About a year ago I took a group of students on a creative writing course: a long weekend in Inverness away from modern technology and the distractions of everyday life.
There was a poet (Caroline Bird) and an author (Doug Johnstone) in residence for the weekend setting the tasks and giving feedback, and the students’ efforts were nothing short of breath taking.
Fair enough, this was a group of students who had elected to attend a creative writing trip so they were of course already motivated, but they certainly weren’t all your typical, top-set A* students.
Why then, were they capable of creating thought-provoking, masterful (in some cases) and truly original writing in a way they had never managed before?
It’s taken me a year and numerous stress inducing and frustrating creative writing lessons to realise that the huge success came because, ironically, they were taught by ‘civilians’ and not teachers.
Let me put it like this: have you ever tried to master hitting the bullseye on a dartboard immediately after being shown only once by an extremely proficient darts player?
Or have you perhaps attempted whipping up a batch of perfectly formed scones in 20 minutes at the demand of an over zealous chef? I thought not.
Then why is it that English teachers think that it’s an acceptable ask for students to create "an original and interesting metaphor" after being given a couple of over-used examples?
Or worse still, think that a 20 minute writing task of "show, don’t tell what it’s like to experience a Moroccan market at night" will be attempted with gusto and expect it to be executed with success?
It seems that with standards set so high, exams becoming ever more demanding, and pressures from powers above dictating that our lessons have lightning pace and demonstrate progress so frequently, that we’ve gone just a little bit bonkers with what we expect from our students during a lesson.
It’s not the only reason of course, but a large part of why my students excelled on the creative writing course was because they were given time and space.
They made mistakes. They made revisions. They experienced the surroundings. But above all they had time to think.
If their pens weren’t furiously tearing up the pages in their exercise books then their life, or at least their break time freedom didn’t hang in the balance.
In a lesson last week, I took my class on a walk around the school grounds armed with cameras on smart phones.
We took close up photographs of the crocuses (Real Madrid colours apparently), discussed how it ‘smells cold’ (that’s synesthesia kids) and came back with enough natural imagery fodder to delight Wordsworth.
And when we get down to writing our creative nature pieces this week I’ll be taking a deep breath and a back seat, so that my students can have a more authentic, more enjoyable and hopefully more successful writing experience.
Samantha Tassiker teaches English at an independent school in Scotland