Inspire students with an open-ended task

Hedley Willsea
30th September 2015 at 17:00

Hedley Willsea Subject Genius

When I was 14 years old I spent a lot of time in the school library during what seemed to be the endlessly cold and rainy grey days of January and February in the UK. I know I’m not alone in hating these months, given the wealth of material I can find on the internet when I search ‘winter blues’ or ‘S.A.D.’ My parents lived in a suburb which looked exactly the same as any other (I’m thinking of the Dursleys’ house in the Harry Potter films, but I was lucky enough to have my own bedroom instead of the cupboard under the stairs) and this didn’t exactly fuel my enthusiasm as I dragged myself to school each morning.

The school library was a two-storey affair, all glass and concrete, and it was the brightest single room in the entire campus. As soon as it rained, you found yourself rubbing shoulders with half the school. But that was okay because it was big and warm and dry. I never quite got into role-playing games and there was definitely a social stigma surrounding those pale acne-ridden boys who had been raised avoiding games/sports lessons to a professional level; they seemed to form a covert group in the corner of the library, even during summer. The truth is, despite the gibing and what would now be called bullying, the rest of us were slightly in awe of them. We could never begin to understand the complex rules and the reference to ‘character points’ sounded like something from our English lessons so it was, as far as we were concerned, to be avoided at all costs during breaks. But during those rainy grey days I would watch and listen, and I began to admit there was something to be said about actively participating in a narrative under someone else’s control, armed with nothing more than pencil and paper.

Fast forward twenty three years and fourteen years of teaching, and here I am about to start a lesson with nothing in particular planned. At the risk of incurring the wrath of the administration, there's no lesson objective on my board. I’m just going to see what happens. As I make coffee in the staff room, I grab three sugar cubes and by the time I arrive in my class room I’ve borrowed a jar of coins from the office and a screwed up sheet of blank paper from the recycling bin. I place my props on top of a student’s journal from last month’s discovery week trip to Istanbul.

My Creative Writing students, a mixture of fourteen to seventeen- year-old boys and girls of different nationalities who've chosen the course as an elective, are sat around a large table. ‘I just want you to be able to tell me a story five minutes before the end of the lesson. Here, use these,’ I declare as I place the objects on the table. The sugar cubes cause some initial bemusement: ‘What are we supposed to do with them?’ I’ve the urge to mutter sarcastically ‘Well, I guess you could try writing about them…’ but the question is being directed at the rest of the group and it is soon answered with ‘Let’s put them in the jar with the coins’, and then ‘I know, it could be magic…’. Ten minutes later and the jar of coins is magic, as are most of the objects by now. At this point I realize that magic is a get-out clause so maybe for next time I will draft a task sheet with some parameters. By now I’ve lost track of the sugar cubes but one student asks ‘So do they actually need to go into the jar? Maybe they could be for reading the map.’ She is deferring to her friend, who has decided the crumpled blank sheet of paper is an invisible map and will be found hidden inside the student’s journal by the main character.

I periodically remind the students of the time and five minutes before the end of the lesson they draw everything to a close. Yes, this is one of those dream classes of only ten students who have chosen my Creative Writing elective because they are genuinely interested in writing and they work well together. You know, the kind of class that other teachers smugly write about and you think ‘But real life isn’t like that, we have to differentiate and we have to maintain discipline’.  By the end of the lesson a coherent story has been presented involving the use of a setting, genre, narrative, plot and three central characters. There has no in-fighting, no classroom management issue and the sugar cubes have remained intact but next time I will definitely produce a task sheet; I will make two pre-selected groups so students  do not sit next to their usual partners and each group will work on a different task involving a rotation so both groups work on both tasks. The general consensus within the class is that it was unexpected and fun but constructive. ‘Why was it fun but constructive?’ I ask. One student shrugs and offers a reply: ‘Well, we didn’t need to write much, we were left alone and we just got on with it,’ he shrugs and adds: ‘Y’know, sometimes the teacher-led stuff is kinda lame…’ 


Hedley Willsea is An English teacher at The Anglo-American School of Moscow