Open Mic Share in Creative Writing Class

By English Teacher Jen Doucette

A few months ago, I visited an amusement park based on a series of novels. Aside from the exciting experience, I was in awe at the transition from words on paper to a world that I was standing in. What an awesome (in the truest definition of the word) moment to view the transformation of an idea into reality. And I wondered how the author of these novels must have felt to witness this visible creation of her dreams.

Few of us ever experience such a moment. But I have.

During second semester, I teach Creative Writing and Advanced Creative Writing, a class in which each student writes and revises four projects. A few years ago I decided to conclude the course with an Open Mic Share of student work, and we have continued this tradition since. I require all students to participate, instructing each student to pick any piece or portion of a piece of writing to share with an aim of sharing for about two minutes. The day of the Open Mic I offer few instructions: students must stand in the front of the room, everyone must participate, and students determine the order of the presentations on a volunteer basis.

It usually begins quietly — everyone looking at each other to see who will volunteer first. And I wait — never certain what the results will be. Although the content varies by class, I see many commonalities: sometimes confident students waver, shaking as they read, hurrying through each word, and sometimes the quietest students shine, reciting their words intrepidly. Sometimes students cry out of nervousness or vulnerability, yet sometimes students gain confidence with each word; almost as if a spell is cast upon them, they realize the power of each word spoken.

And I always watch their peers watch them — smiling, entertained, sometimes shocked at the words flowing from their classmates’ mouths. Their phones are put away, they clap or snap enthusiastically, they encourage each other by asking for just a little more of the story, and they whisper accolades to each other as they wander back to their tables after sharing.

Two years ago the first student who volunteered was a girl who had unexplained health challenges all year, even having a seizure in our class at one point. She bravely volunteered to read her poem, which detailed her struggles of the year but still ended with her optimism about the future and her love and gratitude for life. She cried while she read it — as did all of us. When she finished, several students scrambled to their computers to print a better piece of writing, a more vulnerable piece of writing, resulting in one of the most powerful 90 minutes of my teaching career, minutes where I said not a word but just watched, mesmerized.

As I sat in my darkened room watching the students share this year, I kept thinking about the author whose novels turned into a park watching her ideas materialize, and I realized I was watching the same thing. The last three years I have transitioned to a gradeless classroom. Three years ago this concept was merely an idea for me as I worked toward aligning my writing values with my assessment practices. And that idea became a plan that I implemented and revised and sought feedback on and collaborated and re-implemented and revised. Even then, it still felt like an experiment.

Part of making that transition effective requires a reliance on student growth and a community of writers to support that growth, ideas that many teachers, including myself, desire but struggle to create. But these students had grown. They had created something out of nothing at all, and then they shared it with the class, and then the class celebrated them.

On this day, I saw it: the visible creation of my dreams — through hearing the words each student had diligently crafted and revised (words that didn’t exist a short semester previously), through seeing them so proud of these words, through their tears and their smiles and their support of each other. They truly were a community of writers.

And in that moment, it was all precisely how I envisioned it.

Jen Doucette is a high school English teacher at Waunakee High School in Waunakee, Wisconsin. She teaches primarily writing classes, and recently through her research with the Greater Madison Writing Project, has implemented a gradeless classroom for writing instruction. Read Jen’s blogs at .

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