Sunday, September 6, 2009

Teaching Creative Writing

It was nearly fifty years ago that I began teaching. So when I write about my teaching experience it is about another era – a time when the very idea of policemen on campus would have seemed preposterous. An experience I really enjoyed was getting teenagers to write creatively. How did they portray the world?

What I found was that letting young people unlock experience through language not only improved their language competence but also often their social behaviour. Time after time I was amazed at how a student who had not shown much proficiency would suddenly come up with words and images that left me humbled at my temerity in making judgements about them. The system I was working in imposed a structure that was all too often not conducive to learning and creativity. By its very attempt to systematise learning education in inclined to create a lockstep programme that tends to stifle creativity. Charlotte Bronte, Dickens, D H Lawrence, Denis Glover, all rail against the schoolroom. Ironically, it is teachers who have helped preserve their fame.

There were challenges in getting teenagers writing. The first was to persuade them it was useful, as well as pleasurable. The second was to get beyond cultural second-hand and cliche from film or print. There are areas of integrity where the teacher has to walk carefully. Some images and ideas appear archetypal, others false. Tigers and crocodiles seem right, murder and mayhem in the style of the latest Hollywood blockbuster did not. Further, fashions change in images and ideas - Star Trek comes in, Robin Hood goes out.

As students grew, the more self-conscious they became. Third formers would write comfortably in free verse about the wind in their hair as they galloped their horse or rode their bikes over the squashed hedgehog on the road. Senior students all too often had learnt that poetry was stern stuff. Once persuaded that its creation did not involve stuffing it full of hidden meanings for some planned treasure hunt, and that the flow of associations was what was desired, they would happily write for hours.

Older adolescents tended to sum up - language gives control of the universe. Acceptance of the idea that metaphor has little closed meaning is one of the most empowering things they could learn. Sometimes as I watched them writing, I had a sense of having missed that bus myself. If only they had been exposed to this excitement earlier, what poems and prose they might have written. Elwyn Richardson's fine book In The Early World impressed me with the possibilities inherent in much younger children.

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