Monday, 23 June 2014

How to teach creative writing

Ha ha! I fooled you! I know nothing, John Snow. But after hearing about the Radio New Zealand National Creative Writers Panel this idea has been cogitating in my mind.
Interviewer Wallace Chapman invited questions from the public to be put to Eleanor Catton, Robert Sullivan and Daren Kamali, and I emailed in the following:

I am a secondary school English teacher at Trident High School in Whakatane, Eastern Bay of Plenty. As a teenager I wrote a lot of fiction and attended classes at The School for Young Writers in Christchurch. I have only one friend from my teenage years who wrote as a teen and has become a professional writer. I know so many people who loved to write but lost their zest for literature and language arts, possibly as a result of their experiences of English in the classroom.
Nurturing creative writing in the secondary school setting is a challenge, especially when trying to work within the bounds of the NZ Curriculum and NCEA. I would like to ask Eleanor, Robert and Daren how they feel secondary English teachers can nurture our young writers in a constructive way that will not stifle their creativity.

I was obviously thrilled that they answered my question because my name was said on air (!!!) but I also found their thoughts to be incredibly helpful.

'The Manukau Institute of Technology has just opened its new campus which will see students learning in a fully cloud based environment.'

If you don't have time to listen to the interview (although my question is in the first 15 minutes so...) then I will gladly paraphrase what these authors have wisely suggested:

When teaching creative writing, remember that...

  1. There are no rules
  2. There are no right answers
  3. Work should not be assessed

Let's assume we can handle numbers one and two. If you read and engage with a broad range of texts you will know that the 'rules' of the English language can be bent and broken. And if you encourage creativity in your class then you will know that (while what is deemed to be creative by one may not be by another) a dichotomy of right and wrong does not fit in the English classroom.
It is number three, Catton's suggestion, that English teachers could struggle with, and for obvious reasons, but I think it is a worthwhile suggestion. 
At this point I think it is important to bear in mind the difference between work being 'assessed' and receiving feedback. Assessment for Learning encourages the use of feedback as opposed to grading work, and there is a vast repository of research that shows providing formative grades such as B+ or Merit can hinder students' growth. Sylvia Plath knew what she was talking about when she wrote "The worst enemy to creativity is self-doubt."
So here is my compromise. Not only should we continue to provide constructive feedback on students' work, we should also provide the option of having the finished work assessed. If we stop talking about students' creative writing in terms of assessments and credits, they may actually embrace the creativity more readily. Given that AS91101 is now a portfolio assessment that students work on throughout the year, I think this approach is not only beneficial for the students but for us as markers. Steering away from NAME grades at every draft will enable us to forget about the marking schedule for a while and focus on guiding students to learn and grow as creative beings. Some students may fear that a piece of work they have poured their heart and soul into will only earn an Achieved or Merit due to their ability to spell or correctly place a comma. If we allow them to 'withdraw' a particular piece from summative assessment we are protecting their very fragile self esteem, and for good reason.
And yes, I can already hear you say "what about the student who never bloody hands in anything? Surely they can't be allowed to opt out of having work assessed!" Well, I have two responses. Firstly, perhaps this new approach might encourage more submissions from our reluctant writers. And secondly, I'm the first to admit that some students just need a good kick up the bum and commonsense would dictate that kids who submit the bare minimum aren't going to have much say in what does and doesn't get summatively assessed.

I would love to hear from those of you who write creatively (whether you share it with anyone or not!). What could your secondary teachers have done to encourage your creative spark? Did they ever do anything that stifled your voice?

Here is a kitten so you don't have to look at my giant face on your Facebook feed.

Whāia te iti kahurangi ki te tūohu koe me he maunga teitei
Pursue excellence – should you stumble, let it be to a lofty mountain

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