Saturday, 19 January 2013

Adventures in story-telling : Creative Writing

At the moment, I am preparing my Year 11s for some creative writing. Surprisingly, I am pretty bad at making stories.  I am not that bad, I think, at telling them, but it is the creating and making them that I struggle with. I read, devour, absorb, digest (thankfully, I don’t defecate them – painful, but could be profitable) books and stories, yet I struggle to invent my own stories. This sadly affected my teaching of creative writing. “How do I begin?” says a student. I would often think to myself, “Yeah, how do you begin to write a story?” My colleagues, at the time, would often waltz into the staffroom and squeal with delight at how their class had written some wonderful, poignant, effective stories from his or her ‘crazy idea’.  I would stare back and start looking for my T.A. to help me as I was ‘well stuck’.

Now a few years later and my house is menagerie of storytelling. As I have a young family, stories are my life. I read a bedtime story each night. I watch as my daughters act out imagery stories to each other. I tell stories in the day to entertain them.  I put on puppet shows with finger puppets and they copy – I am a drama student at heart.  We even have stories that form parts of routine.  I even get my daughters to quote from stories. They sometimes quote Oscar Wilde or Charles Dickens during the day. A handbag! Please, sir, can I have some more? Start them young, I say.

Now, the girls are starting to read. I am enjoying things even more as they love listening to me read a book without pictures. At the moment the current favourite is ‘The Enchanted Wood’ – why that hasn’t been made into a film is a complete surprise to me. By having children, I was able to find my ‘storytelling’ gene. I saw how they created stories, how they found inspiration and how they had fun with it all.  Anyway, I had the opportunity to test out some creative writing things with some Year 9s last year, and boy did I experiment. I taught a different group every two weeks and during that time I experimented, trialled and practised a number of different things. This blog is just simply me telling you some of the things I did. Warning: some work with some classes and some don’t.

Post-its on a fridge
A student recommended this idea to me. They had read a book that was about a conversation taking place through notes on a fridge.

I gave groups of students six green post-its  and six yellow post-its. On them, they had to tell a story through notes on a fridge. Each post-it was a different note. Each colour represented a different person. They then stuck their notes to a ‘fridge’ or a sheet of A3 paper. It created some interesting stories about a kidnapped child and a divorce. Later we played around with the order of notes to make the narrative even more effective. Very easy and simple way of generating a story and exploring the way dual narratives work.

Plus, it is a great starter or inspiration for another lesson. The finished stories have been laminated and I have been used to springboard other stories.    

This is inspired by a book I read once. At the start of the book, the writer wrote a list of supposedly unrelated characters. The rest of the novel saw how these totally opposite characters linked together.

Martin Davies, retired teacher, 67, Spain

Gethin Williams, student, 18, Bangor

Mavis Grant, company director, 42, Australia

There’s a story there, but you have to dig deep and think about it. I find this helps to avoid the simplistic story telling that favours action over character development. How do these characters link together? Usually, it will be through some kind of relationship or acquaintance. Do they know each other? Or, is there a person that links them all together?

Random objects from a bag
This started out as one of those ‘quick I haven’t got a starter’ things, but it became quite successful. I emptied a cupboard of random items and placed them in the middle of a desk. The students around the desk took it in turns to tell a story about an object. The rule was they had to hold the object as they told the story. When they finished, another person told a different story about that same object. If the item was exhausted of storytelling potential, then they picked another item.

At first, students were quite hesitant to tell stories, but after a time they got it and then I struggled to get them to stop. The students were free to pick the genre of the story, but it made for an excellent way in to start a story.

Photo album
Google is great. I searched for some pictures and then copied them onto a sheet of A3 paper to make a photo album. I made sure that the pictures were a mixture of family portraits and holiday snaps. I even found some old black and white photographs to add a bit of a hidden past.

Finally, I gave the students the photo album sheet and I asked them the following questions:

*What’s this family’s story?

*Who is who in this family?

*What is the secret in the family?

Every group in the class had the same set of photographs, yet every group produced a different story behind the photos. At points it did sound like an episode of Emmerdale, but it did make for some great discussion and some even better storytelling. 
Check out for some copyright free pictures
Using a poem – Identification by Roger McGough
I love poetry that shocks the reader. Roger McGough is a particular favourite of mine because he has written some very powerful poetry that is shocking and effective. An English teacher introduced me to the ‘Jogger’s Song’ when I was a student and it left me cold. His poem ‘Identification’ has intrigued some of my classes for quite a while now. I think it is brilliant poem that has this slowly unfolding realisation and denial of the death of a loved one. Furthermore, it creates a mystery, and, there lies a story. Now, I know that the story is based on a real event and how a teenage boy was killed by a car bomb.  Students, however, have so many different theories as to what happens, and they become incredibly motivated when describing the lead up to this sad and tragic conclusion. I tell them they are to write the story and the ending of their poem will be the poem.

At the end of all this, I reveal the true story behind the poem and it stuns the class into silence.

20 line story
Love. Pain. Fear. Jealousy. Disappointment. The average day of a teacher – only joking! These are titles I have given students to write about an emotion or a feeling. The students have to write the story in twenty lines. It makes for a very simple story, but it keeps things focused and clear. The writing becomes quite effective as the student has to be concise with their writing.  It is a staple that most teachers use, but it is quite effective.

Describing one moment in a story and not a story
I have read so many stories written by students over the years and they all tend to have the same problem. They are too focused on plot. I have had students try to condense the complete ‘The Lord of the Rings’ saga into two sides of A4 lined paper which is devoid of any description or atmosphere. Most students are driven by the storytelling of films, which is fine, occasionally. However, the length of the story telling in a film amounts to the length of a novel in writing terms. Therefore, it is no wonder that students try to cram stories full of battles, explosions and expensive car chases in the first paragraph. 

I started this by showing the Deathstar explosion. I wrote the sentence ‘The Deathstar exploded.’ on the board.  As a class, we discussed how that single sentence doesn’t convey the events on screen. Then we did the old thing of ‘showing’ and not ‘telling’. Then, we turned this single event into a whole story.  We had our structure to a story and the students were limited in a way as to what to describe, but it meant the writing was focused on the event rather than the whole plot. It made them more reflective on their writing choices, rather than the need to tell a massive story that is the ‘bestest bestest story in the world’ which had lots of ‘and then’ and ‘suddenly’ in it.

Moonlight / Perspectives 
This is borrowed from a friend. He did a creative writing course and he explained this idea to me, and it worked – so I ‘borrowed it’. On the whiteboard, you show a picture of the moon at night. Make sure it is a full moon.  Discuss with students the different kinds of narrator you could have to see the moon or be affected by it. Cue the usual werewolf. Then, we explored it further and ended up with a lover, a child, a scientist, a religious person, etc. Finally, they wrote a paragraph describing how a narrator felt in the presence of the moon. There were some fantastic efforts. Again, the beauty of this technique was that the storytelling is about feelings and how a character reacts and not on the plot.

Also, I got the students to write another paragraph, but this time they had to use a contrasting narrator. One example I had was two sides of a relationship. The girlfriend was excited that the boyfriend was going to propose, as he was quite nervous and kept checking something was in his pocket. However, the boyfriend wanted to kill the girlfriend. Both were looking at the moon and feeling different things. I even had one student describing the moon from an atheist scientist’s view and from a religious person’s perspective.  

Collective story – putting bits together
I really enjoyed reading ‘The Slap’ a few years ago and that book is inspired me with a way of writing a story. For this, I got groups to describe an event through a variety of perspectives.  Each person told the event from their perspective. The writing was kept short so students only wrote about three quarters of a sheet of lined A4 paper. The results were glued together to make a continuous story. Students loved reading the final story and, yeah, sometimes the results were clunky but there are some bits of great storytelling going on nonetheless. If the group are clear about the event and the key characters, then you have a fairly consistent story.  

Science Stories – The What If
I went to a fantastic event organised by our dwindling LEA, which was about promoting reading. During the event, there was an author who explained how she was inspired to write a story. Simply, it was from a science report in the news. She suggested that teachers could get a collection of news stories about scientific discoveries.  One example she gave was about a pill that prevented wrinkles. Then, the story was based around that one idea. What if wrinkles were cured? What if wrinkles denoted class? The rich had no wrinkles and the poor were wrinkly. What if the moment you stopped taking the pills the wrinkles immediately came back? Very simple way of generating some story inspiration.  

Behind every book I read there is a lesson somewhere. The more I read, the more ideas I have. Phillip Pullman decried once that English teachers need more time to read. I agree wholeheartedly with the sentiment of this.  Sadly, the marking load and the increased emphasis on evidence gathering have meant that the time spent on thinking and creating good ideas is often lost. The time spent reading and just thinking and is also lost.  I really have to force myself to read sometimes. I love reading, but being a teacher sometimes takes me away from reading. I’d love to spend a whole Sunday afternoon reading a book. Instead, I am planning for the week ahead.  I am marking work. I am filling in things I should have had time to do during the week. What would make me an even better teacher of English is the time to read more. I’d love to read more teenage fiction, so that I can recommend more books to students. My love of reading stories is there, but the fire isn’t always burning the brightest it can, because there isn’t enough time to put more logs on the fire. If I am careful, the fire might just die.  How can I be the source of inspiration to students if my inspiration wanes? Gove famously said that students should be reading more than 50 books a year.  How many teachers and especially English teachers come close to that amount?

 And that does not include books like ‘Of Mice and Men’, because you read it to a class.

Thanks for reading,



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