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Bearing Witness to the Magic of Creative Communities




Bradley Sides, MA & MFA

English Instructor, Calhoun Community College

Author of Those Fantastic Lives and Crocodile Tears Didn’t Cause the Flood


For over a decade, I’ve worked to build creative communities focused on student success. Specifically, my experience has been shaped by instructing creative writing to high school students, leading numerous creative writing workshops, and now, at Calhoun Community College, teaching creative writing and co-advising Sigma Kappa Delta, which is the English honor society for two-year colleges. One thing I’ve learned with certainty is that there is real, valuable magic when we harness the potential of creative communities.   


In my creative writing classes, for example, the expectation is that we will discuss stories–and that we will discuss them often. Gathered at a table with eager emerging writers in the first few weeks of class, I give time to each student to read from a work they’ve poured their heart into. They introduce their first story by telling us what inspired it and what they hope it does, and, once they’ve done the job of building anticipation, they read from the very thing that reflects them, opening themselves to all of us as they share their fears, loves, and desires. When the short reading is over, there is silence. There is always, always silence. We are all a part of the world that has just been introduced, and we linger in it just a moment longer. Community begins bubbling in this instance. We want to know more. We need to know more. So we ask questions. 


I find that the seemingly simple task of proposing questions about someone’s work is where the real connections for community begin. Students want to know more–and they want to engage. They want to recommend other texts. They want to show TikToks. They want to share memes. These actions show that others in the room cared about the original story being told and, maybe even more importantly, they listened to the story being told. Without fail, after the first story workshop, these students become a community. They are together in the foyer. They come to Book Club together. They are early to class, and they want to stay after. They do these things because they feel that they belong, and this sense of belonging is where and how success begins. 


While creative-driven courses and organizations are certainly an ideal place to focus on building creative communities, I’ve found that these kinds of learning groups can develop in more traditional types of courses, too. In fact, I work to build these same kinds of environments in my composition courses by offering samples of creative possibilities. 


An early focus of my first-semester composition course is identifying audience and purpose. I give students small creative prompts as we begin. Here’s a simple one: You are a parent. Write a note to put on the fridge telling your twelve-year-old son not to eat the pizzas you are taking to a work lunch scheduled for tomorrow. Once they’ve chuckled and written for a couple of minutes, I give a different kind of situation: You are a new employee. Write an email to your very scary boss about how your colleague continues to eat your pizza lunch. Both prompts are borderline ridiculous, but they get students sharing their responses and also sharing about themselves. They talk about their hungry kids, their greedy colleagues, their scary bosses, and their sudden desire for pizza. Small communities are being built, and they are founded on guiding principles related to creativity. 


Just this past semester, my composition courses read Calhoun Community College’s Common Read text, Thi Bui’s The Best We Could Do. On our first day of discussion, I gave the students sheets of stories and essays from other literary works related to themes of home, immigration, family, and struggle–all major focuses in Bui’s graphic memoir. I asked students to create blackout poetry inspired by The Best We Could Do. We talked, as a group, as they drew, colored, and created their own poetry. By the end of class, students wanted to share what they had created, and they also wanted to share about themselves–their own stories and how they connected with Bui’s. By the end of the session, students knew each other in different ways, and relationships were developing. We were well on our way to establishing a meaningful community.


I encourage you, no matter what area you serve in, to find ways to build on the connecting power of creativity. If you do, you’ll, like me, likely witness magic.    


***

Bradley Sides is the author of two short story collections, Those Fantastic Lives and Crocodile Tears Didn't Cause the Flood. His writing appears in Chapter 16, Chicago Review of Books, Electric Literature, Los Angeles Review of Books, The Millions, The Rumpus, and Southern Review of Books. He holds an MFA from Queens University of Charlotte, where he served as Fiction Editor of Qu. He lives in Huntsville, Alabama, with his wife. On most days, he can be found teaching writing at Calhoun Community College. For more, visit bradley-sides.com.



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