Fall course tune-up: Advice for instructors from “Writing for Children”

by Andrea R. Olinger

It’s midway through summer, and many of you are probably thinking about how to retool the courses you’ll be teaching in the fall. For this post, I spoke to Janice Harrington, a poet, children’s book author, and professor of creative writing, about how she’s revamping Creative Writing 202, “Writing for Children,” for when she teaches it this fall for the third time. The changes she’s made to her readings and writing activities—and the thinking that inspired those changes—are an excellent illustration of WAC approaches and of how teaching, like writing, can benefit from ongoing revision.

“Writing for Children” asks students to read essays on the craft of fiction, analyze short stories by published children’s writers, produce formal critiques of other students’ writing, and write and revise two stories—one short, one long—for children. Janice found, however, that students tended to write about teenagers instead of about the course’s target audience, 8-to-12-year-old children.

Writing for children is a “large continent,” Janice said, but since her students “are more familiar with the behaviors and lives of teenagers,” they tended to gravitate to teenage characters. The challenge, for Janice, was how to get her students to remember what it’s like to be an 8-12-year-old kid and to craft richly developed characters who are that age. (She joked that she couldn’t just send them to the library to research child development.) Here is her new approach:

  • Different model texts: While Janice really liked the stories in the old reader, which featured teens, it was difficult for students to “abstract” principles of good writing to stories with younger characters. To connect the reading even more directly to the students’ would-be audience, she’s compiled a new reader with stories featuring characters who are 8-12 years old.
  • Textbook adjustments: Last semester, Janice introduced students to characterization, dialogue, plot, and point of view through a general handbook on fiction writing. For this coming semester, she will use Mary Kole’s Writing Irresistible Kidlit, which addresses writing for the middle grade reader, and she’ll supplement it with a few chapters from the general handbook. With these changes, students will have access to a “broader range of information” about writing for children and fiction writing in general.
  • Additional pre-writing activities: As a pre-writing assignment for the long story, Janice had students write a character study of one of their protagonists. She’s keeping this assignment in the fall, but adding a twist: first, students will produce a description of themselves when they were in fifth grade and then undertake the character study. This change seems like an ingenious way to help students see the world from a kid’s perspective.

Since Janice is trying to streamline her course as much as possible, she’s also debating whether to evaluate their stories primarily on one component, characterization (instead of characterization and plot and dialogue and…). It doesn’t matter if they can do those other things, she remarked, “until they can write a character that’s believable and credible.”

For those of you who are thinking about what to revise in your own courses, it might be useful to focus on an aspect of students’ written products that you’d most like to see improved—for instance, discussion sections or situating their argument in the introduction. Then, consider these questions:

  • Do you have models of the writing you’d like students to produce? If you do, are they good examples of the aspect you’re targeting?
  • Do you give students opportunities to discuss how this aspect functions in the model text? (For a bit more on models, see our WAC seminar handout Shaping Student Writing.)
  • Can you add low-stakes activities to help students practice this one aspect before they are graded on it?
  • Can you give students feedback (whether graded or ungraded) on how they execute this particular aspect? For a lab report, for example, the instructor could comment on the methods and materials section one week and on data tables the next. See our WAC seminar handout Response to Writing: Contexts and Strategies for some ideas.

We’d love to know how your course revisions are going—send us an email or post a comment below.