Got MFA? The A-B-C’s (and D’s and F’s) of Teaching Creative Writing in Charter Schools

By Jen Karetnick

“Chad, no lollipops in the classroom,” I say. I am about to start workshop. I have a particularly good draft of a story, and I’m eager to get started.

As I shuffle papers, Chad turns his back, bites the head of the Blow Pop off the stick, and faces me with innocent eyes despite the bulge in his cheek.

“Okay,” I say. “Now spit it out.”

Not even abashed, he crunchily chews the sucker down to its center. “Too late. All gone.”

“Get back up,” I say in the exaggerated tone that means an authority figure is about to lose it, “and spit out the gum that was in the middle of it before I send you to Ms. Torres.”

Schooling mischievous adolescents is not what I set out to do when I received not one, but two Master of Fine Arts degrees in Creative Writing, both with teaching assistantships. My plan, like that of so many others, was to wow the publishing world and be the youngest poet ever to win such-and-such an award, then move on to whatever coveted university position was available.

It didn’t quite happen that way. I did the university adjunct thing. I didn’t like it. It was exhausting and I made more money banking on my real education (I worked in restaurants while I earned my degrees), writing articles as a dining critic and travel writer, than I did for an entire semester of teaching one composition course. So I retired from teaching, went freelance for thirteen years, and had two of my own children. But I missed my vocation. And then I accidentally found an alternative – one that many young or career-changing MFA-ers may also see as an option.

A friend showed me an advertisement for a new charter school for the arts opening up in my neighborhood. She thought I might want to send my children there. Instead, I applied for a job as the Creative Writing Director, and was hired almost immediately.

If you’ve seen Waiting for Superman, or followed any of the debates about public schooling in America, then you know that charter schools, independently run institutions funded by the state (though they receive fewer dollars per student than public schools), are controversial. Not all are superlative; like private establishments, some are just in it for the money, not the kids. But many, like mine, specialize in filling the gaps where public schools fall short.

I got in on the ground floor of Miami Arts Charter (MAC), a middle and high school for the arts, located on the grounds of a former television station in downtown Miami. Now I teach seven classes of dedicated poetry, fiction, creative non-fiction and playwriting, plus oratory/storytelling and publishing, on a block schedule. This isn’t English with a creative writing twist. This is sestinas to spoken word, flash fiction to novellas, ten-minute plays to teen-angst memoirs.

The ages of my students range from 11-18. They have to audition with a portfolio and an on-the-spot writing prompt to be accepted, some when they are only nine or ten years old. Not everybody turns out to be equipped—mentally, emotionally, or even grammatically, for that matter. Kids like Chad are just one challenge of teaching creative writing to young teenagers.

Nor is the workload easy. My courses, all requiring different syllabi and daily preps, have to conform to state and national standards as well as convoluted pacing guides. My lesson plans must prove that I am providing for gifted and learning-disabled students at the same time. I keep folders of all student work, make a call log for any communication between parents, print out emails, have written data reports for every student, update a computerized grade book daily, and enter a required number of grades for every progress report and quarterly report card.

That’s just the documentation. There’s department and faculty meetings. School publications. Field trips, clubs, prom. (Yes, prom.) I also fundraise, train student aides and “volunteer” for committees, such as the one that manages the charter of the school, or the one that interfaces between the school and the community. Even though I have my own teenagers, before I became a secondary school teacher, I had no idea any of these committees even existed.

Indeed, just to become a professionally licensed teacher was an annoying and complicated process that didn’t take into account any of my higher education. So why did I do it?

For starters, I unexpectedly love the kids. And I am as surprised as anyone that they adore me in return. They have gone from calling me Ms. Karetnick to Ms. K. to Mama K. To some of my graduates, it seems, I will forever be, simply, Mom. It’s really endearing, albeit weird. You get adoration from college students, but not as readily.

Something else you don’t always seem to achieve at the university level these days: shock and awe. Young people are so sophisticated, with so much technology at their fingertips, that by the time they’re 20, they think they know it all. At 14 or 15, it’s easier, especially in the creative writing world, to show them how much they don’t know.

Then there’s the matter of modeling, and I’m not talking about the kind that involves stalking haughtily down a Parisian runway. When you hand out an assignment with examples, creative writing students don’t just want to know what the piece means. They want to understand motivation. What made this poet choose a repeating form instead of free verse, or this short story writer employ surrealism instead of modernism? You can interpret and guess all you want, but if you’re a multi-faceted creative writer, you can do the assignment yourself and explain exactly why you made the choices you did. (Try this with graduate school students and they’ll walk out of the room.) The end result? More of your own work.

Most of all, however, I truly believe in the talent these students have to offer. If good art springs from an intense emotional core, teenagers are a lot closer to touching it, with their hormones keeping them in perpetual turmoil, than those who have left puberty behind. The only thing they lack is training. And that, they absorb as readily as they do the newest iPhone application. One year, I had sixth graders who wrote wreathed sestets about Lebron James joining the Miami Heat and seniors who turned contemporary politics into musical satires, and then performed them as shadow puppet plays. Like their angst, their imaginations are limitless.

So is the fun I get to have with them. Every year I take them to the Everglades or botanical gardens to write ecological poems and shepherd them to teen poetry slams. One year, we traveled to England to visit Shakespeare’s birthplace and Oxford University. We’ve read at book fairs and had anthology signings set up at independent bookstores and restaurants. Granted, I work my connections and use my background to make some of these things happen. But in order to enjoy these privileges, the students must first produce the work.

The process I teach is similar to any undergraduate or graduate workshop. The emphasis is on crafting a draft according to a prompt, reading aloud the draft that has been passed out to the entire workshop, giving and receiving constructive criticism both verbally and written, and then revising said draft.

Like every writing teacher, I emphasize that the process is as important, if not more so, than the product. But submitting that product, and doing it correctly, according to guidelines, is part of my curriculum. I have to admit that I’m proud when my students get published or win. And they do win, everything from Gold Medals in Poetry from Scholastic Art and Writing to the creative non-fiction competition from Creative Minds, sponsored by the Center for Talented Youth from Johns Hopkins University, to the Princeton University 10-Minute Play Competition.

Mostly, though, I’m delighted because I know these awards will get them into excellent liberal arts colleges with invested creative writing programs, where well-published professors will take them to the next level.

Arguably, teaching in a charter school doesn’t carry as much cachet in the academic world as a full-time position at a university. But recent graduates of MFA programs would do well to take a look at not just the charter schools in their regions, but also magnet (public schools that specialize in a subject) and private schools in their regions.

As reading and writing scores across the nation continue to sink, creative writing programs, seen as only one possible solution for raising them, are on the rise. So are performing arts schools, in part thanks to public school systems reducing educational funds for arts programs. If schools in your local district don’t already have creative writing, it doesn’t hurt to go for interviews and suggest it. You may start out teaching only one or two classes part-time, but it could lead, depending on your initiative, to full-time work, either at one school or split between a couple.

You might even think about securing grant funds to start your own after-school creative writing programs for teens in need. Tutoring grammar through self-expression is a lot more interesting – for you and the students – than the traditional white-board lesson. It’s just one more way to make a living and keep on writing yourself. Besides, if what you’re really interested in is teaching creative writing, the secondary level is where it truly begins.

Jen Karetnick holds an MFA in poetry from University of California, Irvine, and an MFA in fiction from University of Miami. She is the author of 12 books, most recently the poetry chapbook, Prayer of Confession (Finishing Line Press, June 2014); the full-length poetry book, Brie Season (White Violet Press, September 2014); and the cookbook, Mango (University Press of Florida, October 2014). In addition to working as the Creative Writing Director for grades 6-12 at Miami Arts Charter School, Jen is the dining critic for MIAMI Magazine and a contributor for many food-travel publications including and Virgin Atlantic Airways. She lives in Miami Shores on the last remaining acre of a historic mango plantation with her husband, two children, three dogs, three cats and fourteen mango trees.