Teaching Creative Writing to Students with ASD

‘Daywalker’ Emma is a full time special ed teacher. Writing is my passion, but unfortunately more of a moonlit hobby. Teaching is my life and I wouldn’t give it up for anything – I only wish there were more hours in the day to focus on my own creative work. And so even though I don’t find myself dedicating time to the craft as much as I would like (…or need to… *guilty sigh*), the first term of 2017 has seen me dedicate time to a different side – namely, teaching creative writing to my students.

My students are a Star Wars-and-youtube-obsessed bunch who don’t have much time or love for reading or writing. They’d rather see the movie version of whatever we do.

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This makes sense as they struggle academically with literacy, and often have comprehension and/or motor skill difficulties co-morbid with Autism Spectrum Disorder (ASD). And so introducing a creative writing unit can be great for them…until it gets to crunch time: actually writing it.

This unit centred around studying and writing dystopian story scenes. With the help of some fab colleagues, I have created a unit and writing process that was clear, supported and fun for students who often struggle to imagine or to write.

I am proud with the results of this unit. The students stories are unique, fantastic and sophisticated. They may have been very supported but so much of the heart of their stories came from their brilliant minds.

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And so I thought I would share the story scaffolding method used in this unit – maybe it will help your students, or even you as a fellow writer.

  1. Story Scene Decision: focusing the creative writing task on a story scene, almost like a snapshot of a story world, made this task so much easier for students. There was less words to literally write, and they could spend more energy on showing rather than telling.
  2. Brainstorming: Students discovered what topic was all about and explored initial ideas through discussion.
  3. Modelling: Students read 3 very different dystopian/utopian story scenes from famous novels to show examples of successful writing.
  4. Story outline: Students were able to choose items from a checklist to create their story with as a foundation. This meant they weren’t stuck from the get go. They decided dystopia versus utopia, the time, place, weather and words to describe their story world and plot idea from a pre-written checklist.
  5. Character Profile and Trading Card: Students worked out their protagonist’s details and character traits using a scaffolded character profile worksheet. They then created a character trading card using a provided template and online ‘doll/avatar’ makers as a fun way to frame a character’s appearance.
  6. Storyboard: Students had to create 3 storyboard panels using the great website StoryboardThat that showed their whole scene. This idea was modelled and analysed before students completed it individually. This visual method was very successful combined with students verbally narrating the panels to create a clear storyline. Bypassing a writing activity made this a quick and fun process for students. They were more likely to remember their plots, and less likely to get confused because their story scene ideas were clearly and visually mapped out.
  7. Story Scene Checklist: The drafting process began. Students were given a checklist for items they must include in their story scene, with questions to give them hints/inspire them, and a section to tick off when complete.
  8. Consistent Collaboration: Feedback and dialogue between student, teacher and teacher aides to discuss and help the writing process as students worked on their drafts each English lesson. Teacher would often use leading, open questions to help students add details: “What did it smell like? What colour is that item? What was the weather like? How did that make your character feel? What do you do with your body when you feel sad? How could you show that?” 
  9. Enhancements: Students then had individual mini lessons on creative writing features such as dialogue and similes. They were then challenged to add these items to their story scene drafts after each mini lesson.
  10. Final Checklists and Peer Feedback: Students completing own checklists creates responsibility and comprehension skills. Peer feedback allowed a sense of pride and community to take place.

As a final finishing touch, I plan to collate the students work to create a digital and printed anthology for them to keep. This rewards their hard work throughout this term.

I am really happy with how I taught creative writing this term. A lot of my success was due to collaboration with more experienced teachers who showed me how to slow down the unit so there was more drafting time (three weeks in total).

How do you teach creative writing? How were you taught it? Does it inform how you write today? Let me know in the comments.

~ Emma