Using an Exemplar to Develop Student Creativity and Voice

6342247835_688a9c2fcd_bBy Elizabeth Jorgensen

I frequently use professional exemplars in Creative Writing. One of my favorite authors is Sandra Cisneros. Her novel, House on Mango Street, is particularly effective in inspiring my students to write specifically, creatively and with a variety of stylistic devices.

In one assignment, students read the chapter “Hairs.” Then, I ask students to identify when Cisneros uses the following stylistic devices: metaphors, similes, personification, alliteration, repetition and sensory details. In the 158 word chapter, students identify 32 stylistic devices.

After, students discuss the effect of each stylistic device and the chapter’s content. Students explain how Cisneros reveals information about the narrator’s family through a discussion of one physical trait: hair. Students note in her first paragraph, she describes the hair of the narrator’s father and the hair of her siblings, using descriptions to give the reader insight into each of their personalities. Students also recognize that Cisneros reveals the narrator’s feelings towards her mother in the passage, using a variety of stylistic devices to achieve this effect.

Then, I ask my students to think about the people in their lives—their family, friends, co-workers, teammates. I ask them to think about the characteristics they share with the people in their lives and those that make them distinctive. Although Cisneros chose to write about hair, I tell my students they could write about any physical or personality trait. I prompt students with suggestions: eye color, height, personality, sense of humor, cooking ability, athleticism, hands. I ask my students: Is the trait you want to write about one you share with your family/friends/teammates or yours alone? How might you present your piece like Cisneros did with metaphors, similes, personification, alliteration, repetition and sensory details?

Using “Hairs” as a model, students then write a vignette about their own life, discussing an important trait and how it reveals something about the person who possesses it and their relationship to him/her. Although Cisneros used six stylistic devices for a total of 32 times, I require 12 in each student’s vignette. Students share the vignettes and then we submit them to Teen Ink, a national teen publication. Here are two students who had their vignettes published: 1 and 2.

What students tell me they enjoy about the exercise is that they practice skills in a creative way. Students also say they enjoy writing about their own lives. What I most appreciate is how specific, poetic and interesting the pieces turn out—and how students are able to effectively implement stylistic devices and creativity in a vignette about their own lives.

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