Poetry from paint sample cards and other adventures in creative writing

may 08 - jan 09 243

Who knows where this might lead?

A few years ago, my boss asked if she could run an idea past me. She thought it would be a good idea to set up a creative writing class alongside the general English classes, and had been wondering if I would like to teach it. My reply was a tentative “yes”. Creative writing has always played an important part in my life, and I was keen to teach the extra class. However, I wasn’t sure if there was the need or desire for a creative writing class among our learners. At that time, the highest level on our roll was pre intermediate. The learners I worked with needed, I felt, language which was immediately useful to their lives outside the classroom.

Our ESOL learners tend to work in local industries such as building, fish processing and catering and I (wrongly) assumed that creative writing would be of little interest or relevance to them. However, I set a start date for the course, telling myself that if the class wasn’t successful then I wouldn’t have lost anything. To be perfectly honest, any recollection of what I had planned to do at my first class is eclipsed by the memory of my heart sinking like a stone as a round the table introduction session revealed a seemingly irreconcilable range of interests and abilities.   There were three dentists, one of whom was particularly vocal in her desire to improve her dental report writing skills.   She seemed to have cowed the other dentists into submission, as they revealed very little about themselves at all. There was an easy going Bulgarian au pair and a Hungarian builder with very little English indeed who sat there for two hours looking as if he wished the ground would swallow him up. I knew how he felt.

I don’t remember exactly how I limped along to the finishing line of that two hour session, but I do remember watching the Hungarian learner leave and feeling certain that I would never see him again. Oddly enough though, I did. Next week, the turnout was the same, minus the domineering dentist (I had managed to speak to her at the previous session and explain that dental report writing was not really right for the general needs of the class.) The Hungarian builder had returned though, with a friend in tow. That week I had brought along some paint colour sample cards. We read and discussed one or two poems and explored our personal associations with certain colours. Working from a simple template, the learners began to craft their own poems. There was an intense silence as they thought and wrote. I would become used to this silence; even begin to embrace it. But this was a marked departure from the way I usually taught. Teaching creative writing would allow me to realise the creative potential of silence, but it took all my self restraint to stop myself from breaking the spell and getting the learners talking again.

The next week one of the learners shyly presented a poem from this session that he had reworked at home. It was a poem about the colour purple and was carefully typed out in lilac font. Since then, this learner has gone on to write four more beautifully crafted poems. Before this, he went to great lengths to avoid any kind of written work in class – I had even wondered if he was dyslexic!

From then on, our creative writing class never looked back. The learners wrote reflective essays on their first impressions on arriving in Shetland: an experience which was evidently cathartic for many of them. They wrote political manifestos, film treatments, more poetry and mini-sagas. The class developed a strong bond, and learners were wonderfully supportive and encouraging towards each other. Pairing lower level and higher level learners provided all involved with a valuable learning experience, although I respected the wishes of one writer who generally preferred to work alone. The most successful element of our creative writing pilot was script writing. My learners performed their first short comedy “The Upset Beauty and the Lucky Beast” to laughter and much applause at the end of term ESOL learners’ party that year.

Since then, the learners have gone on to produce several films; one of which (a spoof zombie horror film shot on location in a local ruined castle) toured Shetland and another which travelled all the way to Glasgow to be showcased at the Scottish Learning Festival.

Creative writing has now become an integral part of the classes I teach, with a creative activity on offer at least every two weeks. But initially, even after a year of successful projects and highly positive learner feedback, I had moments of doubt, when I worried that I should be focusing on something “more sensible” with my learners.   I devised writing questionnaires to establish my learners’ needs, and conducted an interview with my class on this subject. The results were fascinating. Although most of my learners claimed that the writing they needed to do on a daily basis was form filling and sending emails they were unanimous in the desire to improve their creative writing skills. Several of them commented on their satisfaction at producing stories and scripts in English. One learner said: “I like creative writing because at school we never wrote anything like that because of the silly education during communism. We were allowed only to write about something but never on our own. So… about a story, about a poem, but never a poem or story on my own. It’s something really important.

Creative writing has taken my learners and I on a real journey of discovery, and I think we are all proud of what we have achieved together. The benefits to my learners’ linguistic skills are noticeable. Furthermore, the fun and excitement of participating in such projects have created a strong group identity and bond among them.

You do not need to be a great writer to have a decent stab at teaching creative writing. There are countless books and resources available to help you on your way (I have listed some of my favourites below). All you need is the energy and enthusiasm to motivate your learners and to enable them to see their creative projects through to completion.

Lessons To Get You Started

A beautifully structured lesson on story telling from award winning blogger, Adam Simpson

Start small with a onestop english lesson on mini sagas

An excellent lesson on fairy tale bad guys

Volcanic red or raspberry ripple? How to write a colour poem.

Further Reading Goldberg, N. (1986) Writing Down the Bones Boston; Shambhala Publications Ltd. Spiro, J. (2006) Storybuilding Oxford; OUP. White, R. & Arndt, V. (1991). Process Writing, Harlow: Longman

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