Creative Writing – Poetry Workshop

I was reminded today of one of my career highlights. When I was a keen young second-in-English, I organised a creative writing workshop for enthusiastic students of all ages with a visiting poet, Anthony Dunn. He ran a great workshop which I have adapted and run myself numerous times since. Here’s how it works:

The shock of the unexpected – The Jaguar

The world rolls under the long thrust of his heel

The world rolls under the long thrust of his heel

The first exercise is a cloze using Ted Hughes’ poem The Jaguar. Here it is (download link):

The Jaguar

The apes yawn and 1________ their fleas in the sun.

The parrots shriek as if they were on fire, or strut

Like cheap tarts to attract the stroller with the nut.

Fatigued with indolence, tiger and lion

Lie still as the sun. The boa-constrictor’s coil

Is a fossil. Cage after cage seems empty, or

Stinks of sleepers from the 2__________ straw.

It might be painted on a nursery wall.

But who runs like the rest past these arrives

At a cage where the crowd stands, stares, mesmerized,

As a child at a dream, at a jaguar hurrying enraged

Through prison darkness after the 3_________ of his eyes

On a short fierce fuse. Not in boredom—

The eye satisfied to be blind in fire,

By the 4_________ of blood in the brain deaf the ear—

He spins from the bars, but there’s no cage to him

More than to the visionary his cell:

His stride is 5_____________ of freedom:

The world rolls under the long thrust of his heel.

Over the cage floor the 6____________ come.

The aim of this exercise is to get the students to think of the word that fits the gap, then not to use that word but to think of a far more  interesting word to use instead. Ask them to feed this back and discuss their choices, and what the do to the sense of the poem. Finally, show them Hughes’ version. His language choices a startling – muscular, electric, and totally unexpected. This is what we are aiming for in our writing: language which shocks the reader into attention.

Getting the words flowing – free writing

Next, get the students to write for two minutes without stopping. There should be no brief other than that quality control doesn’t matter, and that the writing won’t be shared. The only rule is that they must continue writing at all times, without pause or hesitation, whatever comes into their heads. Anthony Dunn uses this technique as a warm-up whenever he sits down to write. It overcomes the fear of the blank page, gets words flowing from the brain to the pen, and allows inspiration to come from the mundane external world or the internal monologue the writer has with themselves. The work the students go on to produce will be written underneath the free-write; the fact that the page is already half-filled with poorly-structured, half-formed thoughts in a messy scrawl is liberating and enables more of an anything-goes approach to the creative process.

Focusing on the detail – describing the everyday

Knitted wool - seen close-up!

Knitted wool – seen close-up!

The final warm-up is to describe an everyday object with the closest scrutiny and attention to detail possible. Anthony Dunn used his jumper, a particularly chunky knit as I recall! I have since used a board rubber, jacket, and a classroom clock. It doesn’t need to be coherent, but the description should try to capture the detail of the object with as much clarity as is possible. Reward this in the feedback!

The main event – bring on the metaphor

The final creative task is to write a poem in which an everyday object serves as a metaphor or vehicle for another idea. I usually ask them to look in their bags or pencil cases, or around the classroom, for an object they can use, but I have also provided stimulus objects on cards before (a mirror, a clock, a ring, a coin). Through the close description of the everyday object, they should aim to shed light on the broader or deeper idea they are exploring. Memorably, one student wrote a series of monologues as different mirrors including in a shop changing room, a handbag compact, and a car rear-view mirror, giving their perspectives on what they reflected. Others have used clocks and watches to meditate on the merciless march of time. My career highlight, however, was a collaborative poem written by two students in the very first session with Anthony Dunn, using the sharpening of a pencil.

sharpening a pencil

The sharpening of a pencil

Clara and Eleanor’s poem was so good, I submitted it to the TES back when they published student poetry, and it made the paper in November 2001. I still have the clipping. I hope they won’t mind my reproducing it here:

The sharpening of a pencil

Lead to the table top,

The first twist around the metal pole

The striptease continues.

Slowly she sheds her dirty skin,

Leaving her lingering scent behind her.

Around the newly revealed figure,

Lie the peeled coils of colour.

As the rhythmic turns continue

A crowd of stubble gathers.

Tapping in trays, piles of ash form,

A dense black smoke mingles

Around her new body.

She turns: Clean. Pure. Sharp.

Getting straight to the point.

On occasions like this, when I’m privileged to be the midwife to creativity, I am reminded that there is no better job in the world than teaching – and these are not rare occasions. How lucky we are.

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What is English?

English is a subject suitable for women and the second- and third-rate men who are to become schoolmasters” (Professor Sanday, 1893)

School Subject of English

Everyone knows what English is, don’t they? Say “I’m an English teacher” and everyone’s pretty clear what you do. But the subject “English” is an amorphous, nebulous thing. Brilliant minds have tried to quantify it for almost a hundred years, since the Newbolt Report (1921), through Bullock’s “Language for Life” (1975), and on to Kingman (1988) and Cox (1989). The first National Curriculum sprang from the work of Cox in particular, and since then successive governments have laid out what they believe English to be.

English is a vital way of communicating in school, in public life and internationally. Literature in English is rich and influential, reflecting the experience of people from many countries and times. In studying English pupils develop skills in speaking, listening, reading and writing. It enables them to express themselves creatively and imaginatively and to communicate with others effectively. Pupils learn to become enthusiastic and critical readers of stories, poetry and drama as well as non-fiction and media texts. The study of English helps pupils understand how language works by looking at its patterns, structures and origins. Using this knowledge pupils can choose and adapt what they say and write in different situations. (Introduction to The Importance of English (2000) – from National Curriculum for English (2000). See also KS3 English National Curriculum 2007 for a slightly revised version)

We are now at an important – nay, critical – juncture in the definition of English in secondary schools. Michael Gove has laid out for consultation his proposals for a national curriculum, with specific details for English at Key Stage 4. Here’s the new take:

English has a pre-eminent place in education and in society. It is a subject in its own right and the medium for teaching; for pupils, understanding language provides access to the whole curriculum. Through being taught to write and speak fluently, pupils learn to communicate their ideas and emotions to others; through their reading and listening, others can communicate with them. Through reading in particular, pupils have a chance to develop culturally, emotionally, spiritually and socially. Literature, especially, plays a key role in such development. Reading also enables pupils both to acquire knowledge and to build on what they already know. All the skills of language are essential to participating fully as a member of society; pupils, therefore, who do not learn to read and write fluently and confidently, are, in every sense, disenfranchised. (Purpose of Study from Draft KS4 English Curriculum (2013))

There are obvious changes in emphasis here. Gone is the mention of international aspects of English, reference to media, specific references to creativity and imagination. In their place a greater emphasis on knowledge, the notion of English as a carrier for the rest of the curriculum, and that deliberately political reference to franchise.

But this isn’t why this is such a critical juncture. We’ve had national curriculum redrafts before (see National Curriculum Comparisons) but since I’ve been a teacher we haven’t had the freedom and independence that we have now. As Michael Rosen noted in his brilliant letter from a curious parent recently, the new national curriculum does not apply to academies (or free schools or independent schools, for that matter). If you are a subject leader in an academy, you can start with a blank sheet of paper and you can decide what you think the English curriculum should be. Of course, exam specifications at Key Stage 4 and post-16 will still straitjacket your curriculum to an extent. But you can write your own rationale and develop a curriculum in English that’s right – right for you, right for your context, morally, spiritually,politically and culturally right.  This is an opportunity unprecedented in my career.

english

I am not a subject leader in English any more – but I was. And I have been thinking long and hard about this opportunity. Here’s what I feel “English” is:

English is reading

Reading for pleasure, of course. Reading with discrimination and the ability to infer and deduce. Reading widely across genres and forms. Reading multi-modally, to understand and assimilate the web of links behind online and multimedia texts.

English is writing 

Writing confidently, fluently, skilfully. Writing accurately and clearly. Writing with craft and attention to detail. Writing creatively. Writing for self-expression. Writing for purpose. Writing in many voices, genres and forms. Writing multi-modally. Writing for pleasure.

English is speaking and listening

Speaking confidently, fluently, skilfully. Listening sensitively, thoughtfully, carefully. Speaking formally and informally. Speaking to present, discuss, perform, share, explore, explain and argue.  Listening to different voices, perspectives and views. Listening to understand, learn, and grow.

English is functional

Students need to understand the mechanics of English. They need a metalanguage to be able to explore and analyse how the language works. There is a knowledge base that needs to be taught in order to achieve this. The application of this knowledge supports the understanding needed for effective and critical listening and for powerful and purposeful speaking and writing.

English is cultural

English language and literature documents culture. Students need to explore that cultural heritage widely and with an understanding about the threads of common humanity that transcend time and place. The English cultural heritage is important, but the place of England and English in a wider British and global culture is equally so. The great richness that our history, present and future as a multicultural melting pot has brought to our language and literature is critical. And the use of various Englishes globally to express multiple cultural realities is essential.

English is humanising

In 1868 the Rev. G.G. Bradley, Headmaster of Marlborough school, said “I would give unusual weight to the teaching of English language, literature and history, to attempt to humanise and refine a boy’s mind”. Whilst I think his agenda was somewhat different to mine, there is something vital that happens in the English classroom that must not be lost. Somewhere in the collective experience of exploring the thoughts and feelings of other people through the language they use, we all learn more about what it is to be human. We learn about empathy and understanding others, and about self-expression, and through this combination we learn about ourselves and who we are.

teachingenglish

It’s no wonder we struggle with effective assessment in English. With a subject as diverse, culturally and politically loaded, and profound as this, any assessment can only possibly look at small fragments of it. Planning the delivery of a curriculum like this is a monumental task, and actually teaching it a staggering responsibility. But what a pleasure and a privilege it is. I wouldn’t have it any other way.

“Thinking aloud” and teaching the writing process

This month’s #blogsync is all about classroom practice – “A Teaching and Learning strategy intended to elicit the highest levels of student motivation in my subject” – and I have revisited some work I did with Nottingham University on cognitive approaches to writing some years ago.

The Theory – intended impact and reflection on effect

The cognitive theories of writing – Flower and Hayes (1981, revised 1996) and Bereiter and Scardamalia – focus on the processes in the brain of the “expert” writer as opposed to the “novice” or student writer. Essentially, the theory goes, the writing process consists of two bodies of knowledge – content knowledge (knowledge of what you are writing about) and discourse knowledge (knowledge of how you construct a piece of writing). At its simplest, this process is rendered as “Knowledge Telling”:

knowledgetelling

Critical to the understanding of this process is that it is only when pupils have a confident grasp of one body of knowledge can they focus intently on improving the other. The “expert” writer has highly developed discourse knowledge and is able to use processes such as planning, organising, translating and reviewing to interact with the writing problem in front of them (e.g. essay title, #blogsync theme…) to move into a model which is closer to “knowledge transforming”:

knowledgetransforming

In the latter model, the dual problems of what to write and how to write it are constantly redeveloped and reassessed in the light of one another. This is cognitively complex, but it is the model towards which we should  be moving students in the teaching of the writing process.

I am enacting the knowledge transforming process now in this blog post, constantly deleting and rewriting sentences, changing the order, cutting and pasting a section from here to there, but what you, the reader, will see is the finished product, not the process. And, in teaching, the process is the most important thing. Providing students with examples of the finished product (“an A-grade essay looks like this…”) is not futile, but far more important is to provide students with example of how to write an A-grade essay…

The expert writer – the teacher or a student – needs to model the thinking that is going on as the text is constructed by thinking aloud and explaining what choices are being made and why, both in terms of content and discourse. This is not easy and I have on more than one occasion had teachers wonder what’s going on in my classroom as I rehearse writing a poem, an argument or a description whilst narrating aloud what is going on in my head! But, without practice, this can be muddled in the classroom, so I continue…

The think-aloud process should be followed by co-constructing the text with the students as a shared writing approach. The aim in both these processes is to expose the cognitive processes to enable students to see what happens “behind the scenes”. The Martin/DSP wheel outlines many of the elements of this approach:

dspwheel

In my classroom – description of classroom action and evaluation of impact

To explore the application of “think-aloud” and shared writing, I used the approach with two separate Year 8 groups when teaching analytical writing to explore “The Highwayman”. I wrote a paragraph whilst articulating my thoughts, composed another paragraph together, and finally moved into independent writing. Following the lessons I gave them questionnaires to evaluate the impact. From the questionnaires, the following conclusions were drawn:

  • 80% found the demonstration of discursive writing helpful
  • 94% found the shared writing experience helpful
  • 70% found the teacher’s “think-aloud” talk helpful

In pupil interviews, this was refined by the explanations that a barrage of “think-aloud” talk was too much to take in. Pupils found it difficult to extract useful information from the “think-aloud” although they understood the process better. The sheer number of decisions made in constructing sentences and paragraphs of writing became obvious but no less challenging. This evidence makes the rehearsal of the think-aloud even more imperative to distil and structure of the thinking and avoid the barrage effect.

Engaging staff in the explicit teaching of writing

When working with staff on this approach I ask for a Diamond 9 ranking which I reproduce here (Thinking Aloud 9) in the hope that readers of this blog can take these ideas into their own classrooms. The idea of the exercise is for teachers to evaluate what they see as most important about teaching the writing process:

diamond9

  • “Thinking Aloud” and being totally explicit about the process
  • Encouraging pupils to contribute
  • Showing precisely how writing is constructed
  • After modelling , scaffolding the learning through shared or guided activities
  • Making visible and explicit the “structure” of the process, concept or knowledge
  • Building in time for pupils to reflect on the process
  • Breaking down the process into a series of manageable steps
  • Enabling pupils to do it independently
  • Encouraging pupils to think for themselves or to ask their own questions

I’d be interested to know the thoughts of readers of this blog – please let me know in the comments!  And finally, with staff as for readers of this post, I would urge you to:

  • Choose a genre or type of writing used in your subject and try demonstrating it for your pupils
  • Consider how you might use pupils as experts to model as an alternative to the teacher
  • Plan a range of activities which will help pupils to make a bridge from modelling to being able to use the process independently