How creative writing helps close the attainment gap

Writer-in-residence Fiona Clark was tasked with engaging disadvantaged secondary students in activities designed to boost their cultural capital. So she began a series of creative writing workshops that have boosted self-esteem, improved literacy and even led some to put pen to paper in their own time
20th March 2020, 12:04am
Creative Writing Workshops For Secondary Students
Fiona Clark


How creative writing helps close the attainment gap

I have always been a fan of off-the-wall ideas. I believe education thrives on them. So 12 months ago, when I was set a challenge to design a project to engage a range of disadvantaged students from key stage 3 through artistic and cultural experiences I, of course, said "yes". The students in question were chosen as they came from disadvantaged backgrounds, which had a negative impact on their progress and attainment. They included children with families in the armed forces, children who had lost a parent, looked-after children and children eligible for free school meals.

To begin with, I reviewed what the school had already tried in the past to boost the attainment of these students using cultural experience. This included trips out to local art galleries, excursions to the city to take part in one-off workshops of various natures, and in-house projects, including interventions of assorted configurations.

The main problem had always been the same: the students were averse to being withdrawn from class to do anything that singled them out as needing help or support of any sort, even if it was a trip out of school. So, I had three options:

  • To keep on with the existing set of strategies and somehow revamp them to change student perceptions.
  • To ask the very busy staff to consider how they might be able to help (bearing in mind that the teachers already ran a plethora of engaging breakfast, lunchtime and after-school clubs)
  • To do my own research and come up with a new plan.

I chose option three and, after some exploration, I decided that the best way forward was to inject some serious creativity into proceedings.

Emotional benefits

In a study commissioned by University College London (UCL) and BBC Arts, Dr Daisy Fancourt explored how creative activities help us to manage our mood and boost our wellbeing. The findings revealed that people "get emotional benefits from even a single session of creativity and there are cumulative benefits from regular engagement".

Of particular note was the conclusion that "when we're facing hardships in our lives, creative activities are particularly beneficial for our emotions".

Fancourt's research showed there are three main ways we use creativity to manage and handle our emotions:

  • As a distraction tool, using creativity to avoid stress.
  • As a contemplation tool, using creativity to give us the mind space to reassess problems in our lives and make plans.
  • As a means of self-development, to face challenges by building up self-esteem and confidence.

In addition to this, research has discovered the positive effects that creative writing could have on wellbeing. Studies have found that writing about a difficult experience, for example, can not only be cathartic for the writer but also result in fewer trips to the GP. This evidence has led to many hospitals introducing arts programmes in order to boost patients' wellbeing.

The students we were working with had a range of backgrounds and their stories all varied dramatically, but one thing they had in common was that they had all suffered adverse childhood experiences, bereavement or trauma on some level. It made sense, then, to use creativity as the key that opened the door to school engagement.

So we established a series of creative writing groups. Each project ran for eight weeks and the selected students came out of their regular English lessons for one lesson per week to be involved. Workshops were not like regular lessons. Groups were small, made up of 8-10 students. We began each session seated, in a circle at the front of the room, and usually we began with a discussion. We would then start the activity and all tasks were inclusive. No one was left behind and all progress, no matter how small, was praised and celebrated.

The students had a good degree of artistic control over their work. They were hands-on with creative tasks every week, getting the chance to make, play, draw, sculpt, decorate, paint, dance, sing and move, and working with a range of media, including air-dry clay, crunchy foam, slime, music, IT, poetry, kinetic sand and board games.

The final outcome of each project was the publication of a book that contained the students' work. They each received a copy of the book and, in this way, they became published artists.

We ran seven projects, one of which involved the launch of the first school newspaper, building teams of reporters, photographers, graphic designers and researchers, and all from students who said they would never have naturally felt compelled to join a creative writing project. Some students have reported that they now write at home as a result of the project and that they find it relaxing and stimulating. Other projects included a poetry anthology, a gothic story anthology and a collection of autobiographies written from an alternative viewpoint.

Hearts and minds

This was a completely new way of thinking for the school and for the students. There was some scepticism initially about whether students would buy in to the idea of a creative group. Indeed, not everyone who turned up for the first workshop was full of enthusiasm, or thrilled at being chosen.

But mainly, the students were curious. Once it had been explained that we were going to publish a book together and that, along the way, we'd be having fun, attitudes started to change. There were one or two who took a bit of convincing, so building of relationships was key.

A year on, the scheme's impact has been overwhelming. The evaluation reports from each project, produced in collaboration with UCL, consistently showed that not only had students' literacy improved, but so had their perception of themselves. Along with enhanced self-esteem, students reported having more confidence in their schoolwork, and the majority of student feedback included a "thank you" to the school for the opportunity to be involved. I would sum up the benefits of the intervention as follows:

  • Improving literacy skills.
  • Boosting self-esteem and self-confidence.
  • Providing opportunities to de-stress.
  • Learning to work as a team.
  • Experiencing something new and culturally stimulating.
  • Taking control of their own learning.
  • Enjoying learning.

The plan is to continue delivering these creative projects and also come up with some new ones. Linking them to your curriculum is an obvious way to help students build up a greater understanding, a wider vocabulary and a bigger picture of what they're learning in lessons. These projects have shown there is still lots more innovation to be done in schools. For those of us who are part of that journey as educators, how lucky are we?

Fiona Clark is writer in residence in the North East of England. She tweets @spiralglass

This article originally appeared in the 20 March 2020 issue under the headline "How creativity can set students on the write path"

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