Finding the Form and with It the Freedom: Creative Writing with ESL College Students
Sara Whitestone, USA
Sara Whitestone is a writer, photographer, and teacher. In exchange for instruction in English, her students at John Jay College in NYC introduce her to the mysteries of the world. Whitestone’s work appears in The Portland Review, Word Riot, and many others. Whitestone discovers writing through travel. To learn more about her inner and outer adventures, visit sarawhitestone.com, E-mail: firstname.lastname@example.org
Struggling with form
Not struggling with form
Finding the form through models
Playing with form
Finding creativity and self-discovery
Connecting moments to meaning
Helping with form so that our students can find freedom
He comes to me in my dreams.
It was early morning, and while I could feel the light from the window on my face and hear the birds’ chorus just outside, I kept my eyes closed, savoring that world where dream and reality mix.
He comes to me in my dreams.
Had I slipped further back into sleep? Who was it that was trying to come to me? What was that voice inside my head trying to tell me? It seemed very important, but I couldn’t wake up enough to understand.
He comes to me in my dreams.
At that third mantra my eyes snapped open. That’s it! I thought. That’s what I’ve been looking for! I’ll use this phrase as a repetitive motif that will help me structure my story.
I had been struggling to write a fictional piece about a dream person who visits me at crucial points in my life, and while I had already worked out the basic plot of each episode, I couldn’t find the form best suited to tell the story cohesively. But that morning, somewhere between waking and sleeping, the structure came.
I am a writer who also teaches ESL students at the college level. One day the director of the writing center at my school came to me with a discovery. In analyzing reports that tutors had written about their sessions with ESL students, my colleague found that while there was much discussion in the tutorials on content and mechanics, there was almost no talk on organization. How could my students be writing essays—in English, which is not their native language—without seeming to have problems with structure— while I, the English teacher who knows no other language, finds organizing my ideas my biggest difficulty?
When the writing director and I were puzzling over all this, he asked if any of my students had ever bombed the particular creative nonfiction essay assignment in question. I had to admit that in over six terms not one student had failed. The lowest grades earned were C’s. How had this essay assignment become so bomb-proof so that those who should have struggled not only with content and structure, but also with second language issues, enjoyed such success instead?
The essay assignment is called States of Mind, and it grew out of my desire to teach my students a more free-flowing form of writing after they had mastered the very strict structure of the five-paragraph essay. States of Mind cares more for theme than for plot and can be a non-linear collection of thoughts and events based on the student’s own life and experience.
In introducing this assignment, I show the class models of my own writing, guiding them into discovering the theme within each essay. These are my personal writings, and I share them so that my students sense that I am not afraid to open my thoughts and feelings to others. After studying the models, I ask the students to begin brainstorming about their own themes and stories related to those themes.
As I reflect on the success of this essay assignment, I am confident that the models we discuss and the brainstorming that follows are a large part of the process. Because they are provided with some examples of form, students don’t have to struggle with content and structure both at the same time. This may at first seem to require less creativity from them, and yet, I feel that in giving them an understanding of ways they can organize their thoughts, I actually free them to tell those thoughts. Students need to know the rules before they can break them. By offering models we are saying, “Look at this. You can your share ideas in the same way.” As my students and I advance into deeper brainstorming, I encourage them to play with the form. But even at this level, most are grateful for a form to play off of.
Sankerdas, a student from Laos who is interested in being a teacher, decided to use the theme of obstacles and to illustrate that theme through the difficulties he encountered in trying to get to America. My own model States of Mind essays are written in present tense and are non-linear. For his essay Sankerdas chose to keep the present tense form, because he liked the feel of its immediacy, but he also wanted his events to be in order of time. Tomo, a jazz guitarist from Japan, decided to use a past-tense non-linear structure to tell different stories that connected to his theme of viewing his life through pictures. Husam, a respiratory care student from Saudi Arabia, played wildly with his form, moving his readers in and out of dream and reality—from his nightmare of dying in a volcano to his conscious ending vow to take each day in life more seriously. As I read this essay, I laughed to myself. Who knows what will come to us in our dreams?
With all this modeling, brainstorming, and collaboration going on in the classroom, it seems to me that my students conquer their structural problems long before they meet individually with their writing tutors. As a result, the tutorials are focused much more on content and mechanics—filling in of details, tightening of theme, questioning of grammar. This teamwork with their American tutors provides even more freedom to tell what is inside them and to tell it well.
For many students the States of Mind essay shows them that playing with form opens them to further creativity and even moments of self-discovery. Chitsuda, a pre-pharmacy undergraduate from Thailand, told of finding a baby bird in her mailbox that seemed abandoned by its mother. Chitsuda decided to care for the bird and fed it mashed rice from a straw. But her family was scared of bird flu and convinced Chitsuda to leave the baby alone. They told her that its parents would be back for it. Later Chitsuda found the baby bird dead. She had to work through anger at her parents and her own feelings of guilt before coming to this conclusion: “Sometimes it is good to listen to people who care about us, but there is no need to follow everything they tell us to do. There are choices in everyone’s life. All the suggestions are helpful, but it is we who make the decision.”
I tell my students that what they share in their States of Mind essays could be very personal. Because of that, I assure them that only the writing center tutors and I will read their work. Some students are willing to have essays read to the class; others are not. But I believe that all my students know I am a safe audience—a person open to listening to who each of them are. And perhaps for some, this type of essay is easier to write than those that are expository—because the students are sharing about themselves.
Bryan, a French business student, used his essay to not only understand a part of himself, but to actually find healing from a decision he regretted making several years before. Bryan’s grandfather had died unexpectedly, and Bryan refused to attend the funeral because he was working at a summer camp and didn’t want to leave his friends. He confided to me that he had never before told this story to anyone, not even his closest friends, because it was too painful. But now, he wanted to try to write it.
In that essay Bryan shared how, filled with guilt, he went to the cemetery alone and in a thunderstorm. “When I stood in front of his grave, the sky broke open and lightening struck me—everything turned off. When I came back to my senses, I was standing in front of the resting place of my grandfather, but there was no lightening or rain anymore. Yet, I seemed to feel the lightening effects and water running off my face. But in reality it was my heart that was torn, and the water on my face was my own tears.”
The story itself was already potent, but Bryan used a mixture of past and present tense for his structure and included these four sentences, one after each paragraph, to add parallelism, giving the essay even more strength: “This day I learned of denial. This day I learned of remorse and regret. This day I learned of sadness. This day I grew up.”
I asked Bryan if would allow me to read his essay to the class. He agreed, but only if he could leave the room. When I called Bryan back in after the reading, his peers greeted him with tears and admiration.
At the time Bryan wrote his essay, he was not necessarily thinking of himself as a writer. As he looked at the other models and thought about his theme, he, at first he was simply discovering his own feelings through writing about them. Then, he was able to structurally plan how to most powerfully share his story with me as his audience. But it was only as we were sitting side by side, completing the final edits on the computer so that Bryan’s essay could be published in the school journal that he fully realized what he had done. “I am a writer,” he said.
Bryan told me later that sharing that essay with his classmates is what actually brought him healing. He has given me permission to use his writing as a States of Mind model so that other students over the years will feel that they, too, have a story to tell, and that they, too, can find a form that builds that story’s power.
ESL students are probably more motivated than average American freshman. As Raad, a graduate student from Saudi Arabia told me, “By the time you have worked hard enough in your life to get to study in America, you know more of what you want, and you have the passion it takes to get there.”
We as teachers try to breathe that passion into our students not by telling them what to think, but by giving them a platform to think from. We encourage them to craft creative ideas and to structure them into writing because we have a vision for them as people, not just as writers. Instead of wandering aimlessly—moving from one moment to the next with no purpose—we want our students to connect moments together to form meaning. And from that meaning they can share vision with others.
Mutarid was a thirty-something student who made the painful choice of leaving Saudi Arabia and his new wife so that he could study in America. One day he confided in me that he didn’t even like to read or write in Arabic, and yet, now I was asking him to do so in English. But Mutarid was resolute in wanting to succeed. He did well for me, and I moved him on from my class to his ENG 102 course in which he had to learn much more difficult structures of writing and literature, including poetry. At the end of the semester Mutarid wrote me an elated email. He had made the Dean’s List, and, due to his determination and the help of his ENG 102 teacher, he had earned a B- in the writing and literature class.
After Mutarid graduated and went back to his family in Saudi Arabia, he left me this poem, written on my Facebook wall: “A memory lasts forever, never does it die, True friends stay together, And never said goodbye.” While I know this is a commonly quoted anonymous poem, I couldn’t help but be touched that the guy who didn’t even like reading and writing in Arabic was voluntarily connecting with me, in English, and through the structure of poetry.
And isn’t that what writing really is—framing moments in meaningful ways so that we can join our experiences with others? Xiaohui, an exchange student from China, wrote of this connection to the world in her States of Mind essay. She told about when she was a little girl and had to evacuate her home for three months because of a flood. Total strangers in another part of China took her and her brother in. Xiaohui wrote, “Although we did not know each other before the flood, I just felt that we were connected through difficult times. Our two families still keep in touch now. Seeing from a kid’s eyes, I get a strong sense of the gratitude to human spirit; kindness, generosity and selfless help.”
Xiaohui went on to write that, shortly after the 2008 earthquake in Sichuan, she volunteered to teach children in the temporary schools they had erected out of the rubble. Xiaohui wrote in her essay, “I got the feeling that I was just carrying forward the spirit of human kindness, bringing warmth to people in difficulties.” And she ended her essay by saying, “Now, I am sitting in the library of my college, preparing for the coming psychology test. I am being helped here all the time. Being thousands of miles away from home... I am surrounded by the feeling that we are together. What people have done to me makes me more willing to help others. Love and kindness, the eternal human spirit surrounds me and gives me a strong sense that we are connected and we are together.”
We all have meaningful thoughts to share. Xiaohui held memories in her mind of the flood, of the earthquake, and of being in an American college, but would she have shared those memories if she had not been asked to write and then been given a form to write from?
To me, teaching writing is simply helping our students learn to organize their thoughts so that they can better understand themselves or what they are learning outside of themselves. Then they are freed to able to share in powerful ways with others.
So I encourage my students to think and to create and to form throughout their whole day—while they are in the shower, while they are brushing their teeth, while they are walking to and from their classes.
“But most especially,” I tell my students, “listen during those times when you are barely awake in the morning—even before your eyes are open. Because who knows what may come to you in your dreams.”
Please check the Creative Methodology for the Classroom course at Pilgrims website.
Please check the How the Motivate your Students course at Pilgrims website.
Please check the Building Positive Group Dynamics course at Pilgrims website.