Using creative writing to inspire, restore and evaluate in the English classroom.
By Jo Heathcote
This September we face a different kind of learning landscape. As we begin the new term, it's worth thinking about the practice of writing in our classrooms. Most GCSE English Language courses now have 50% of the mark allocation dedicated to writing, but do we spend 50% of our course teaching time on this skill? Aside from its weighting in the exam, it's well worth considering the value of writing on a broader scale for both English Language and Literature courses.
Many of our students will not have done any continuous writing at all through the summer break, and perhaps beyond that, depending on how far they were able to engage with lockdown learning. Writing has the benefit of being a creative act, a mindful act and a cathartic act. It can be a way for students to re-engage with the English classroom without the need for, what can be seen as, reductive testing and baseline assessment. It can be a way to re-engage with texts and textual study and it lends itself beautifully to blended home and school learning should we need to be ready for that too.
Writing can be done individually in classrooms, and at home on laptops, tablets, smartphones and good old-fashioned notebooks so that no one is excluded from the process. When you are back in the classroom consider using one exercise book per student as a designated writing journal. It may prove to be worth its weight in gold as the term moves on. Allow students to cover, decorate or personalise it.
Many schools practise 'drop everything and read', but it would be interesting to consider how many of us 'drop everything and write' as a way of calming students, helping them to organise jumbled thoughts and exercise that imaginative muscle that we expect them to be able to just switch on and use in formal English examinations.
Students will doubtlessly be anxious about time missed from class and older students may be worrying about missed study of English Literature set texts. We often use writing as a way of engaging with KS3 texts but the demands of GCSE courses can mean we overlook this opportunity at KS4. Creative writing can be one way to alleviate anxiety and provide you with valuable insight into just how much students have remembered in a way that is less stressful for them. It may also surprise students to see how much they really do know when given a different means to express their knowledge, understanding and empathy.
Try asking students to write a short narrative that begins or ends with a key line from a set poem, for example 'I gave commands; Then all smiles stopped...' from ‘My Last Duchess’ or 'The blue smoke rises to the low grey sky...' from ‘The Farmer's Bride’. A first person narrative written from the perspective of one of the minor characters in a novel or a play might prove to be an effective way of recalling detail: what is Edna's story in An Inspector Calls for example; what does she witness and how does she feel about the family she works for? Taking five or ten choice quotations from a key scene in your set Shakespeare play and asking students to include them in a modern retelling of the scene can show a great deal about a student's understanding of character and theme.
This type of work doesn't just lend itself to fictional genres. It works just as well for non-fiction too. What letter would Mrs Birling write to resign from The Brumley Women's Charity Committee? What article would have appeared in the newspaper following Adam's disappearance in DNA? What speech might Ebenezer Scrooge give at a charity dinner of Victorian businessmen, persuading them to live life more benevolently and learn the lessons he has?
All of these tasks mean you are addressing content recall and interpretation for Literature texts whilst also practising vital skills for Language with not a past paper or a test in sight. This kind of approach might help to build vital confidence in our students as they return to learning. It may just encourage more of them to see creative writing not as a chore at the end of a lengthy exam, but as a vehicle for self-expression, improved mental health and quiet mindfulness through the confusing and shifting landscape they are currently navigating.
Jo Heathcote is an experienced Head of English and Principal Moderator, a former Principal Examiner and the author of several text books and study guides.