Thursday, 17 January 2013

Creative Writing: 5 Old Problems and 14 New Principles

Why are boys underperforming in English classes?

I am frequently dissatisfied with the resources on, and approaches to, Creative Writing in the Classroom.

Five of the Problems:

1. Traditional writing exercises are predictable and dull:

e.g.

Describe an interesting encounter
Make a story based on an overheard conversation
Write on a topic chosen by the teacher
Do a 60 minute exam essay.

2. Negative criticism from teachers just makes us feel embarrassed and reminds us of our sense of inadequacy. None the less, some creative productions are better than others, and children can be trusted to see this for themselves!

3. The disobedient curriculum. The creative activities outlined were exercises in being grammatical and were not a spelling test. It's so easy to pick on the tick and the cross, the right and the wrong. We need quality of expression rather than quantification of results.

4. There is a gender gap in English studies that needs to be addressed urgently. Writing exercises often fail to resonate with the boys. We must change this situation.

5. Writing tasks are too safe. We need to aim for risk rather than rules and restrictions.


My Fourteen Principles for Action

1. Work Out

We need to fry our brain, then take a break to recharge our batteries. Making full use of words is like doing a work-out.These outlines are based on short, intense activities, not week long topics and term-long programmes.

2. Locksmiths

Having fun with words is like having lots of keys to unlock the imagination. If we design our own keys we create poetry locksmiths rather than prisons.

3. Play


By having lots of different games and varieties of stimulus we turbo-charge our creativity. The play element is at the core of these activities, rather than performance in curriculum-specific, examined activities.

4. Aesthetics

The children work out the principles of success (good and bad rules) after they have seen for themselves what the best feels like. This approach involves trusting the child’s native, natural capacity for aesthetic delight in great creative work!

5. Freedom

Activities will not be based on the tedious repetition of skills; rote learning; copying; complex techniques; rhetorical jargon. These have their place, but not here.

6. Teacher's roles

Children are far more effective critics than teachers. But teachers can help by fostering creative environments based on diplomacy, decency, fairness, positive tone and pitch, timekeeping, and by helping to develop and manage critical and creative frameworks.

7. Brevity

Writers tend to work in multiple ways across time, and across the writing process. They seldom sit down and write 90-minute exam answers. In my creative activities, the “warm-up” IS the activity. In my view, multiple short tasks need to displace longer concentration-heavy solo activities. In my experience most writers (creative, critical, practical or academic – all sorts) work best in 10-15 minute bursts.

8. Randomness and Risk

Adopting risk means moving away from safe predictability to a capacity to embrace randomness as a starting point. This strategy runs against the grain of the current orthodoxy that builds on strict lesson planning, schemes of work, hard rules, tight instructions etc. I’ll be writing a longer, more theoretical essay on modernism and aleatory creativity at a later date. Suffice to say for now that in my view creativity is Empedoclean: between chaos and structure.

9. Pataphysics and Nonsense

 To become more liberated we had to risk taking a few steps away from sense towards nonsense. This is a paradigm shift. Edward Lear and King Lear have more in common that we imagine. Or, following Alfred Jarry, start to think with pataphysics

10. The Tools

Technology helps in many ways, but remember that it is only a tool, not a displacement activity. Shakespeare was not a genius because he had great hands.  Human interactivity is infinitely more subtle and varied than mechanical reproduction, and iterative simulation is always just what it is: a second hand experience.

11. Screens

Likewise, remember that we spend too much time looking into screens. The screen can become a prison house; recall that the screen/veil blocks out other forms of interpersonal encounters and experiences.

12. Unmaking

Turn the world/word upside down and back to front. Creativity is the power of making and unmaking. Worlds make words and words make worlds.

13. Age of Discovery

We have become obsessed with activities designed for a specific age or ability range. The Genius is a Child at Heart, and the reverse is also true. Some of the activities that I used I classes worked just as well with 5 year old children as they did with students in their final year at University.

14. Trust

While there’s quite a lot for the teacher to do as an experimental facilitator and inspiring guide, a high degree of responsibility, ownership and trust is ideally passed back to the creative learners.


Further Information

In the next blog in this sequence, there is a work in progress that outlines 52 Creative Writing Activities.

See also my blog on The Myth of Writer's Block.

Thanks for reading: I look forward to hearing about your experiences and to reading your views.

© Dr Ian McCormick 2013

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