Open the doors to creativity
Teaching creative writing to secondary schoolchildren is often a more daunting prospect than giving them a lesson in report writing, interpretation or analysis. Additional skills are needed; skills that English teachers have had knocked out of them by the very education system that led them into teaching English. How many of us were encouraged to submit poetry or fiction as part (and a very small part, if that) of our training in English?
The development of creative thinking (never mind creative writing) in English teachers is sadly undervalued and neglected. We have consequently lost confidence in our own ability to write, without which we don't have the insight and knowledge to teach others. So before we can inspire our pupils, we have to rediscover our own creativity and learn to think creatively.
There are several ways we can achieve this. The first is simply to read. It is all too easy for English teachers to become jaded, to stop reading anything demanding. At the end of a hard day, or on a precious weekend, the television is probably preferable to M rquez or Proulx. These are both highly creative poetic writers, who insist that you meet them half way, but they repay with pleasure, and heighten your awareness of the directions creative thought and creative use of language can take.
The second way is to dare to be vulnerable. Creative thinking, the prerequisite to creative writing, requires vulnerability. Our pupils are already vulnerable to the harsh red pen. We, as teachers, are vulnerable by the nature of our jobs - and are seldom masochistic enough to choose to make ourselves more so. Yet, in order to maximise our chances of gain, we have to risk failure.
If you try to write a poem, try to craft a story, try any of those creative tasks you dish out with nonchalance to the children, then you can only learn. You may learn how little you can do, but even that is a position of strength, which you can use as a springboard for your own creativity.
Thirdly, if you can also be brave enough to join a writers' workshop, the guidance of an experienced tutor can build your confidence and develop your own skills. Then, when you come back to the classroom to teach creative writing, you will be far more effective.
If such a degree of personal development may be more than you want to undertake, you can still draw out creativity from your pupils. The easy bit is giving them the tools. You simply scatter before them the concepts of metaphor and irony, of personification and rhythm, of symbolism and poetic logic, and invite them to pick up and use them.
Try also to assemble a range of writing which inspires and delights you. Bring it, and your enthusiasm for it, into the classroom. Guide the children into figuring out how the writer has achieved their effects and you are well on the way to engendering creative thinking.
Then let them loose on the blank page and watch them conjure up gems. They may be rough diamonds at first and sparkle with strange colours, but it's a magical start.
From there, you can inspire them to make greater demands on themselves; not to settle for instant, unambitious work but to be aspiring, to craft and hone and refine their writing. At the same time you can guide them towards writers who they might enjoy, and with whose style and subject matter they display an affinity.
An extra-curricular creative writing workshop for any interested pupils is a natural development in a department where creative writing is rated highly. A group of up to about 12 pupils bring their poems and stories, read them aloud and the teacher encourages critical appraisal of their strengths and weaknesses.
As in an adult writers' workshop, confidence, articulateness, tact and creativity are developed. And because attendance is voluntary, these workshops are enjoyable and rewarding for all.
It can also be immensely valuable to turn to professional writers. They can help bridge the gap between a 15-year-old's blank page and the impossibly far-away published work.
Writers are in touch with their creative processes and can usually talk about them in a way which young people, and English teachers, can understand.
It was this realisation which led me to put together Working Words, an anthology and handbook on creative writing. Nineteen writers have contributed a poem or short story to the book. Even more valuable are the 19 different insights into the processes by which their poem or short story came into being.
To learn of the struggles, the casting around for inspiration, the sudden moment of realisation when, in the midst of this vulnerability, something "clicked" and the work became possible, is both humbling and enlightening.
One further way to inspire everyone is to invite a "real" writer into your classroom. The Scottish Arts Council publishes a directory of professional writers willing to visit schools in Scotland, the cost of which they also subsidise. In England and Wales, there are geographical variations, but an approach to your regional arts officer may well reveal a similar list of writers and a support scheme.
Choose your writer wisely. Choose one whose work is accessible (and which has been studied in advance), one who can communicate well with schoolchildren. Such a visit is not only great fun for the writer but the pupils are awed and enchanted, and feel proud and honoured.
The creative momentum generated by these visits can be a wonderful stimulus to their writing.
Finally, all these ways of developing creativity will, I hope, reward your pupils not only with the ability to think creatively, but also with a lifelong pleasure in working words.
Valerie Thornton's Working Words is published by Hodder Stoughton, price Pounds 5.99