Story Workshops for Teaching Creative Writing

The cover of Jessie Ann Foley's new book,

When Jessie Ann Foley, MEd Language, Literacies and Learning '05, uses story workshops to teach creative writing to her students at CPS Taft High School, she employs a strategy called “take-a-place.”  She encourages her students to envision a location in their minds and to reflect on the close-up sounds of the place and the faraway sounds.  What objects are in the place, what is the quality of life in the place?

Why is this imaginative process key?  It’s the same strategy used by Foley in publishing the award-winning young adult fiction novel “The Carnival at Bray” after she visited Ireland in 2010.

“I was in this town (Bray) about 30 minutes outside of Dublin, and there was a carnival there that was right on the Irish Sea, this forlorn looking place that I thought was such a beautiful setting for a story,” Foley said. “When I got back, I wrote it just as a short story, and two years later it turned into a novel.”

Foley’s book earned the 2015 Michael L. Printz Honor Award from the American Library Association, which annually honors the best books written for teens exemplifying literary excellence.  The novel tells the story of Maggie Lynch, a displaced Chicagoan and grunge music fan, living in Bray.  Maggie was uprooted from her friends, her music scene, and her beloved Uncle Kevin when her romantically fickle mother married her latest boyfriend, resulting in a move to his hometown.  During her time of difficult adjustment to Ireland, Maggie falls in love with Eoin the very moment a devastating loss hits her family, leading to rebellion and a journey to Rome to see Nirvana and fulfill Uncle Kevin's wish for her.

She started converting the short story into a novel after a literary agent expressed interest in her short stories but asked for something longer.  She began writing in September 2012 and finished the book a year later.  Her students at Taft voted on their favorite version of a cover, and their winning selection was eventually chosen by the publisher.

The book has also garnered awards including the Chicago Reader Best Books of 2014, the 2014 Helen Sheehan Young Adult Book Prize, the Kirkus Reviews Best Books of 2014 and recognition as a finalist for the William C. Morris Award.

Foley did not plan for her book to be a young adult novel, but she says she defaulted to the voice of a teen because of the age group she works with in the classroom.  While she has taught classes across the English Language Arts spectrum, including American Literature, British Literature, Advanced Composition, film and speech, she remains most passionate about creative writing.

Foley utilizes a technique called the story workshop method, a series of words games and group critiques such as take-a-place.  In 2014, she opened her creative writing class with a personal essay unit because many of her students felt overwhelmed with the idea of simply making up a story, of writing without any rules or boundaries.

“Their whole educational experience in writing up to that point is learning thesis statements and structure and building an argument, but when you tell them to write a story, they say, ‘How many pages does it have to be?’” Foley said. “Starting with something that is familiar to them like a personal essay, and then moving into reading a story that demonstrates a skill such as dialogue writing allows them to then try to write that way on their own.”

Foley is working on a second novel, again in the young adult fiction genre.  This book focuses on two best friends who attend an all-girls high school on the northwest side of Chicago.  In their junior year, they find out their school is closing and they will have to transfer to a new public school their senior year.  Her book details the dynamics, struggles and successes of the two girls as they make this major life shift.