing click here: Haikus
UNIT: BLIND/DEAF EXPERIENCE
The students spend one hour either "blind" or "deaf" in a safe situation of their choosing and then they write two typewritten pages, one narrative and one expository. The first page consists of a narrative description of their experiences and the second page consists of an explanation of what they learned from the experiment. Although the assignment covers two different modes of writing, it should be written as a single assignment. Note: This assignment should be done individually, and not as a group, because the group experience lessens its value in strengthening perceptions.
Before turning the paper in to the instructor, they read it in class. This is a good first assignment for students to read orally before the class because it requires writing skills they already possess and therefore they should feel less uneasy about how their peers may react . What does bring positive reactions from the class and one of the elements I look for when grading, is involvement with the assignment. When the writer has been involved, the class listens more intently and more actively develops their listening and discussion skills.
Teacher Focus: without making it yet a part of the students' assignments, begin to point out writing which is notable for its "sound" and clarity.
UNIT: "THREE MINUTE" WRITING CYCLES'
The first exercise causes an awareness of the existence of plot as an element of the short story, and the second exercise- with the addition of a "theme" shows how plots are shaped by a theme. [ The instructor may also wish to point out to students how plot-orientation focus draws attention away from character development.]
1) Exercise one [without a theme]:
The students sit in a circle, each having sufficient writing paper and their names on the first sheet. When the instructor says, 'Begin' they begin writing a story starting with the phrase "It was a dark and stormy night." [The teacher should instruct the class not to write about anyone in the class or in the school.] After 3 minutes, the teacher instructs them to pass the story to the person on their right/left. The next student adds to the story for 3+[?] minutes and passes it on, and so forth. The instructor keeps track of the time periods, adjusting them for the "speed" of the class but 3 ½ minutes is generally best. *The instructor joins in the writing. As the time for a conclusion draws near, the instructor announces that the next writer will begin to finish up the story and the one after that will conclude the story. (The class may be told that this will happen so that they can mentally prepare for finishing a story although they won't know which one.)
2) Exercise two [with a theme]
Previous to this exercise the instructor has asked each student to turn in 3 sayings, preferably original, on a sheet of paper. The instructor chooses 1 of the 3 sayings from each and puts one for each class member, and the instructor, on a slip of paper. When everyone has drawn their sayings from a box, the instructor says "Begin." They unfold their sayings, write them and their names at the top of their papers, and begin a story aimed at using the saying they have drawn as a theme of their story. The procedure is the same as the "without saying" cycle except the last two writers have the particular challenge of ending the story to fit and/or support the saying. *Return the stories to their originators so they can see what happened to their ideas.
These exercises are helpful in showing the function of "theme" by being absent and then present. The students then see how theme shapes the evolution of a story. Plus, the interaction between students as they guide or deflect each other's purposes, also shows the power of intent and concept on the story at any given point. Note: besides the educational value of these exercises, they build enjoyment for the class and an appreciation of each other's cleverness, or problems, in dealing with the story in the form that is handed to them.
UNIT: EXTERIOR/INTERIOR BOXES
*This assignment came from an elementary teacher. As one joins in doing the assignment, its value and strength in teaching creative writing becomes apparent. It develops inward and outward directed perceptions regarding real life people that can be transferred to the development of more realistic characters.
The assignment was done when I had the option to have an evening class, 7-10 pm. It may not be feasible to do in less than several hours, and I did not include it in my most recent classes.
The procedure is as follows:
I.) The students choose a box [usually cardboard] that 'fits' their personality. They may vary from shoe boxes and hat boxes to packing boxes. A few have made their boxes, some from plywood.
A.) On the outside of the box they place a collage of pictures and words from magazines, etc. that describes them as they think others see them.
B.) Then they cover the inside with pictures and words that describe them as they really are. **They do not need to put anything that they feel uncomfortable with or don't wish to disclose.
C.) Nowhere on the box should they put their name.
II.) They should turn the box in on the morning of the evening class. The box should be in an opaque bag with a piece of paper with the student's name on it.
III.) For the evening class arrange the boxes in the room with an identifying number on the desk which the box is on. When the students arrive for the evening class, have them all meet in a room that doesn't contain the boxes, and go over the directions with them first. Then let them into the room with the boxes. The procedure is as follows.
A.) With sufficient notebook paper, the students go from box to box writing first their assessment of the external qualities of the box maker as portrayed by the exterior of the boxes and then doing the same with the interior of the boxes. Then they are to make a guess as to whose box it is. If they change their minds, they should draw a single line through previous choices. Then when the sheets containing all the comments on their individual box are typed up and given to them, they can see which other students had similar boxes.
B.) The students should not talk to each other during the writing and if they take a break they should not stand around mutually guessing the identity of the creator of each box.
C.) If you have the time, or access to a typist, you can have all the students' individual comments combined into one group for each box number. Then at a later class the students are given the typed copies of the collected comments for their respective box numbers. They generally enjoy reading all of the comments. However please take care that if some comments are inappropriate, they should be deleted before the rest are handed out to the students.
This unit is valuable even if the students don't get the combined comments on their boxes.
UNIT: EXTENDED FABLE
This unit again focuses on conciseness in writing and it is enjoyable for the students. It builds further discussion skills and helps prepare the class for the more challenging assignments ahead.
The fable animals should generally be consistent with the nature of the creature in the fable. For instance, ants don't have 'mom and dad' families. No humans should be involved. The animals can speak. The fables should be limited to 3/4 to one page in length and should be read by the students in class.
UNIT: BULWER-LYTTON SENTENCES
This assignment helps students recognize a sense of style in writing,
which most of them have, but may not be aware of it. It focuses on four
or more story genres.
For some sample sentences, go to Bulwer-Lytton Sample Sentences
UNIT SIX SENTENCE PARAGRAPH
This little unit usually takes a full period for everyone to complete and
focuses on variety in writing.
Click here for some sample paragraphs.
UNIT: FOUR VISITORS
As mentioned earlier the focus of the course is to develop the students' writing abilities by focusing on different aspects of the short story. The purpose of this unit is to improve the students' ablility to write description. At first it may seem that beginning writers don't need to focus on description because their stories contain too much of it in proportion to the other elements of a story. Further study though, may show that instead of reducing the amount of description, students may need to more consciously control the location and quality of their descriptions.
This assignment then focuses on control in writing description.
The idea for this unit came from a humorous story that I heard on the radio: Two young men living in the South dare each other to spend until midnight in a large old deserted haunted house. One decides to do it and as he waits in an upstairs room with shrimp cooking in a pot of oil in the fireplace, he has four visitors. They come at 9, 10, 11pm and midnight respectively. Each one is scarier, larger, and more awesome than the preceding one with the description of each using the five senses.
From this story I gained the idea for the following assignment: The students should set up the story with the barest of plots... generally one paragraph explaining why they are having visitors. The description should comprise 85%-90% of the paper. The visitors can range from good to best, or, bad to worst. The writing should be controlled so that the gradations are evident. This gradation requires much more control in writing than a simple writing of four descriptions. The class should be told that this is Not a fashion commentary and also should be done with awareness not to bring a focus on anyone in the class. The assignment is generally 2+ typewritten pages.
-Points for students: they can highlight their printed out descriptions with a highlighting pen- yellow or orange on their rough draft. That way they can see how much actual description went into the paper. Also the teacher can highlight the description when grading the final draft so that the students can see what was focused on, and perhaps the reason for the grade.
Some students may find this a challenging assignment. To help them begin, the instructor might suggest that the students use 1 sheet for each of the 4 visitors. On 1 side of the paper draw circles to list the character's qualities in, remembering the 5 senses. The students should look for degrees of change and arrange the characters appropriately. *They can use metaphors and similes to express the 'inexpressible' (but not to the extreme.)
Note: as the first confident volunteers read their stories, others in the class may be motivated to spend some time improving their stories before they read them.
Unit:* One or two sentence response.
This unit is simply to lighten up the class with a fun unit. Students are given
a list of situations for which they write one or two sentence responses.
I got the idea for this unit from an article entitled 'Self-Starting Writing
Exercise Flounders' in a March 1984 copy of Media and Methods. The
author, Dick Saggio, gave fourteen situations that the students were to
respond to. A few of his situations were:
I have used some of these sentences, and used some of my own according to the classes' needs and responses. This exercise may not take up a full period, but does make a nice 'filler' at end of a long period or unit.
UNIT: VOICES IN THE DARK
The purpose of this unit is to develop skill in dialogue writing. [As a tip for new teachers. Design assignments that require or necessitate the skills which you wish the students to develop rather than just tell them to focus on a particular area. The following unit is an example of this principle.]
In this unit the writer-narrator sets up the plot situation in a beginning paragraph-not too lengthy. In this plot situation, the narrator -can not see- [either blind or blindfolded, etc.], -but can hear- two speakers, one "for" and one "against" the narrator. The dialogue should comprise 85% of the paper. The two characters discuss 'back and forth' focusing mostly on the 'blind' narrator rather than on each other. [The speaking characters may be 'developed' as well as the narrator through the dialogue.] The dialogue may have a theme.
*Incidentally the 'for and against' part of the assignment builds a tension and interest in the plot for both the reader and the listeners.
Note for the teacher: Writing dialogue is challenging and you might have an assignment where students first listen to what others say, and write down their words precisely in a dialogue journal. That way when they write dialogue, students won't project onto the character dialogue that might not be fitting. The dialogue will be more exact, precise and realistic. *Don't expect Mark Twain quality dialogue from beginning writers.
UNIT: OBFUSCATORY SENTENCES
The purpose of this short unit is to help the students recognize lack of content. As the students purposely write it, they later can better recognize it.
First write out a sentence as a sample for students, as long as possible, which appears to have meaning, but does not. Have the students analyze the sentence and discuss its meaning among themselves. [Don't make the sentence so difficult no student could equal it.] Then explain to the class that the sentence doesn't mean anything, that it is obfuscatory. Then have the students each write one of their own and have volunteers write them on the chalkboard, etc.
Students enjoy the accomplishment of writing sentences like this, and it opens their minds to another concept of writing.
To read samples of obfuscatory sentences click here: Sentences .
UNIT: CHARACTER CYCLE
Short stories are either 'plot driven' or 'character driven.' That is, some writers have preconceived plots that their characters must follow. Many mystery and science fiction authors use this technique. Other authors create the characters, and 'observe' how they act when placed in a certain situation. Each technique serves a purpose, but unless a writer is skilled, plot driven stories create shallow characters. This unit shows students how characters can drive a story, as the -story cycle unit with a theme- showed how a theme can drive a story.
The setting for this unit is similar to the story cycles. The students are told to describe a character and are given 3+ minutes to do so, and then they pass the description on to the next student, who adds to the description. This process helps everyone 'buy into' the characters. After 5-6 turns of writing on the characters, the character sheets are passed back to the first writer who sees what happened to the character. Then the class is divided into groups of 5-6 students who are told to come up with a story plot and outline using all of the characters that they have. *The story does not become plot driven because by now the students have an idea of what the character is like as a person and they know whether the character would act in a certain way or not.
After sufficient time has passed, the characters are traded with the other group/s and a new story outline is written. Then during one class period, the various plots and outlines are presented and the story lines are compared.
As an alternative unit, each student writes a 3/4 to one page description of a character outside of class. They make two copies of the character description which they turn into the instructor. The instructor keeps one copy of each for grading and gives the other ones to students at random, making sure that the original writers don't receive their characters.
Then each student takes the new character and adds two paragraphs to the description and brings two copies of their additions to the next class. One copy they give to the instructor and the other copy they keep with the original description.
Next, the teacher assigns 3-4 students to a group, with no student in the group placed with a student that has their original character. Then the groups develop a story based on how the characters would 'reasonably act' in the situation that they create. That restriction means: no insane killers, no 'mad' people to justify inexplicable, irrational actions. Likewise, there should be no inexplicable Hollywood style '24 hours to fall in love' type of stories.
This exercise generates a lot of discussion about the characters' motivations, background, tendencies, etc. which helps the students in developing characters in their subsequent assignments.
This unit is one I used for extra credit when students were gone a week for a school activity. It could be used at any time. I don't use journals often because in my opinion to be done correctly, students need feedback regularly and journals can simply 'pile up' without the attention that I feel they require.
The students divide their paper vertically with two columns. The left one is titled 'What I Saw,' and the other one, 'What I Thought about what I Saw.' Generally they write ½ a page per day. The purpose of this unit is to develop some introspection and perhaps show students some value in keeping their own journals.
UNIT: LETTER TO A GRANDCHILD
The concept for teachers is that growth in the writer is important as well as growth in writing skills. However, this growth should not be prescribed but rather built into the course so that the writers can discover themselves and the principles affecting their lives. This unit causes young people who are sometimes inward focused to see others' viewpoints. It helps them further empathize with characters in their final story and perhaps create them with more depth.
In this unit the students write a letter to a grandchild to be opened on the grandchild's 16th birthday. It is to contain a description of themselves, their goals, the "world" they live in , and advice or counsel for the future. They turn it in to me in an envelope marked 'To My Grandchild' with their name as the return address. I grade this paper generally with a light pencil grade on the envelope so that it can be erased and the letter saved for real use.
I generally grade this paper with little criticism, the primary value being in completing the assignment rather than in the grade.
UNIT: WRITING A SHORT STORY
This paper should demonstrate all the skills learned in the previous assignments: narration, plot, theme, description, dialogue, and characterization. [Note: Since I taught research writing to these students before this class, I had the students use the setting and knowledge from the paper as a base for their stories.]
Other teachers may consider therefore that if the student has written a prior research paper, the knowledge gained from the paper could be employed in the short story, since one of the main shortcomings of 'first' short stories is their lack of depth. There is a significant increase in the effectiveness of the story when it is tied to sufficient background knowledge.
Even on a professional story writing level there is need of research, and asking students to research the backgrounds of their stories might help build habits that would be useful to them later. For instance, an aquaintance, while reading a mystery romance book about the Oregon Coast remarked that the author had not done the necessary research, because: the Oregon Coast does not have violent thunder and lightning storms, the small towns do not have morgues, and they do not have sheriffs. Both of the latter functions are on the county level.
The stories, as mentioned, should contain noticeable elements of previous assignments and are 4+ pages long. Note: as this unit occurs near the end of the class, sufficient time should be allowed for the students to read their stories and have some discussion. This is an enjoyable time for everyone since all now can appreciate the qualities of writing being displayed and the effort needed to write them. I use this assignment as the 'final exam' and students should know that their short story is significant in evaluating their progress in the class.
Comments on the actual reading process: 1.) Students generally should read louder and with a little more feeling. 2.) Students draw 'name cards' for this last story. [This means that all the students' names are put into a box and someone draws the names to be read. This process insures that everyone will be ready on time, and not put this end of the class assignment off, counting on others to volunteer.] 3.) The teacher can make comments on the oral reading on each students' name card as it is drawn.
Note: One week was almost not enough time for reading the short stories for one class of thirteen which read 4+ page stories, meeting three days per week.
That's the course. When time permitted, I used supplemental writings although I have found that giving students samples of professional writers work was not as effective as students doing more of their own writing with constant feedback from other students. In every unit some student produced a sparkling gem of writing that others would consider attainable whereas the samples from Hemingway, Twain, or Faulkner, etc. might not be considered attainable. And the basic purpose for the teacher should be 'do what produces desired results' in the student.
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