My creative writing unit for high school students allows for adaptations and for fun! With plenty of creative writing activities, you’ll have flexibility.
If you are looking for a creative writing unit, I have ideas for you. When I taught middle school, I sprinkled such activities throughout the school year. As a high school teacher, though, I taught an entire creative writing course. With no textbook and very little established activities, I largely worked from a blank slate.
Which. . . turned out well. I love teaching creative writing!
ELA Specific Classes
Older students often can choose electives for their ELA classes, and Creative Writing is a popular class. I’ve condensed my ideas into one post, so I organized the ideas by creative nonfiction and fiction writing and added pictures to organize this information for you.
EDIT: This post about my creative writing unit for high school writers has exploded and is about three times as long as a normal blog post. If you’d like to skip around to get inspiration for teaching creative writing, you can use the pictures and headings as guidance.
ANOTHER NOTE: I attempted to outline the days I spend on each topic, but several factors went into my estimates. First, each class differs in what they enjoy and what they dislike. If a class dislikes a specific topic, we will wrap it up and move on. If a class has fun with an assignment or needs more time to work, the days might vary.
What are the key elements of a creative writing unit?
Key elements of a creative writing unit include introducing different writing genres, teaching basic writing techniques, encouraging imagination and creativity, providing writing prompts and exercises, offering constructive feedback and revision opportunities, and fostering a supportive writing community.
How can we organize such activities?
Starting with creative nonfiction has worked for my classes, small pieces like paragraphs. I believe the success is because young writers can write what they know about. Then we can switch to fiction for the second quarter. Again, the days spent on each assignment varies, and I honestly do not stress about creative nonfiction being nine weeks and fiction being nine weeks.
All of the material listed below is in my newly updated Creative Writing Bundle. The pieces are sold separately, but that creative writing unit includes bonus material and a discount.
Ok, settle in! Here are my ideas about teaching creative writing with high school students.
First Week of School for a Creative Writing Unit
The first day of school, we complete activities that build awareness into the classroom environment about “creativity.” Do not shy away from setting a foundation of support and understanding as you engage with young writers. During my first creative writing classes, I neglected to spend time establishing expectations and community. The following semester, the time invested early paid off with engaged students later.
Those first days, we also discuss:
- Published vs. private writing. I tell writers they may share whatever they like with me and the class. As a community of writers, we will share with each other. Most of our writing will be public, but some will be private.
- A community of writers. Writing and sharing ideas requires maturity and acceptance. Not everyone will agree is largely my motto (about negotiables, not human rights), and I stress with students that they may read and provide feedback with topics in which they do not agree.
- Routines. Writers write. That sentence might sound silly, but some people believe that humans are born with a skill to write or they are not. Writing well takes practice. The practice can be short and unconnected to a larger product. I typically begin each week with a quick writing prompt, and we share our responses, which of course, builds that community of writers.
Whatever you are teaching—a creative writing unit or a creative writing class—spend some time establishing your expectations and goals with your students. Laying a foundation is never a waste of time! In fact, I believe so much in the power of the first week of a creative writing class that I have a blog post devoted to the concept.
Time: 2-3 days
First weeks: creative nonfiction
Creative nonfiction seems to be the genre of our time. Memoirs, essays, and hermit-crab essays flood bookstores and journals.
When students read captions on social media, profiles of their favorite artists, or long Threads, they are reading creative nonfiction. Not only should students be able to dissect this form of writing, but they should also be able to write in our society’s preferred genre.
Below, I’ve outlined creative nonfiction activities that work with teenagers.
Nonfiction Narrative Writing
Writing narratives (and meeting those standards) are trickier with older students. As a teacher, I struggle: Students will often tell me deep, meaningful, and personal parts of their lives, and I am supposed to grade those writings!
When students write a narrative, I address this situation immediately. Share with writers that their narrative ideas are strong (I believe that to be the truth!), and that in no way are we grading their ideas. Rather, we want their excellent narratives to be communicated in the best light; therefore, we will provide guidance about the structures of narrative writing.
The topic for a nonfiction narrative varies. Often, students write about themselves as learners or as community members. Framing students in a positive way allows them to explore their strengths in life and to build confidence as writers.
Time: 7-9 days
An object essay might sound like a “blah” type of assignment, but the simplicity allows students to push past their normal experiences. An object essay is simple, so they can experiment with their writing.
What object? I have assigned this essay several ways. For instance, I have brought in a very plain object (like a rock) and had students explain it. I like this approach because students can work together to discover the best descriptions.
Another way, my preferred way, is to allow students to choose the object. Students write about a coffee cup, water bottle, car keys, or bus pass. When students choose, the essays are richer with meaning.
Neither approach disappoints me, though! With a plain object, students must stretch themselves to be creative. Judge what your class needs and get students writing!
Time: 3-4 days
No, not a “how to make a peanut butter and jelly sandwich” paper. A fun and meaningful how-to paper can encourage classes as they see themselves as experts.
What I like about a how-to paper is students get to be the expert in their paper. Finding a used vehicle to buy? Shopping for a formal event? Saving money? Cleaning a closet? Selling at consignment stores? Each writer has an area in which they shine, and a how-to paper allows them to share their knowledge with others. They write about “behind the scenes” or little known secrets.
Of all the creative writing activities, I assign the how-to paper early. It builds confidence in young writers.
Time: 5 days
Sell this Apple
Why an apple? When I wanted students to creatively sell something, I searched for something they could all have in common but sell in different ways. I wanted classes to have one object but to witness the multiple approaches for advertising. Apples (which I could also afford to bring to class) fit nicely.
What do students sell when they “sell an apple”?
- Apple pie.
- Dips for apples.
- Apples for preschool snacks.
- Charcuterie apple boards.
- Apple crisp.
- Red and green apple rainbows.
Basically, students can create a marketing plan for multiple age groups and other demographics. For instance, they can write a blog post about safety in cutting pieces for young children (and complete some research in the process). They can then “promote” a local apple orchard or fruit stand.
Another advertisement is an apple pie recipe for a Thanksgiving brochure for a supermarket.
When I gave students something simple, like an apple, they ran with the idea. Then, we can share our ideas for selling apples.
A profile is difficult to write, so this assignment is normally my last assignment of the quarter. Before we switch to writing fiction, we apply all our concepts learned to writing a profile.
Profiles are more than summaries of the person. Writers must take an angle and articulate the person’s traits utilizing Showing vs. Telling. Of all creative writing assignments, the profile, might be the most difficult. I place it in the middle of the semester so that writers understand our goals in class but are not tired from the end of the semester.
Time: 10-12 days
Final weeks: fiction
Fantasy, historical fiction, mystery, romance: Students consume a variety of fiction via books, movies, and shows. Fictional creative writing activities invite young writers into worlds they already consume.
Below, I’ve outlined some that work with teenagers.
Grab some googly eyes or some construction paper and send students loose. (A few guidelines help. Should students remove the googly eyes from the principal’s office door?) Have them adhere the eyes to an inanimate object to make a “being” who learns a lesson. They should snap a picture and write a quick story about the learned lesson.
What type of lesson? Perhaps an apple with a bruise learns that it still has value and is loved with blemishes. Maybe a fire extinguisher realizes that its purpose is important even if it isn’t fancy.
Honestly, the creativity with the googly eyes adhered to inanimate objects is so simple, but it always is my favorite event of the semester. I officially call it the “alternative point-of-view” activity, but “googly eyes” is how my writers remember it.
Time: 2 days
Create a Superhero with a Template
A superhero does not need to wear a cape or fancy shoes. Rather, in this creative writing activity, students build a superhero from a normal individual. When I created the activity, I envisioned students writing about a librarian or volunteer, but students often write about a grandparent (adorable).
Since students enjoy graphic novels, I wanted students to experience making a graphic novel. The colorful sheets allow students to add their ideas and words to pages that fit their messages.
After students create a comic book, they will also write a brief marketing campaign for a target audience. Learning about who would buy their graphic novel typically leads them to parents and librarians which should lead students to discover the importance of reading. The advertising campaign additionally serves as a reflective component for the initial activity.
Product reviews and question/answer sections are a genre all their own. SO! Have students write reviews and questions/answers for goofy products. Students will find a product and write several reviews and questions/answers.
This quick activity lends itself to extension activities. Once, a teacher emailed me and said her school bought some of the goofy products for a sort of “sharing” day with the school. Since students have access to pictures of the item, you can make a “catalog” for the class out of a Canva presentation and share it with them and your colleagues.
Here are a few examples:
Aside from the alternative point-of-view activity, the product reviews remain my personal favorite part of a creative writing unit. Writers find random products and write goofy workups that they share with the class.
Time: 3 days
Creating a well-rounded and interesting character requires prep work. The brainstorming part of the writing process, the pre-writing? We spend lots of time in that area as we create fleshed out characters.
I like to start with a multiple-choice activity. We begin my imagining the main character. Next, students take a “quiz” as the character. How does the character eat? What sort of movies does the character enjoy? hate? After the multiple-choice activity, they can derive what those pieces explain about their characters. Finally, they can begin to brainstorm how those pieces will develop in their story.
Flash fiction is a simple, short story. Writers might cheer when they hear I expect a 300-word story, but often, they discover it is a challenging assignment from class. A large part of a creative writing unit is giving students a variety of lengths so they can practice their skills under different circumstances.
Historical fiction is a popular genre, and classes are familiar with many popular historical fiction books. I find it helpful to have several books displayed to inspire students. Additionally, I read from the books to demonstrate dialogue, pacing, theme, and more.
Since my historical fiction activity takes at least two weeks to accomplish, we work on that tough standard for narrative writing. To that end, these activities target the hardest components:
- Pacing within a narrative.
- Developing a theme.
- Building imagery.
- Creating external conflicts in a story.
- Establishing a setting.
First, I used pictures to inspire students, to get them brainstorming. Second, I created those activities to solve a problem that all writers (no matter the age!) have: Telling vs. Showing. I found that my writers would add dialogue that was heavy on explanation, too “world building” for their narrative. The story sounded forced, so I took a step back with them and introduced mini-activities for practicing those skills.
Third, the above creative writing activities can EASILY be assignments independently for short and fun assignments. I teach them with historical fiction because that activity is at the end of the semester when my expectations are higher, and because students enjoy writing historical fiction so they are invested.
But! You can easily add them to another narrative activity.
Time: 10-12 days
A clean tabloid! Tabloids are largely replaced by online social sharing creators, so they are fun to review with students. Students might not be familiar with tabloids at the grocery store checkout, but they are familiar with catchy headlines. They will be completely ready to write a tabloid!
To ensure a clean tabloid, I ask students to write about a children’s show, something scandalous happening from a cartoon. The results are hysterical.
Time: 4 days
I have two introductory activities for the children’s book. One, students answer questions about a mentor text (another children’s book). Two, students evaluate the language of a specific book to start them in their brainstorming.
My students write their children’s book as a final activity in class as it requires all the elements of creative writing. When a school requires me to give a final exam, students write a reflection piece on their children’s books. If you are looking for a finale for your creative writing unit, a children’s book is a satisfying ending as students have a memorable piece.
Time 10-12 weeks
Final note on creative writing activities and bundle
I intended for this post to inspire you and give you ideas for teaching either a creative writing unit or a creative writing class in ELA. My first time through teaching creative writing, I worried that my lessons would flop and that students would not find their groove with me. I found success, but with modifications, I formed a cohesive semester.
The first time through, I did not frontload information and expectations. (Spending time at the start of class is my biggest message! Please establish groundwork with students!) I also did not provide concrete enough guidelines so students understood the differences between the assignments. After a few semesters, I developed my creative writing unit. With a variety of activities and an appropriate amount of structure, I found success, and I hope you do too.
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