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English - Hand back the wheel

Guide pupils towards creativity by letting them make mistakes

Guide pupils towards creativity by letting them make mistakes

The word "creativity" is being bandied around a lot at the moment. After years of an obsessive emphasis on technical details and an assessment system that takes writing apart mechanistically, there has been a welcome realisation that the intellectual and emotional aspects of the process are also rather important.

We now have the opportunity not only to increase pupils' pleasure in writing, but also to have a real impact on their attainment, effectively putting them in the driving seat, with the instructor guiding rather than grabbing the wheel.

The metaphor is apt: imagine learning from the passenger seat, watching passively as the instructor drives, being told the manoeuvres, but never really getting to feel them for yourself.

Learning to drive, you sometimes stall. False starts and stalls in writing are ways of learning, not catastrophes, and it is through taking risks like this that pupils make leaps forward.

One way to offer pupils the opportunity for low-risk, experimental writing is EMC's new publication Scribble Away, available on EMCdownload, which offers small exercises based on the same techniques used in adult creative writing workshops. Pupils can then go back to these experiments, plunder the best bits and work them into something more sustained. They will have been cut free from anxieties about levels and grades to discover more about themselves as writers. It is sad that, increasingly, pupils as young as 11 are having their attention focused more on what level they are at rather than writing for its own sake. A relentless focus on levels means teachers (and therefore pupils) can too easily pay little attention to whether the writing is interesting, has engaging content and has a strong individual voice, in favour of attempting to meet set criteria, such as the ability to vary sentences.

If one applied the "varied sentence" criterion to Raymond Carver, Ernest Hemingway or Henry James, for example, they would be marked down. Likewise, the instruction to use "powerful adjectives" can lead to formulaic deadening, as can the requirement to start all paragraphs in a piece of argument with "However", "Furthermore" or "In addition".

Of course, reintroducing creativity should not be an abdication of responsibility for explicit teaching. In the worst of pre-strategy teaching, pupils were just left to get on with it. But this kind of support needs to be applied sensitively, as part of a process of thinking about how to express genuine ideas, if it is really going to improve the quality of writing.

Barbara Bleiman is co-director of the English and Media Centre and recently completed an MA in creative writing at Birkbeck, University of London

What else?

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For a quiz-based starter to inspire on-the-spot creative writing, try queens' "Eight-Minute Madness".

Or get pupils writing perfect poems with HarrisSchool's speed poetry exercise.

In the forums

In the TES English forum, an English teacher has asked for a good alternative to the ubiquitous Of Mice and Men for a top-set year 10 class. Can you make a suggestion?

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