Starting 20% Projects Today, Creative Writing

After weeks of preparation, today is the day to start our 20% Projects in my English 11 and Creative Writing classes.

This is my first year experimenting with 20% Projects, which means that this is the year I really get it right. (I'm a diligent learner, always willing to try new things and learn alongside my students.)

My 2nd semester Honors English 11 students put me over the top last school year, producing some remarkable works for our Presentation Day, which included:

  • bringing in service dogs they had trained
  • showing a portrait drawn by pencil
  • creating a video that went along with a social experiment to gauge teens' attitudes toward their own beauty (below)
  • create a voiceover for college football highlights, showing what they had learned about sports broadcasting
  • brought in cheese and fake wine to show the skills required to be a sommelier
  • two students won NaNoWriMo last year, writing 50,000 words on their 20% Projects over the course of November
  • and many, many others

Moreover, I got great responses back from the first year that I did 20% Projects.

  • A boy who had studied Arabic to prepare for a summer training actually got accepted to the U.S. Military Academy at West Point.
  • Recommendations that I wrote for seniors featured detailed evidence from the 20% Projects they had done for me the year before.

I'm really excited. For this year, then. I want to describe here the steps I took to prepare students. Considering that we have been in school for just over a month, this shows that preparation has become more and more important to me in ensuring that students choose appropriate projects that they will have the stamina to see all the way through.

Creative Writing:

On the first day of class, I talked about the 20% Project. In Creative Writing this means working on an extended work--a collection or a novel.  We took time out of the first two weeks to brainstorm ideas. Some kids were quick to catch on, others took a little prodding. Working out ideas collectively, and getting kids to talk about their processes helped all students to prepare for the next step--

The Pitch. 

For Creative Writing, I based the pitch idea on a 2012 article by Susan Palmer on how to pitch a screenplay. In it, she recommended a simple, five-element formula for the pitch:
“My story is a (genre) called (title) about (hero) who wants (goal) despite (obstacle).”

Students could follow this formula easily. Two changed the second word from "story" to "collection" because they were working on songs, essays or mixed media. Still, this got students thinking about the basic building blocks of a project.  Moreover, they had to "pitch" the idea to the class, which meant that they would need to understand the project well enough to pitch it.

Palmer had several other handy suggestions. 

As a screenplay writer, she emphasized possible genres for the project, which we explored using BoxOffice Mojo and other, more literary lists of genres. I noticed that as students explored genres, their ideas gained focus. They went from "this is a psychological-teen-drama-comedy-+" to more coherent, more focused plans.

Secondly, Palmer emphasized Theme. What do students want to say through the work? Themes--like genre--are subject to change over the course of a project--but a project that begins with one has a higher chance of succeeding than one that doesn't. Again, a list was used as a beginning for the discussion of themes.

Alexis pitching her novel set among a group of professional wrestlers and leading to a climax between the protagonist and antagonist in which only one will walk out of the ring.
All this led to The Pitch, which we held this Wednesday. Even after all the thought and brainstorming, there were a wide range of pitches. 

I would say that almost half of the 16 students in the class came with well-thought-out plans--what I would equate to two months' worth of stuff planned to do. Five needed some fleshing out, which took place in Q&A.

One student was Emily. "I don't know what I'm doing," she said shyly. 

She did, I knew. We had been brainstorming. I drew it out of her with questioning. It proved to be fan fiction about a monster called, "Cthulhu." It's a well-known (to teens at least) creation of H.P. Lovecraft, only Emily wanted to control Cthulhu and unleash him on an array of present-day public figures, including BOTH U.S. presidential candidates and Justin Bieber.

She was still lacking a climax, so the class pushed for more. By the time she sat down, a fully formed idea was ready to begin. And the "pitch" had been, "I don't know what I'm doing"--not exactly a strategy that would work in Hollywood, but one that is adequate for Room 953.

Day 1

Today I made sure that all students had set up a blog and made sure they posted the address on our class wiki. I also set up the following Mneumonic for the basic blog entry. The first blog would be pretty easy: "This is what I'm doing this semester."
T  -  Topic. The first paragraph introduces what students learned or experimented with this week.
E  -  Excerpt, evidence. Students include evidence of their writing or planning (pictures they posted on Pinterest, say) completed during the week.
A  -  Analysis. Students describe what learning the excerpts demonstrate.
N  -  Next. In a concluding paragraph, students predict the next steps for their project.

I have gone on long enough here. I will cover English 11, which took a much different approach, in a subsequent blog.