"The real trick to life is not to be in the know, but to be in the mystery."
-Fred Alan Wolf

15 August 2016


[T]here is danger is in accepting "lockstep instruction" as a replacement for creative writing in the classroom. With too many formulas, we lose a major piece of what fosters good writing and, as a result, innovative thinking. Through my work with students and teachers at 826 Valencia, a San Francisco-based nonprofit tutoring and writing center, I have seen firsthand that creativity is a direct and necessary precedent to analytical writing.

Started by an author, Dave Eggers, and a teacher, Nínive Calegari, 826 Valencia helps students gain skills and confidence by providing one-on-one tutor support and publishing their finished work. Strong proponents of analytical writing instruction might shudder at the sound of most of what we publish: personal narratives, memoirs, stories, and poems rooted in the students' realities. But these are the important building blocks for critical thinking, not the soft anti-essays that those craving a return to 1950s grammar drills oppose.

Only when students know that their voices will be heard can they truly make an argument of their own. This crucial understanding cannot happen with a curriculum built solely on formulas and recipes for linking words and sentence structures. Reluctant writers, like many students in schools such as New Dorp or Downtown, may not engage readily with the text they are reading. The assignment to analyze it looms dauntingly in front of them. But when they can first identify a theme and then write about how that theme connects to their own lives, they can start to enter the world of the text and a more critical discussion of it.

Celebrating personal connections and self-expression alone does not make for successful writers. The tutors at 826 Valencia push students not only to relate what they are learning to their own lives, but to use these links to create the highest quality of work. What students can learn through rigorous creative writing instruction is that writing is a process -- that hard work and attention to detail, not magic, help one complete the piece.

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