Sometimes it’s very hard in English lessons to encourage students to be creative, especially when it comes to writing. Often in class there are a few students to whom this comes naturally; the majority pipe up with the phrase, ‘‘how do I start?’’ whilst some just look scared at the prospect and begin planning their escape.
There is a need to inject spontaneity and fun into developing ideas for writing and to encourage students to take risks. Students need to begin to see writing as an art form, constructing narratives and piecing together ideas until they form rich literary narrative, not sticking to a predetermined layout. They have to do as Dorothy did and take a journey down the yellow brick road, exploring new characters, finding the unexpected, and learning things about themselves they didn’t know before. As teachers we need to open up space for this.
As suggested to me in a conference I recently attended, a good way to start this process is to put an emphasis on reading for change, and to mould students into dynamic readers who share their ideas in constructive ways. There is a lot to be said for high quality talk translating into the same level of writing (Dialogic teaching, Alexander, 2006).
WHY TEACH THIS?
We all know the government changes to the structure of the English GCSE in September 2015 will be the perfect opportunity for departments to look at the use of curriculum time and perhaps consider different approaches to teaching the new style exams. With coursework now gone and exams becoming more rigorous, it seems important that we take more of an exploratory and ‘workshop’ style approach to some elements of the course, allowing students to build confidence in exam technique and feel prepared to tackle questions independently.
Colouring from the inside out
Here I refer to an article written by my colleague Caroline Saunders in issue 4.4 of Teach Secondary (Beyond the lines); just as she was encouraging art students to draw without using lines, we should encourage English students to do the same when developing ideas for story writing, in other words colouring their narrative from the inside out.
At the start of the lesson have a series of images displayed on the board and printed out in colour for students to look at. In small groups students should draw out meanings and come up with a range of narrative possibilities.
You may want to support this by encouraging each student to come up with one ordinary, one daring and one ridiculous idea for each image, bringing in an element of risk early on. Students should have 5-10 minutes to look at the stimulus. Then ask one student from each group to move around in a carousel, and share ideas. Students should aim to find as many different ideas that link to the images as possible and report back to their original group. Give students roughly three minutes in each group before moving and repeat as many times as you desire. Hear as many of the ideas as possible.
1. The Lion – finding the courage to write
Teachers may feel at this stage it is appropriate to pick up on one of the ideas from the starter activity and aim to complete a whole class writing piece, using the initial idea as a starting point.
In small groups or as whole class give out 6-8 pieces of A3 paper. Ask students to write a line of the story, inspired by the main idea. Then fold over and pass on. Repeat this 4-8 times. To make it more challenging on each turn display a selection of techniques students should aim to include.
After completion get one student to read out the narrative. Then as a class try to group together ideas from the exercise that fit together, beginning to form the ‘bones’ of the story.
The next step is to flesh out the story; they could do this as a class, in small groups, in pairs or individually. Or write one paragraph as a class and then get the students to explore and play with the narrative, taking it in different directions.
2. The Tin Man – learning to love writing
If you would like to take this path, then get students looking at a range of literature. Ask them to look at summaries and extracts of stories and plays. Here are a few suggestions:
- Metamorphosis (Franz Kafka)
- Mr Stink (David Walliams)
- Great Expectations (Charles Dickens)
- A Monster Calls (Patrick Ness)
- The Famished Road (Ben Okri)
- Enduring Love (Ian McEwan)
- Matilda (Roald Dhal)
- The Ocean at the End of the Lane (Neil Gaiman)
In groups, ask students to explore different themes in the extract they are given. This could range from the obvious to the more subtle depending on ability. Ask students to evaluate how well each of these work.
Next ask students to pick out where the writer has used ordinary, daring and ridiculous ideas within their work. Get them to explore how the writer uses a range of ideas and devices to move the narrative on.
3. The Scarecrow – discovery of imagination
These activities are about getting students to explore their imagination and become more confident writers.
- Give students scenarios or sentence starters that they have to extend into a short narrative. For example ‘The gate swung slowly open…’ One student of mine wrote ‘The gate swung slowly open, for the last time…’, which became an imaginative ‘hook’ into their writing.
- Use ‘story cubes’ with students; get them to roll the dice to determine an imaginative mix of things to include in their writing.
- Have a class box of random objects which students can use as starting points for their work. n Ask students to develop a range of narrative options in response to the activities above, and throw in things that could happen, encouraging them to write in more than one direction.
Ask students to evaluate each other’s work to determine what works best. Ensure they don’t get fixated on one idea and direction; enable them to have a choice. And reassure them that even if it doesn’t work, the process of finding that out is valuable. Once students start thinking in this way about creative writing they will start to “think about the imagination and how it works, of where it might come from, and where it might take you. Then [they’re] in useful trouble.” (Hanif Kureshi).
- Students begin to explore an eclectic mix of art, films and music and generate a stream of consciousness whilst doing this. Students should write down any thoughts/ feelings/ inspiration/ characters that come to mind. They then use these as a basis in the next ‘writing workshop’.
- Students should be given two stock characters (e.g. Miss Havisham and Mr Stink) and they have to write part of a narrative based on their meeting.
- Reading. Students should be constantly challenged to read different types of texts, both fiction and non-fiction. Give them whole texts/ extracts / poetry to read. They could track this by keeping a record in their ‘workshop’ books. Ask students to read a piece ready for discussion in the next workshop.
Get students to reflect back on their work and evaluate the following:
- Have you included daring or ridiculous ideas?
- Have you taken a risk today?
- Did it work? Why? Why not?
- Which ideas did you like the best? Why?
From these teaching strategies students should find themselves walking down roads less travelled and begin to view creative writing in a different light. It should open up their eyes to the idea of literature as art, not so that it takes away the magic but instead (to borrow some words from Grayson Perry, Reith Lectures, 2014) so that “people like the scarecrow and the tin man and the lion might enter the Emerald City of the art world a little smarter, a little braver, and a little fonder.”
ABOUT OUR EXPERT
Caroline Parker is in her fifth year of teaching, having completed her PGCE and Masters degree at the University of Exeter. Caroline is the newly appointed Head of English at Hazelwick School in Crawley.