It is my firm belief that ‘those who can, teach’. Equally, I would argue that ‘those who teach, should do’. For this reason, it is a central priority of mine to continue practising my subjects alongside teaching them – and so I found myself, continually espousing the joys and benefits of reading for pleasure as I do, at the 2015 Cheltenham Literature Festival, in the children’s tent, eagerly awaiting the appearances of Judith Kerr and Michael Morpurgo. I was there to boost my own enjoyment of children’s literature, and to hopefully come away with new recommendations for my classes.
However, what instead emerged were insights into Morpurgo’s creative processes in the run-up to his writing of new books. Somewhat surprisingly, I found that the author does not enjoy the act of writing (a feeling certainly relatable, in my experience, to some students) and that his real joy is to be found in the preparation phase of writing, a so-called ‘Dreamtime’, in which music, art, sketching, reading and other creative stimuli are used to facilitate imagination and to gather together musings which might find use in the final work of fiction.
The way that Morpurgo described this preparatory work appealed to me, and reinforced the fact that the fiction writing we try to engender in classrooms is very often completely artificially constructed, and devoid of the time required for a deep and mature formulation of ideas. ‘Real’ writers rarely work under such constraints of time and space, and it is surely unsurprising that student creative writing is sometimes disappointing. Notably, Morpurgo mentioned that to prepare for writing, he reads. It is of course true that voracious readers are exposed to numerous ideas for the style and content of their own writing, and this struck me as being a major disadvantage for my Year 11 class, featuring many proud and self-professed non-readers, at the time. Having a very short amount of curriculum time available to improve a piece of GCSE writing coursework, I took inspiration from ‘Dreamtime’ and put together an hour-long session in which I hoped to bring my sixteen-year-olds back to their earlier childhoods, in which the joys of exploration, imagination and discovery were foregrounded to a greater degree. Students entered the room, with tables pushed to the side, and sat on the floor, immediately transforming the space into something unusual. Here, they heard a dramatic monologue read aloud. Next, we went around the circle, creating a story one word at a time. After this, we moved into a corner of the room lit only by desk lamps and read a short ghost story. There followed, during the hour, further short readings, video clips, and pieces of music. Crucially, there was time allowed after each episode for students to try a very short mini creative writing task. These fragments were retained for later use.
This was designed as a one-off lesson, a bit of an experiment and certainly not something that I would advocate without a very carefully planned structure. It is impossible to measure the impact that this session had on the students’ writing, but what is for certain is that the new piece of creative writing coursework produced in the subsequent lessons was of a far higher standard, and notably featured far more interesting and exciting content, than did their initial attempts. It is purely my sense that this session, so far removed as it was from my students’ usual experience of lessons, at the very least served to alter their perspective of the task, reminded them of the playful nature and freedom of writing, and gave them licence to express their imaginative ideas, temporarily liberated from the overwhelming strictures of technical accuracy – this would come later, and indeed did come, as part of the redrafting process.
From this point onwards, creative writing was tangibly approached with a more positive mindset and students asked often for a repeat of the session. It makes sense to me that if we aim to replicate a final product which is edging towards a professional standard (and if we’re not then what is the aim?), then we ought too to try to replicate the process which leads to that product. In this way, my glimpse into Michael Morpurgo’s creative process of ‘Dreamtime’, something which has been proven to achieve results for him, was the enabling process which led to improved final products for my students.
Joshua Clarke is a KS3 English Coordinator based in Plymouth, you can find him over on Twitter @MrClarkeEnglish