Creative Writing

"It's All Greek to Me: Creative Writing and the Continuing Education of a Language Teacher."  English Language Teaching Journal 47/1 (January 1993): 40-46.

Most language teachers improve their teaching skills through classroom work, journals, and conferences, but a more dramatic eye opener is to start studying another language.  Useful and beneficial outcomes of further language study are that teachers relive the frustrations of beginning language students, reconsider their own teaching principles, and experience another instructor's methods first hand.

Background

Between studying Spanish and German as an undergraduate, taking a Master's in ESL, and teaching ESL for six years, I thought I knew a lot about language instruction.  I'd learned by most of all by trial and error in the classroom, but I'd also kept abreast of literature in the field and swapped ideas with fellow teachers.  Since I was teaching on a college campus and had access to graduate classes, one semester when I had extra time I signed up for Universal Grammar.  I thought the class would help me understand more about the Eastern languages, which in turn would help me explain English grammar to my Asian and Arab students.

Dr. Troike was the instructor for Universal Grammar.  During class he would often ask us to connect grammar theories to languages we were familiar with.  When he offered examples himself, they were mostly from Korean, the language he was studying at the time.  Each week he also chronicled an aspect of the language that was giving him trouble.  Between the collapsing vowel system and the intricate rules for sound nasalization, studying Korean sounded like punishment, and I became curious as to why my professor was studying it.

            "When are you planning on going to Korea?" I finally asked.

            "No plans."

            "Are you going to teach Korean students?"

            "Possibly, but no plans."

            "Then why are you taking Korean?"

            His answer started with a smile.  "Every five years or so, it's good to study a new language."

First days in Greek class

At first I thought the man was a linguistic workaholic, but when Modern Greek appeared on the fall schedule, and since Greece was on my summer itinerary, I signed up.  I missed the first day of class due to a meeting about my new teaching assignment, but firm in my notion that language classes do not make breathtaking strides during the first fifty minutes, I walked into the second class cheerfully and confidently.  The teacher seemed cheerful and confident, too, smiling at us pleasantly as we filed in and took our seats.  Then the bell rang.  Instead of calling roll or other class business, she asked some unintelligible question of the other students, who gave her an unintelligible answer.  Finally she got to me.

            "Kalimera.  Ti kaneis?"

I should have guessed that she said "hello" and "how are you," but since I couldn't recognize a single syllable, I was frozen into silence.  My adversary was relentless and repeated the phrases more slowly.  I said nothing.

"Kala?"  She nodded as she suggested an appropriate response.  After I stumbled through "kala" she continued with another student.  I survived the remainder of the class, but I was praying for the bell the whole time.  I was stunned by what the other students had learned by heart in a single day, and ashamed that they were so much ahead of me.  That afternoon in my ESL classes, I tried to smile encouragingly.  I didn't even mind when I had to repeat "How are you?" over and over to the beginning group--at least this time I was governing the dialogue rather than being trampled by it.

During the next weeks I made little progress in Greek.  Even though I studied the words at home until I thought I had mastered them, I couldn't remember what they meant when the teacher wielded them in class.  I was too worried about what the others were thinking of my language abilities to stop and think.  The studying I did on my own wasn't enough to help me through this affective barrier.  Years earlier when I took Spanish and German, I had family and friends to reinforce and to monitor my language skills.  With Greek I was starting at ground zero.  It was an unnerving feeling.

While uttering Greek was difficult, operating the alphabet wasn't any easier.  I couldn't get used to the names of the letters, their order, or that a Greek "p" sounded like an English "r."  On a particularly bad morning, I used the English "p" for the Greek one throughout an entire quiz.  Dr. Voyatzis kindly circled the repeated errors without counting them wrong, but that didn't make me feel any better.  I knew I was still confused.

Measuring up to my students

For the majority of my ESL students, the Roman alphabet is part of the learning process, yet I'd never recognized the enormity of the undertaking.  After enrolling in Greek, instead of watching idly out the window while my students completed class assignments, I watched the Arab and Asian students in amazement as English poured steadily and smoothly from their pens.  Suddenly their errors in verb tense and agreement seemed insignificant in light of their linguistic accomplishments.

I wasn't sure I would be able to match their skills.  One day I stopped Ritsuko after class.  She often struggled with the oral questions I asked of the advanced class and looked to her Japanese friends for consultation, but her written English was flawless.

            "How to you manage to write so well?  Don't you have trouble with the letters?"

            She nodded.  "It's very difficult.  I have to concentrate all the time, and still, I make very many mistakes."

            "How long did it take to feel comfortable writing in English?"

            Ritsuko grinned at me.  "I think it took forever.  Or maybe only one year."

            Ritsuko's easy confidence didn't do anything to improve my own, and the next weeks in Greek class weren't any easier.  I still panicked each time the teacher called on me to answer a routine question, whether I knew the answer or not.  The benefit of the experience was that I was able to make use of my sweaty palms and choked throat as a measure of comparison with my own students, and tried to be more patient and encouraging than before.  I also picked up teaching tips; Dr. Voyatzis employed a lot of techniques that I hadn't, either because I didn't think they would work or because I hadn't thought to implement them.  I bought a new notebook so that I could take a double set of notes in Greek class, one side for new words and grammar points, and the other for observations about teaching practices I wanted to try out and mold to my own use.

Creative writing for beginners?

After a month of study, Dr. Voyatzis asked us to write a creative story.  At first I was sure she had us mixed up with her third semester class.  I knew about seventy words at the time, half of them food words, yet she asked us to use the words we knew rather than look up new ones in the dictionary.  When my classmates and I protested that the assignment was too hard, she insisted that we would enjoy the assignment.

I was apprehensive when I began writing because of the seeming enormity of the task and the challenge of creating something interesting out of my limited knowledge of vocabulary, but these hardships were balanced by the fact that the form of the assignment gave me time to get the words right.  For example, for "Do you have a watermelon?" I had to choose: the ending for a verb in second person singular; the article for "watermelon" based on case, gender (masculine, feminine or neuter) and number; the correct ending for "watermelon" in the accusative case.  I had similar decisions to make for each sentence.  While I could make a few choices automatically, the rest were only palpable because I had time to think before I wrote.  My dialogue ran as follows:

            Mrs. Pavlaki:  Do you have a watermelon?

            Vendor:  No, I don't.

            Mrs. Pavlaki:  Do you have cherries?

            Vendor:  No, I don't.

            Mrs. Pavlaki: Do you have lemons?

            Vendor: No, I don't.

            Mrs. Pavlaki: You don't have watermelons, cherries, or         lemons.  What do you have?

            Vendor: I have bananas.  Do you want some bananas?

            Mrs. Pavlaki: No, I don't!

By the time I finished the dialogue I was laughing to myself because I had made a joke writing in my new language.  The experience gave me a sense of power because the words I'd used in the story were no longer mere words.  Now they were my words.  In class, when Dr. Voyatzis asked us to read our stories, I was the first to volunteer.  The fact that my dialogue made the other students laugh was more compensation than any grade could be.  My spirits were high as I walked off to teach my own class.  Thanks to this brief exercise in creative writing, I had finally achieved a mild success in Greek.

My elation lasted two or three hours, until I remembered that although I'd taught beginning language classes for five years straight, I had never once given a creative writing assignment to beginning students.  It wasn't that I doubted their abilities.  Instead, it had never occurred to me to give the assignment, even though I asked advanced students to write creative stories on a regular basis.  By neglecting to assign creative writing, I had overlooked a strong potential tool.

I wondered how I could have missed such an obvious point.  At first I tried to blame my methodology books for the lack of emphasis on creative writing for beginning language students, but my books offered plenty of justification.  One of the most obvious advantages of assigning writing is the time factor.  When asked a question in class, students are put on the spot.  They might know the answer, but be unable to furnish it.  Even if they do produce a satisfying answer, the results are fleeting; oral language has a short life.  Writing, on the other hand, is "displaced in time" (White, 1987: 260).  While students have time to consider each choice separately instead of being overwhelmed by decisions, their written work also has "face validity" because it provides concrete evidence of their accomplishments (White, 1987: 259).

In "Applications of Psycholinguistic Research to the Classroom," Krashen lists the  "i + 1" hypothesis as one of the elements of language learning (Krashen, 1987: 38).  As Krashen suggests, "we acquire [language] by understanding input containing structures that are a bit beyond our current competence" (Krashen, 1987: 38).  Creative writing assignments easily fit this model.  In class, vocabulary is usually framed within the dialogues of a particular chapter, and the grammar connected to new vocabulary.  In creative writing assignments, students push past their current abilities by making use of language in ways that suit their own purposes.

Through creative writing assignments, students also have the chance to share personal aspects of their lives with other members of the class.  Bassano and Christison explain that students want to "become enthusiastically and authentically involved" (Bassano and Christison, 1987: 201).  When they have the chance to write about things that are important and interesting to them, such involvement is possible.  Bassano and Christison also mention that students need to "become themselves" in their new language (Bassano and Christison, 1987: 201).  Creative writing encourages that process at the same time that it allows students to develop their skills.

In the aforementioned article, Krashen lists self-confidence as one of the variables related to success in second language acquisition (Krashen, 1987: 39).  Creative writing helps students boost their self-confidence because it allows them to take control over their new language by governing its production.  Blair expresses this idea in Innovative Approaches to Language Teaching:

In my own experience as a language learner, I have felt that I was not in full possession of language items I had become conscious of until I tested them out in meaningful use for my own purposes. (Blair, 1982: introduction)

I experienced this same phenomenon with my Greek dialogue.  The words I'd used in the dialogue were words we'd learned in class, but it wasn't until I used them in my own dialogue that they became "mine."

Follow-up

I was sorry that I had neglected to offer my own beginning language students the opportunity to create themselves through writing, but I took steps to ensure that creative writing would be an integral part of future teaching.  The next day in class I asked my beginning students to make groups of four.  Since our vocabulary list for that unit included words for occupations, I asked each group to write a short dialogue in which one of the students portrayed a doctor, another a waiter, a third a banker, and the fourth an occupation of the group's choice.  While the students wrote their dialogues, I circled the room, helping with grammar errors, and reminding the students of vocabulary words and structures we had already learned in class.  The most humorous dialogue read as follows:

Waiter: I need some money please.

Banker: How much money do you want?

Waiter: I want twenty dollars.

Banker: Only twenty dollars?

Waiter: I'm very poor.  Twenty dollars is good.

Banker: Here is your money.

Doctor: Good afternoon.  I want ten dollars, please.

Banker: Ten dollars?  That's all?

Doctor: I'm very poor.  I have only two patients.

Banker: Here is your money.

Thief: Good afternoon.  I need some money.

Banker: How much money do you want?

Thief: I want all your money.

Banker: You're crazy!

Thief: No, I'm not!  I'm a thief!  Now, give me your money, and put up your hands!

Before the end of the period, the students performed their dialogues before the class.  I didn't have to ask for volunteers, because all the groups wanted to read their dialogues out loud.  I couldn't monitor the amount that each student had learned during the activity, but I knew that writing had helped all the students participate in original language production.  Throughout the rest of the semester, I used creative writing assignments as the basis of homework assignments and also class activities.

While I was convinced of the validity of the creative writing assignments for my own language study and for the students in my beginning English classes, I decided to test out the role of writing among my fellow Greek students by asking them to answer a questionnaire about the learning techniques used in class.  Thirteen out of fourteen responded that they liked the creative writing assignments; all fourteen agreed that the assignments were useful learning activities.  One student wrote: "Doing your own writing is great, because it forces you to do your own thinking.  The writing assignments were the best ones we did all semester."  Another wrote: "The assignments were quite difficult.  I spent more time on them than the other exercises we had to do for class.  However, they weren't boring like the other ones."

The fact that my fellow students found writing beneficial surprised me less than the fact that none of the writing assignments was an overall favorite.  During the semester we had written about a fruit vendor, our rooms, a geography lesson, and a trip to Greece.  While I assumed that either the first or last topics would be more popular because they more closely mimicked language that some of us might eventually use in Greece, there were no clear preferences.  One classmate responded:  "The best assignment was writing about our rooms.  That was something we could relate to our lives, instead of something imaginary."  Another wrote that "the best assignment was on geography.  The other ones were too silly."  Clearly, the variety of assignments was also a positive factor, and something I needed to keep in mind when developing assignments for my own classes.

Implications

One semester of Modern Greek taught me more about teaching language than it did about speaking Greek, and it taught me more than I had learned in several years of attending conferences and sifting through journal articles.  Although the experience was humbling, it was a productive way to increase my understanding and abilities as a language teacher because I developed a broader knowledge of my students and their linguistic hardships, and because my first-hand exposure to new techniques introduced immediate and innovative changes in my teaching.  It's hard to find the time to be a student and a teacher simultaneously, but I don't know of any other way to learn so much in such a short period of time.

Unfortunately, second semester Greek doesn't fit in my schedule in the spring, and my plans to visit Greece have been arrested for lack of funds.  If possible, I'll continue studying Greek next year.  Regardless, in 1997 I'll start studying another language.  Maybe even Korean.

References

Bassano, S. and M. Christison.  1987.  'Developing Successful Conversation Groups' in Long, M. and J. Richards (eds.). Methodology in TESOL.  New York: Newbury House.

Blair, R. 1982.  'Introduction' in R. Blair (ed.). Innovative Approaches to Language Teaching. New York: Newbury House.

Krashen, S. 1987.  'Applications of Psycholinguistic Research to the Classroom' in Long, M. and J. Richards (eds.). Methodology in TESOL.  New York: Newbury House.

White, R.  1987.  'Approaches to Writing' in Long. M. and J.Richards (eds.).  Methodology in TESOL.  New York: Newbury House.

Biographical note:

The author has taught ESL in Durango, Mexico and in Tucson, Arizona.  She completed her Master's in ESL at the University of Arizona in 1990.  She is currently working on a Ph.D. in Rhetoric and Composition and teaching composition to non-native speakers of English.