May 22, 2003 - Imagination in Writing

Broadcast on "Coast to Coast": May 22, 2003

AA: I'm Avi Arditti with Rosanne Skirble, and this week on Wordmaster -- some views about encouraging creative writers in American schools.

RS: Virginia Monseau [mon-SO] teaches future English teachers. She's a professor at Youngstown State University in Ohio and outgoing editor of English Journal, published by the National Council of Teachers of English.

AA: Professor Monseau writes this month about the role of imagination in the curriculum. She tells us that, in her opinion, American culture does not place enough value on imagination in children, especially older ones, and she says this is reflected in many classrooms.

MONSEAU: "On the one hand, certainly creativity and imagination would involve inventing stories where you write creatively to invent characters, to invent plot lines and so on. And usually, as far as children and curriculum go, we allow children to do that in the early grades. But, for me, I think there are other ways that we can look at it as well.

"Students don't have to be inventing monsters and flying brooms, a la Harry Potter, that sort of thing, because a lot of children, I think, are very intimidated by that sort of thing and if they're invited to write that way would really be, I think, a little frightened of their ability to do -- whether they could that kind of thing.

"Just encouraging students to see in a work of literature a connection to their lives, for example. Encouraging them to take an unusual perspective on something they read, whether it's a story or a poem or whatever. Those are some of the ways that I define imaginative work in the classroom."

RS: "And how, in that classroom, can you make use of students who speak English as a foreign language?"

MONSEAU: "I think, you know, drawing on or allowing students to draw on their experience. We all have experiences that we can draw on, and if we're reading literature, for example, I think literature does help us make sense of our lives, regardless of what culture we are familiar with or we belong to. So I think that even students who don't have English as their first language, in reading a piece of literature, could still discuss it in that way, by connecting it to their own lives."

AA: According to Professor Monseau, one reason imagination isn't encouraged more is the increasing use of standardized tests to hold teachers and schools accountable for student progress.

MONSEAU: "I think where standardized tests are concerned, yes, it does take away a lot of freedom that teachers might wish they had, because the way the tests are graded is such that structure is really an important element of the scoring process, and I don't know whether you know about the controversial issue of the five-paragraph theme that permeates ... "

AA: "Please talk about that a little bit."

MONSEAU: "I think many teachers still feel comfortable when they're teaching writing, teaching students to write five-paragraph essays, meaning an introductory paragraph, three points that you make as part of the body of the piece and then a concluding paragraph.

"It's a very canned, cut-and-dried way of approaching writing and in many ways it totally stifles any divergent thinking, because students immediately think about their three points that they're going to have and what they're going to say about those three particular points. And then in the concluding paragraph they just tell the reader what they already told them in drawing it together.

"If you teach that to the exclusion of any other way of writing, it can make for some very dry -- and, believe me, I've read so many of those I can tell you -- that they all sound alike and there's really no voice, no writer, no person behind the writing."

RS: "So what you're saying here is that you may start off with this, but expand from there."

MONSEAU: "You do, and I agree that students need to understand that there is a structure to a piece of writing, at least in the beginning, as long as they can move beyond that. I find in teaching college students to write in our freshman composition classes, it is very hard sometimes to break students out of that mold because they've been so used to writing in that way for the last four years as part of their high school work. And when they get to college they have a rude awakening many times, because they realize that they are required to think and that the content of their paper should be their thoughts and not what everyone else has said about this particular topic.

"The sad thing is, I think, that students are not taught that there are so many different ways of writing and that it all depends upon your audience and your purpose. That's one of the things that gets back to the imagination aspect of it. You know, it's sort of like, who are you writing to, first of all, and why are you writing this piece. What are you trying to get across, and what is it going to take for you to do that."

AA: Virginia Monseau is a professor of English and secondary education at Youngstown State University in Youngstown, Ohio, and is herself a former high school English teacher.

RS: That's Wordmaster for this week. Our e-mail address is and our Web site is With Avi Arditti, I'm Rosanne Skirble.

MUSIC: "Imagination"/The Quotations