Teaching creative writing: lead your class by example

English teacher Alan Gillespie says English teachers who ask students to write creatively should undertake the task in class too – and share the results. This is from the Guardian

…I am a firm believer that English teachers who set their pupils the task of writing creatively should do the same; for a teacher to demand that students carry out work they would refuse to do themselves is a hypocrisy. Senior pupils, tasked with producing writing folios, can really benefit from seeing a story being conceived, planned, sketched out, written and refined. In my experience the majority of English teachers don’t tend to write creatively, even when they are teaching this skill in their classroom.

Many reasonable objections have been put to me. Time constraints are an obvious hurdle. Marking takes an awful lot longer in English than other subjects. When asked to write for three minutes in an online survey I conducted, one respondent replied: “Sorry, I have a class at my door – the reality of teaching English is that if you do it conscientiously it leaves little energy or time for creative writing.”

Barring the subtle and contentious implication that English teachers who do indulge their own creativity are failing to teach diligently, there is a lot of truth in this.

English teachers have a lot more on their plate than creative writing, and have to prioritise literacy skills, reading comprehension, critical analysis, literary study, and any other number of things ahead of writing a story.

In the same survey, 22% of respondents skipped the writing section entirely. They were either too busy to respond, or perhaps didn’t fancy it – both fair enough. Of the remaining respondents who completed the creative-writing task, just 20% left a smiley face. While this may be indicative of how some teachers feel about writing creatively, the passages I read were lyrical and engaging – a real pleasure to read.

My point is this: in class, we expect pupils to sit in relative quiet, in a fixed location, surrounded by their peers, with a jotter and pencil and create stories. This is not how writers in the real world work. It is not an environment in which art can flourish easily. The manufactured, unnatural atmosphere of a classroom stifles the work of even the most curious and keen pupils.

Why then should teachers not practise what they preach and write when the pupils write? Let us lead the way and show that it can be done. Most classrooms are equipped with smartboards and projectors so we can share our computer screen with the class. It is perfectly possible to write a story – or an opening paragraph at least – while the pupils wrestle with their own work. Showing them our mistakes and imperfect pieces of writing is just as essential as presenting them with polished work; they can see the process of creativity, rather than just being given a finished item to read.

More than 70% of the English teachers I surveyed said they do write creatively in their spare time, but only 30% share their work with students. Why write at home and not in the classroom? There is no need to let them see everything we write; I’ve written some stories that I wouldn’t be happy letting pupils see. But I do share occasionally, and the response is always very positive. I have shown pupils a story I had published in the literary magazine, Northwords Now.

Sharing my work has given me extra credibility when it comes to teaching creative writing. Students seem willing to experiment and strive to create something of real value, rather than just writing a story because they’ve been told to.

This doesn’t just apply to creative writing either. I have shared reflective writing with pupils, and modelled critical and functional essays. By joining in with their struggle, you develop a real sense of comradeship. Talk to them about problems you’re having with characters or plot, and show them that these are things that can be discussed and resolved. There are always pupils who will sit with a blank page and declare that they don’t know what to write about. But they need to know that it’s good to talk, think and try things out; the best way to do this is to let them see it.

Promoting our young people’s creativity is a vital part of education, with writing being only one outlet. The best way to nurture and support pupils’ creativity is surely to let them see us developing our own.

Alan Gillespie teaches English at an independent school in Glasgow. He writes stories and tweets at @afjgillespie

More at:  Teaching creative writing: lead your class by example

See Alan Gillespie’s 5 tips for creative writing at: Creative writing in the classroom: five top tips for teachers

Do you share your own writing with your class or feel inspired to having read this article? And what tip would you share for improving or encouraging creative writing in class? Please share in the comments or on twitter… 

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  1. CobleyWriter

    SchoolsImprove I used to work in a school where I was told by the head to keep my writing out of the classroom. I write for children.

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