Faculty Focus


Big Time Magic: Creative Writing Pedagogy in the Accelerated Learning Program Classroom

Open book with magic stars

Quick: what is your favorite class to teach? Chances are this is not a particularly tough question for most faculty to answer. If you are like many teachers, the subjects which geek you out the most are the ones that tip your enthusiasm meter to bliss.

For many MFA degree holders moored to composition positions, this class is our single section of creative writing: the fun, talented, slightly unruly child you favor over your less sparkly kids with only a twinge of guilt. Since the course is universally an elective at community colleges, there is the added bonus that students want to be in creative writing. They choose to be there. The first time I heard the term “co-requisite remediation,” it sounded like something that is done to you, like a painful spinal adjustment. Billy, hold very still so that we do not have to restrain you during your co-requisite remediation. What it does not sound like is anyone’s favorite class, teacher, or student.

When my Dean approached me to create a pilot course in developmental writing, I wanted to abandon the workbook structure of deficit-based remediation and create a more engaged and inclusive experience for learners.  Like many community colleges, we were streamlining our developmental offerings and very excited about the research in Accelerated Learning Programs (ALP) coming out of the Community College of Baltimore County (CCBC). I had the great benefit of attending a pre-conference workshop at the Conference on Acceleration in Developmental Education (CADE) with Dr. Peter Adams the summer before I taught my first developmental writing section. The subject was non-cognitive issues, something I thought I had a decent grasp of, as I am a devotee to both relationship-based and compassionate pedagogies. Such strategies rely on our abilities as educators to bear witness to traumas large and small; we have asked students for their stories, and we cannot leave them wanting an empathetic ear. What is the creation of any art if not a balm for the soul? Non-cognitive issues for developmental writers take on an entirely new dimension when immersed in the ALP philosophy, which strives to both remove the developmental stigma and give students more agency. As I listened to Dr. Adams speak about persistence, self-efficacy, emotional health, teamwork, community, and responsibility, something about the way he characterized “the cohort effect” began to feel familiar (Adams, 2015). The end of the semester is a celebration of writing! Students, even the most introverted, form genuine bonds of friendship with fellow classmates. This is what every professor who facilitates a creative writing workshop hopes for by the semester’s end. If these phenomena occur frequently in a class like creative writing, why not in my other classes? More importantly, what is really so different about that environment? The students? Perhaps my approach to the subject matter could use a little more magic and a little less spinal adjustment.

Enthusiasm for your subject matter does not a pedagogy make; therefore, the scaffolding of assignments and structure of the cohort itself in any linked, accelerated developmental course are essential. We decided on a 14 to 10 ratio of students, with the 10 developmental writers meeting directly after the credit-bearing composition section. In addition to forming strong bonds as a small group, the cohort effect also relies on the idea that exposure to college level writers as peers in the composition section allows developmental writers “access to role models who are stronger writers and more savvy about ‘doing college.’” (Adams & McKusick, 2014, p.18). We talk a lot about the cult of influence in creative writing, in which emerging poets and fiction writers examine and analyze craft elements of writers they admire and aspire to model. A student in a writing workshop with a single, gorgeous simile might be sitting next to one who produced a clunker of a cliché. Instead of, “I can’t do that,” the student with the clunker asks, “How did you do that?” Luckily, writers of all stripes like to talk about process.

After the jolt of inspiration I experienced at CADE, I went in search of supplemental text. Let me tell you, this is a confusing world for those of us who are neither by trade nor training developmental learning experts. What I really wanted for the pilot class was something akin to a common read selection. Libraries, reading groups, and First Year Experience (FYE) programs everywhere have great success with titles that feel like non-required reading to students. Pick an interesting book and let that be the basis for everything from class discussion to minor assignments to fun, engaging reflections. I tell my students on the first day of class that writing is about ideas. Why not assign a text to reflect this—especially one that might also serve as an inspirational model for developmental writers? What if the big idea for the entire semester was creativity and not comma splices?

Enter Elizabeth Gilbert’s Big Magic. This book is unapologetically goofy and cloaks its no-nonsense, kick-your-muse-off-the-couch self-help vibe with equal parts fairy dust and practical advice. The chapter titles—Courage, Enchantment, Permission, Persistence, Trust, and Divinity—directly hit so many of the non-cognitive marks essential to ALP that it instantly felt like a perfect match for an accelerated workshop. Since I normally trick my regular composition classes by treating the first few weeks of the narrative unit exactly like a creative writing class, what if I continued to immerse my developmental writers with subjects addressing and inspiring creativity for the entire semester? ALP pedagogy tells us that students must see the big picture, the big thing we want them to do well. In a composition course, this big thing is to master the academic essay, not its working parts in isolation. Imagine taking a woodshop class. First, we’re going to test your woodworking skills with a flawed, inequitable measure. Looks like you have some real deficits. In a small, stigmatized group, let’s work on sanding over here, hammering nails over there. Professor Voldemort will show you the plans for the birdhouse we want you to build only after you master these tasks. Every time I have overheard a student mutter a version of “this is stupid,” you can bet the more direct translation is: “This makes me feel stupid.” A workbook approach to developmental writing breeds the kind of “deep-rooted erroneous beliefs about learning that shape most remedial programs” according to reformers like the dearly missed Mike Rose (2012, p. 12).

An ALP class worthy of including the word “workshop” in its title can borrow a few ideas from creative writing, where everyone is a beginner. Here, upfront and center, are the big, complicated plans for the poem or short story we want you to write. Make mistakes; try different tools. We are all going to become better writers along the way. Not only can you build this birdhouse/essay/poem, you are also capable of creativity, humor, clarity, ethical research, and, yes: eloquence. A handout I still give to students—so vintage it always feels fresh from the mimeograph machine—is Kurt Vonnegut’s excellent essay “How To Write With Style,” which, like Gilbert’s book, treats writers as if they are capable of doing all of the big things we want for them, and not the lowered expectation version. “Pity the reader,” Vonnegut advises. A sharp-elbowed way of insisting on a concept for which every writer needs a reminder: writing is for someone, received in the brain of a fellow human: your audience of readers.

What does this look like in the classroom? For me, it involves borrowing the best activities from creative writing and applying them to another writing context: part collaborative workshop with its laughter and risks, part First Year Experience course with its practical advice, positive psychology confidence boosters, and individual attention, and another part book club with the chaotic, insistent expression of ideas, opinion, reflection, and inspiration. Gilbert has a wonderful notion on the origin of ideas: that they are a kind of bodiless, magical force looking for expression. In Big Magic, she writes: “Ideas are driven by a single impulse: to be made manifest. And the only way an idea can be made manifest in our world is through collaboration with a human partner” (Gilbert, 2015, p.35). Every semester in my developmental writing workshops, I hope the same for my students: that they are both receptive to the Big Time Magic of ideas trying to get their attention, and willing to do the rewarding work of creativity and rhetoric in order to usher them into the world.

Melanie Dusseau holds an MA in English Language and Literature from The University of Toledo, and an MFA in Creative Writing from Southern Illinois University, Carbondale. She has taught Composition, Literature, and Creative Writing full-time at Northwest State Community College since 2011. When creating the co-requisite developmental writing pilot, the power of storytelling and creativity became the guiding pedagogy, and this focus continues in both Composition and ALP/developmental writing at NSCC.


Adams, P., & McKusick, D. (2014). Steps and missteps: Redesigning, piloting, and scaling a developmental writing program. New Directions for Community Colleges, 167, 15-25. doi:10.1002/cc.20107

Adams, P. (2015, June). Non-Cognitive issues in the accelerated classroom. Pre-conference workshop presented at the 7th Annual Conference on Acceleration in Developmental Education, Costa Mesa, CA.

Gilbert, E. (2015). Big magic: Creative living beyond fear. New York, NY: Riverhead Books.

Rose, M. (2012). Back to school: Why everyone deserves a second chance at education. New York, NY: The New Press.