Humanising Language Teaching
What can Creative Writing do for Teachers?
Dr Franz Andres Morrissey, University of Berne, Switzerland
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About three years ago I was asked by the organiser of one of the leading Swiss associations of English teachers whether I'd be interested in running a creative writing seminar for their teachers. The idea was that the three-day seminar would introduce them to the possibilities of using creative writing in the language classroom at the intermediate level and above. I was a little surprised at the suggestion, because I wasn't part of the in-service training crowd. Eventually, I put the enquiry down to the fact that I had been running a creative writing workshop at the English Department of the University of Berne for some years, which was (and, to my knowledge, still is) the only one in the public sector in any language in this country. In an Anglo-Saxon environment this may seem odd, but in Switzerland creative writing has no tradition in language teaching (including mother-tongue teaching).
I didn't really know if and how the activities I had developed over the years on the tertiary level would be transferable to an upper secondary classroom, of which I was largely ignorant; I had been immersed in it, obviously, for my own schooling, but, to be honest, memories of this period now seem focused mainly on extracurricular rather than educational experiences. So this was a challenge, which is a euphemism for jumping in at the deep end without really knowing anything about water temperatures, currents, hidden depths or possible shark infestation. But then, with challenges, the done thing is to accept them. Perhaps it is useful to dwell briefly on the question as to why there was this new interest in creative writing, which, happily has persisted since. As far as I can make out, there were two main reasons. Firstly, around the time of the enquiry there had been fairly serious initiatives to bring down the age at which students start to learn English in Swiss schools, opening up the question as to what one would do with the learners once they got to the upper secondary schools, a point at which the basic study of the language has come to an end, i.e. the textbook has been exhausted (in more than one sense). The traditional next step would have been to read Literature (capital “L” used advisedly), firstly in the form of simplified readers, later as texts that don't pose too many problems linguistically (often irrespective of the fact that seeming simplicity in language need not be a reflection of the accessibility of the text, especially for younger readers).
The second issue is that in education received wisdoms undergo changes, many of which, incidentally, seem cyclical. Whereas a few decades ago writing played a vital part in language learning in this country, the pendulum had swung very clearly the other way, i.e. towards a concentration on oral communication, often to the almost total exclusion of writing. That the former makes sense is indisputable, that the latter does too is at least debatable.
Nevertheless, this creates a slightly problematic situation as much of the testing was (and is) based on writing, mostly in the form of exercise-type sentences aimed at eliciting certain structures, along with compositions. Many of these compositions are relatively philosophical in nature, often in the form of discussion essays, for which not all students are equally well equipped intellectually and in terms of their interests. Another form of composition, especially on a more basic level, is letter writing. All in all, the spectrum of writing is rather limited; in other words, if we want to adopt the “four skills” approach (which not everybody sees as entirely tenable, but that's another matter), we can say that in classroom practice writing as a skill is being neglected to a considerable degree and creative writing might well be a way of ending this neglect.
As I mentioned earlier, I saw my job in that first creative writing seminar as a challenge. The challenge was to try to adapt activities designed for motivated university students with near-native to native speaker control of English, and make them suitable for students at the upper secondary level, whose English is not as sophisticated and whose motivation may lie elsewhere. Fortunately, the awareness of my limited experience with the age group stopped me from making the worst mistake I could have made: to try to give the teachers what many of them afterwards said they would have wanted, i.e. a collection of recipes for instant activities, just add students, as it were. A look at the background of the teachers on that first seminar – as, in fact, was true for many of the residential seminars that have followed since – showed that the participants had very diverse teaching backgrounds, working environments and even different mother-tongues. What is more, not all of them taught only English and some of them didn't even teach English at all but French or German, either as a Second Language or as mother-tongue. It was this fact that actually saved me: I felt it was much more sensible to do the activities with the teachers and then suggest that they adapt them to their teaching reality in a manner they would feel comfortable with.
I ended the first seminar on an adrenalin high combined with a low on physical energy, having had three of the most intensive, but also most exhilarating days. Some of the writing that came from the teachers was of an amazing standard and by the time they were doing the reading of their work on the final evening, most, if not all, barriers had come down and the participants presented their work in a relaxed and fun-filled atmosphere. The reason for this, I realized later, was the fact that most of the teachers had found, some to their surprise, that they could actually write poems and short stories and that some of the activities had got them to play around with the language in ways that they hadn't quite expected, while others had allowed them to mine experiences which, as some said, they had completely forgotten about. The customary feedback questionnaire at the end of the seminar was very positive on all topics except two. The first concerned the question as to whether the participants felt they would be able to adapt the material to their own teaching. The tenor on this issue could perhaps best be summarised as “not sure but will definitely give it a try”. The second one was focused on what there should have been more of; many of the teachers wrote “time to write” or “time to work on texts” that they had started.
Shortly afterwards I did a seminar, not residential this time and rather shorter, at the request of a group of teachers from a local grammar school. The result after the first day was sobering and seriously punctured my by then somewhat inflated sense of what I could achieve with writing groups. I had done my best to try and find activities that would tie in with the age group of the teachers' students and the grammar school syllabus, aiming to provide a mixture of exercises that would focus on structure practice and others that could be used as a starting point for working with literary texts. Once again I began the seminar by trying to get the teachers to explore writing for themselves by posting instructions for activities around the room in circuit workshop fashion. Whereas one lot got on with the various jobs and wrote all morning, another group moved from station to station, discussed the activities, dismissing some on the grounds that the instructions were too intricate for classroom use, others because they couldn't imagine their students feeling inclined to write about the suggested topic or not having enough imagination to do so, etc. Unsurprisingly, of that group some never came back after lunch, and the others didn't attend the follow-up day, where we were to compare notes on how the activities had worked in class. The ones who did attend were those who had tried their hand at writing and took obvious delight in the material they were able to present at the end of the seminar sessions.
Looking back now, I can see why these two seminars worked out so differently and why the second one was a success only for a small group of participants. To explain this I need to digress for a moment and to go back to how I began doing creative writing workshops or, perhaps more aptly, how I caught the creative writing bug. I became hooked during a workshop with British poet Roger McGough during a British Council teacher training course. My initiation with him had been, I now realise, quite symptomatic of what since then happened in my seminars and workshops for teachers which actually worked, at the beginning without me realising what it was that worked. In that first creative writing workshop, Roger got us started with a number of activities that whetted the appetite for writing. Even when an activity during that workshop yielded nothing that I felt prepared to present to the group, I found myself trying it at home, where many led to something I was more satisfied with. This feeling of being able to create images or worlds with words, of getting a memory or an idea crystallised into words, was one of the most exciting and stimulating intellectual (for want of a better word) experiences as a teacher. It also filled me with the kind of enthusiasm that made me want to make other people try the same thing.
There have been several seminars since, ranging from an afternoon to several days, all drawing novices but also being attended by a growing number of what have come to be called “relapses”, i.e. teachers who have attended two or more seminars over the years. In many of these seminars there was a clearly pedagogical component in the form of workshops and group work at the end of the day, aimed at discussing how the activities of the day could be adapted to the participants' classroom situations.
The greatest departure from this formula took place when the British Council brought Roger back for another seminar, which we ran jointly. The departure consisted in the fact that the description of the seminar never made any mention of possible application in the classroom. There was a discussion group on this, albeit a fairly informal one at the end of the afternoon programme, but it was never mentioned explicitly in the programme. The focus, in other words, was firmly on writing and both Roger and I made a point of having a time slot every afternoon for participants to discuss their work individually, an element in seminars that I have adopted since and that has been quite popular; I'm tempted to say, it's possibly more popular than the methodology sessions, on which the teachers' organisations insist as the raison d'être of what are, after all, in-service teacher training courses. Perhaps surprisingly, the feedback questionnaires don't seem to reflect negatively on the down-scaling of the methodological component, but still suggest that more time for writing and working on texts would be desirable.
I'd like to come back to the implications of this below, but one issue remains in view of the fact that, generally, in-service training courses are meant to provide new impulses for teaching and, specifically in the language classroom, should present new methods of getting students to develop their language skills. In our case this would mean that teachers should use these techniques in their work and at least try creative writing activities with their students. However, on that score what emerges from the feedback of these seminars may be slightly discouraging: by no means all the teachers who have attended seminars use creative writing in their classrooms, which would question the validity of creative writing as a topic for in-service training.
There are several reasons why some teachers are reluctant to make creative writing part of their repertoire of language practice activities. One is that, at the time of writing, the new system, “Early English”, has not been implemented yet, and even where its implementation is imminent it will be a few years before it will have an impact on the upper secondary level. In other words, the schedule for most upper secondary teachers, imposed by the current syllabus, is rather tight and doesn't really allow for the luxury of playing around with language. The word “luxury” is used advisedly because the prevailing attitude in language training circles in Switzerland still is that if it doesn't hurt it can't be conducive to learning. Another reason, perhaps a more valid one, is that many teachers feel ill-equipped to assess the merits of their students' work, especially if the teachers themselves aren't entirely convinced that their own efforts are better, i.e. that they can look at results of creative writing sessions with the confidence of the instructor, who needs to be ahead of the instructees. Some teachers, even though they are rarely the ones that come to these seminars, may have doubts that they can get their students interested in writing poems, dramatic sketches or short stories.
Nevertheless, there are numerous teachers who report that their students respond well to creative writing activities. They mention benefits in several areas: firstly, students enjoy exploring their creativity in the target language; secondly, there are clear benefits in terms of language development because of the need for great precision in expression, but also because the students are encouraged to write about something that matters to them, something which is considerably more motivating than the traditional writing activities, not to mention more fun. What is interesting in this context is that the teachers who have been infected by the writing-for-their-own-enjoyment bug are usually the ones who use the creative writing techniques in their teaching and don't share the qualms about not being ahead of their students in terms of their writing skills
It is therefore hardly surprising and rather encouraging that the “relapses” clearly state that their prime motivation for attending the seminars now is because they consider it beneficial for themselves. This can create a problem because of the rationale of in-service training mentioned above, i.e. that what is being presented must be applicable (and applied) in the classroom. Unfortunately this somewhat narrow definition of what in-service training is about doesn't take into consideration the fact that such seminars may also provide a boost to teachers' morale, a point which, in fact, is borne out by participants' responses to the question as to whether they feel the seminars are useful for them as individuals, which generally gets a higher degree of agreement than the one as to whether they feel that they can benefit directly from the courses in their work. Nevertheless, the long-term “relapses” are the ones who tend to use creative writing more often and apparently successfully in their teaching.
So what is the moral of the story (or stories)? Obviously it would seem that there are clear benefits to be reaped from using creative writing in the language classroom. Apart from the language practice aspect briefly touched upon above, there is one that the British Council and the BBC World Service have highlighted in the series “Creative Ways”, i.e. the use of creative writing as an approach to literary texts. The British Council teaching pack Creative Ways: How to teach creative writing accompanying the series presents a collection of creative writing activities aimed at learners dealing with literature. This approach opens up a variety of ways in which students can discover aspects of writing in English that they mightn't have seen if they hadn't tried their hand at similar texts. The experience may well enable them to look at canonical material from the point of view of the writer, who has to make choices in order to ensure that her or his text works.
However, the crucial lesson for me has been that all the benefits of creative writing, in terms of language development or for text analysis, depend on how the teachers feel about writing creatively themselves and for themselves. Creative writing seminars are therefore useful because a lot of language teachers find personal stimulation in writing. It seems to me that this is the key benefit for teachers as well as the key trigger for teachers to use creative writing in their teaching. Without the excitement that one can derive from a phrase that has turned out to one's satisfaction, not unlike a craftsman's/craftswoman's pleasure at having achieved what they set out to do, it isn't easy to communicate that extra enthusiasm for writing to one's students and to find or adapt activities to get them to write themselves.
As a lot of writing, especially present-day writing (“post-modernism”, for those who care) is rather playful, an additional benefit for teachers can be that through their writing they learn to explore other facets of the language than the ones they normally (have to) teach. This too can be quite a liberating experience as our way of dealing with language tends to be somewhat normative and prescriptive. An interesting example of how this can work occurred in a recent seminar: one of the participants didn't seem to feel very comfortable with what we were doing because he wasn't sure whether his English was up to scratch, being a teacher of English (and several other languages as well) on the elementary to intermediate level in a vocational training college. One of the activities involved finding highly obscure and funny-sounding words in the various dictionaries, fairly arbitrarily assigning word classes to them and then working them into a text. The teacher in question produced a hilarious nonsense poem, for which he got a spontaneous round of applause when he read it to the group. The response to his poem might well have convinced him that, no matter whether his competence was on a par with the other participants, he was able to write and to write effectively.
That such an experience is a booster to one's morale goes without saying. It is therefore not surprising that many of the teachers say in personal conversations or in the “remarks section” of their feedback questionnaires that such writing seminars are a way of recharging their batteries, of being allowed to give their imagination free rein and to discover abilities they didn't know they had and would like to continue to explore. Obviously, in-service teacher training can't be reduced to making participants feel good about themselves, but it stands to reason that a teacher who has experienced success in an unexpected field or has found a possibility to exercise her/his mental faculties enjoyably while requiring nothing more than a notebook and a pencil will return to the classroom with renewed vigour. This is a benefit that may have a link with a personal observation I would like to add below.
First, however, I would like to add a consideration on the potential impact of creative writing in English on wider issues in language teaching in Swiss schools. As mentioned earlier, there is no tradition of creative writing in the Swiss school curriculum. However, because of their training, teachers of English in the public sector almost invariably teach other subjects as well, very often mother-tongue or L2. With the interest that stems from having discovered the fun of writing creatively in English, many of them explore writing in other languages or in their mother-tongue and can thus transfer the techniques to other language classes. In this sense, English teaching takes on (as it often has in the past) a pioneering role for new trends and ideas in language teaching. On a more personal level, if I were to sum up what creative writing has done for me as a teacher, and perhaps a little arrogantly suppose that the same may be true for other teachers, I find that it provides a very welcome and at times much needed counterbalance to teaching, which is often ruled by curricula and constraints on language use based on the syllabi and what the institution requires for students (in my case academic writing). The weekly Creative Writing Workshop is a highpoint for me because it represents a time in which I can rely on non-analytical ways of thinking, when I can be playful with language in an almost therapeutic fashion and when I've never been disappointed with the imaginative output of my students. However, one of the most central elements for me is that working on a text, editing and honing it, at the end presents me with something that, as a teacher, I sometimes miss about my work: a tangible product. In a profession where results are not always all that tangible, this seems to me to be a personal benefit, at times even a bit of a triumph.
Franz Andres Morrissey, English Department, University of Berne