Guest blog: Ross Trudeau on Teaching Character In Creative Writing

MG here. Character education is all the rage. We've got new books like How Children Succeed and Character Compass. Grit measurement. Dan Willingham himself is at the brink:

Honestly, if I hear about the Marshmallow Study just one more time, I'm going to become seriously dysregulated.

Don't worry Dan. Here's a new angle, marshmallow free, by guest blogger Ross Trudeau. Ross writes:

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Sierra Burris is a reporter for our high school newspaper. She did a story on my creative writing class.

It comes with a few rules, of course. One is to be considerate, which is likely the most extolled virtue. Another is, “what happens in creative writing stays in creative writing.”

You gotta have that second rule because of the sanctity of the space, the subject of last week's blog. But today I'm writing about the first rule.

Character education takes many forms. There's Ninja Turtle afterschool public service announcements. Yuck. There are unscripted and ill-advised teacher sermons. Teachers like me sometimes default to that when we notice bad student behaviors, but they can be cringe-worthy.

What to do when a wrathful student writes a narrow-minded narrative condemning a former friend turned "backstabber"? Or when a scorned lover pens an invective poem targeting her once-cherished?

Vocabulary, structure, pace: these things I am empowered to teach. Is it my place to concern myself with character education? What about when it impedes good writing?

Here’s an example. This fall a student turned in a non-fiction piece on an ex-best friend. The voice was compellingly colloquial, the syntax neat, and the plot organized in a practically conventional way. Good writing.

Except: the author brought his perspective to bear with unrestrained egotism. His victimhood was surpassed only by the malice of his subject. It was self-serving and self-regarding. It was unfair.

And there’s the rub: good writing is fair.

A student with deft control of her language cannot produce useful writing if she is not willing to confront her own shortcomings. She will alienate her reader. What’s more, she will betray a critical lack of perspective. And it would be a disservice for me to ignore this. To bemoan how kids are selfish these days is the equivalent of assuming she is unequal to the task of any of my standards-based objectives.

So now I’m messing around with creating dual-purpose lesson objectives, with one that addresses traditional writing, and one that focuses on character. For example: "Students will be able to write a non-fiction narrative that directly considers the perspective of multiple characters."

As a model, I plan to turn to a recent favorite, George Saunders. Tenth of December, his new collection of stories, opens with a narrative that switches between a would-be teenage sexual assault victim and her neurotic neighbor, as well as the windowless van driving would-be abductor. The narrative is remarkable in how fairly it divides its attention between the hopes, motivations, and idiosyncrasies of the three characters. The girl is both airhead and victim, the boy both mollycoddled and heroic, and the villain both sadist and product of a broken past.

This exercise needs to be done in tandem with direct lecturing on the perils of selfish writing, i.e. writing while thinking selfishly. Moreover, if I plan to re-frame humility and circumspection as virtues, it needs to go hand-in-hand with plenty of praise.

When a student read aloud from a memoir on having lost a best friend because of her own dishonesty, I made a point to ask the class why the piece was the bravest piece we’d read all year.

“Because she’s the bad guy,” said one student.

“And we’re all the bad guy sometimes, aren’t we? And this author has done something very useful. What is that?”

“Now it’s okay for us to admit when we screwed up.”

I fist pump. “Snaps for this brave piece of writing.”

Snaps all around.

-Guest blogger Ross Trudeau