Writing Workshops – Teacher’s Resource

TR cover

The Teacher’s Resource to accompany the Writing Workshops student book should soon be available from Cambridge University Press.

In writing this I have presented extra guidance about individual workshop aims; further support of routes through each; ‘answers’ to questions posed [to aid busy teachers who can do without extra preparation before teaching any unit]; exemplar/illustration where discussion topics do not expect finite outcomes, and throughout all of this a reinforcement of the overall ethos that underpins the intention of the workshops: to treat students as writers.

Here is a sample page, but it can also be found on the CUP site, as well as other samples across the entire GCSE English package:

sample TR

Debbie and Mark and Creative Writing

In reviewing recently the excellent theoretical and practical teaching resource Making Poetry Happen – Transforming the Poetry Classroom here, I singled out one chapter by Emma Beynon, Engaging Invisible Pupils through Creative Writing.

I subsequently came across my poem Debbie which I will post at the end of this brief introduction. In Benynon’s chapter she references a Write Team project funded by the Paul Hamlyn Foundation which aimed to engage ‘pupils who keep a low profile: invisible pupils who are quiet and undemanding’.

My poem’s subject Debbie was actually the reverse in terms of being quiet and undemanding: she was vocal and complaining and a classic disaffected student. The other person I mention, Mark, did however fit the quoted profile perfectly.

Both were liberated by their love of creative writing in those few occasions I could give time to this in their GCSE English lessons, though I also feel they were both engaged by the chance to just express themselves and have that valued – and for both this was through writing as Debbie’s voluble anger and Mark’s almost total reticence were in their separate but similar ways a block to conveying private, meaningful thoughts and feelings.

The poem dedicated to Debbie was written shortly after her sad and untimely death in her early twenties – a tragic accident – and after she had found peace and security in a job in a retail outlet locally where I would occasionally see her working and talk briefly about old times at school: again, a ‘classic’ example of the annoying [though not to me] and angry student who grew up and found a place in life for herself.

I wrote the poem after attending her funeral and talking with Mark there, who had also grown up to [without being sarcastic] talk and share his feelings. A little sentimental perhaps, but genuine in how I know creative writing had been a positive outlet for Debbie and many others like her.

Debbie

The church is dark and dull
but all the pews are full
as I sit with friends from school
wrapped in our sharing spool.

She wrote poems whispers Mark
and he smiles but they were dark
as he offers what she got
from the lessons that I taught.

Yes she snarled and she sneered
and I’d no idea what she feared
so for her noises and her looks
I gave paper, pen and books.

But with goading and with guile
anger turned a fleeting smile
and in such a switch as this
are the moments I will miss.

Poetry/Creative Writing Ideas – ConcreteAbstract

I always used to enjoy this activity with whole classes, one that very much fuels the ‘accident of meaning’ ethos underpinning the best experimental and exploratory writing.

It is a great parlour game – yes it is! I once ‘performed’ this on a transatlantic flight with a row of strangers. They loved it. And I think it was more than the love born of a need to fill a long time [no individual seat TV screens then!].

I have also shared this with adult French friends – with exceptional English but still fascinating understandings/perceptions of the outcomes – and also with a group of visiting German students to my school: now that was a challenge to their basic language understanding and then the extra conceptual leap to accommodate metaphoric meanings, yet it ‘worked’ in wonderful ways, because it just does.

Students can struggle at first to endure the literal or uninteresting pairings that transpire, but with patience and persistence this actually then foregrounds the amazing fortuity of those that do startle and work in their surprise metaphoric ways. Like so much of this kind of experimentation, students [anyone] need to encounter it as much as possible to learn to understand the patience required and the thrill of arriving: like good writing itself, there is work and great patience needed.

ConcreteAbstract

The aim of this unit of work is to get you to write a concrete/abstract poem. You will do this by playing a game in which definitions of both concrete and abstract things are mixed up and interchanged. Here is an example:

What Is?

What is the moon?
It is the burning of anger.
What is a door?
It is the looking forward to happiness.
What is a river?
It is an opening into another room.
What is hatred?
It is a car slamming into a wall.
What is hunger?
It is the winding of water.
What is an accident?
It is the reflection of sun in the sky.
What is hope?
It is an emptiness inside.

As you can see, there are some unusual answers to the questions in this poem! Mixing up all of the original questions and answers causes these. The random pairings that are produced by this mixing can create new and sometimes dramatic meanings.

Can you match the questions to their real answers?

Some questions and their new answers will not necessarily be startling. However, notice how some do work particularly well together, for example:

  • hatred is a car slamming into a wall – this works literally
  • hope is an emptiness inside – this works because having hope or being hopeful can leave you feeling empty until it is fulfilled

Writing the Poem

First stage: This can be done individually or in a pair. If working individually, you ask and answer your own questions; if working in a pair, one person asks the question and the other provides an answer.

You should make sure that you have an equal mix of both concrete and abstract questions and answers:

  • your concrete question will ask about something that someone can see, hear, smell, touch or taste [for example, stone, sausage, house, trumpet and so on]
  • your abstract question will ask about something that does not have any of these material qualities for someone to sense [for example, love, happiness, silence, indecision and so on]

Each question must be written as What is a/an _______________ ? and each answer must be written as It is a/an ______________

Consider carefully the tone of the poem you hope to write. You will get comic and entertaining results if you mix things like sausages and indecision! If you want to keep it serious, be selective about what you ask and answer.

The way you answer questions will also help to determine the likely tone of your poem. A river can be described as moving water or the winding of water; hatred can be described as being angry or the burning of anger.

Second stage: When you have the number of questions and answers you want, cut these out and put them in their separate piles face down on a table. These should then be shuffled. Next, you turn them over, a question first and then an answer, and write what they now say in full on a separate sheet of paper. Because of the random nature of this part of the exercise, there should be some interesting combinations (and there will be times when you get the original, actual answer to a question!).

Final stage: When you write your concrete/abstract poem you can lay it out as in the example you have seen. This can either be written in the sequence you produced during the second stage of this exercise, or you can rearrange pairs of questions and answers to produce the most interesting contrasts and comparisons.

You can also edit out any lines that are just not interesting.

The exercise outlined here is totally random. However, you can vary this by making sure that only concrete questions can be given abstract answers and vice versa.

Endorsing a Creative Future for Education: Hunt on Robinson

Considering my recent post on Labour and Tristram Hunt and the future of education in this country in their potential hands, I was interested and reasonably pleased to read Hunt’s largely endorsing review of Ken Robinson and Lou Arinoca’s book Creative Schools in today’s Guardian.

As I already stated in a quick Facebook posting on this, the likes of Gove [though he is probably too obvious to reference] and others would not have the capacity to embrace the kind of ambitious and progressive ideas on education from Ken Robinson, and for Hunt to declare an understanding of and support for these is reassuring. My biggest concern could be that this is a singular light merely shining bright in a black hole of well-established conservatism and philistinism.

I would add to this concern by quoting the following caveat Hunt puts in his review, though I guess this is predictable given the electioneering ‘caution’ that abounds at the moment:

Robinson rightly makes the case for the rigour of creative learning – “creativity in any field may involve deep factual knowledge and high levels of practical skill” – but we always need to guard against the soft bigotry of low expectations: the worrying trend of play and expression being adequate for working-class pupils, while leaving the tough stuff, the physics and history, for their better-off peers.

I can’t imagine many teachers or schools would currently support such an ethos of ‘soft bigotry of low expectations’ for working class students [though a legion of proletariat poets seems no bad army for the future] and it is a shame for Hunt to engage in this familiar and silly scaring rhetoric. But if in government Labour and Hunt were to provide substance to the following endorsement:

We need to call time on the exam-factory model, ensure a broad and balanced curriculum in our schools, and focus on improving teaching rather than fruitlessly reforming school structures – not only because a childhood at school should be a rich, enjoyable and challenging time; but also because the coming economy demands exactly the kind of rigorous creativity and personal resilience that Robinson advocates.

then this could begin to realise the kind of seismic curriculum shift we desperately need and whose absence, under the Tories, Labour and Coalition, I was ruing in the posting already mentioned. Given my own caveat about the electioneering ‘caution’ prevalent at the moment, and accepting some of the reasonable pragmatism Hunt inserts into his generally positive response, I think his review articulates one of the more radical statements I have heard from a potential Education Secretary for a very long time.

NB: adding these links – Hunt’s review here; and perhaps less enthusiastically in championing Hunt’s views being stated now [rather than years ago by anyone in Labour…], this link to Warwick Mansell’s book Education by Numbers – The Tyranny of Testing which back in 2008, as well as through his consistent insights on similar before and since, articulated the problems very much sustained by Labour in power. However, as a teacher of 30 years, I have to believe that lessons can be learned, eventually…..

Cormac McCarthy – Poetry, Brutality and the Long American Sentence

In my co-authored book Writing Workshops for the new GCSE English Language to be taught from September, one of my workshops explores Charles Dickens’ use of complex sentences and rich vocabulary in an extract from his novel Dombey and Son, both of which brilliantly mimic the movement and sound of a train. The workshop encourages students to read aloud, hear and talk about the purpose and effect of such writing essentially for that discussion and discovery. There is a writing task which encourages students themselves to use similarly descriptive and mimetic language, but not completely to the complex style – nor degree – that Dickens writes in 1860!

I had intended to mirror and also contrast that style with an extract from Cormac McCarthy’s All the Pretty Horses, written in 1992, so a modern text by an American author. It too was a descriptive piece about a train. However, McCarthy does not allow his work to be used for such purposes, and without permission I had to use another text [which I think works excellently but in different ways].

Recalling this made me think of reviews/observations I have written on McCarthy’s novels but more specifically his writing style, especially his use of long compound sentences. For those interested in such stylistic ruminations, here are extracts that focus on this specific aspect of his writing across these novels:

On All the Pretty Horses

….I love the simple flow – deceptively so, of course – of the narrative and dialogue. And as I continue to make simplistic claims, another appeal at the moment is his ability to write about the exterior. By this I mean the expanse of land and open spaces McCarthy can write about because of where his stories are set. But it is more than this and below is a particular example of that American voice I want to celebrate. I’m trying to not make this sound like a lesson, but that’s difficult, so you can either listen or chat amongst yourselves. Here’s the passage, the fifth paragraph into the opening chapter:

As he turned to go he heard the train. He stopped and waited for it. He could feel it under his feet. It came boring out of the east like some ribald satellite of the coming sun howling and bellowing in the distance and the long light of the headlamp running through the tangled mesquite brakes creating out of the night the endless faceline down the dead straight right of way and sucking it back again wire and post mile on mile into the darkness after where the boilersmoke disbanded slowly along the faint new horizon and the sound came lagging and he stood still holding his hat in his hands in the passing ground-shudder watching it till it was gone. Then he turned and went back to the house.

It’s that long, wonderful sentence. And it’s because it follows the first three short ones – the most brilliant set-up. I think Raymond Chandler is one of America’s finest modern writers, and apart from his unique talent with similes, he is master of the long compound sentence. He is also master of mixing up his sentence lengths. But McCarthy’s takes this further. It is in the richness of the grammatical make-up of that long gaze, represented by the sentence, and how we as readers try to take in all the detail too, detail heightened by the weightiness of verbs, surprise naming [nouns yes, but it is more than this] and the succession of ‘and’ connectives that should jar but don’t because where they lead is too demanding of our attention.

On Child of God

…..At times, this sickening story is expressed so poetically that this could provide the only chance of being serenaded to some kind of empathy, but it is never about a Macbeth who is given salvation and redemption though a heightened language. There are many styles too, from vivid description to first person vernacular by unidentified speakers. Near the end, the sheriff and his deputy think and express themselves as templates for the Sheriff in No Country for Old Men. Here, fairly randomly, are two poetic narrations: the first about fireworks –

High above their upturned faces it burst, sprays of glycerine flaring across the night, trailing down the sky in loosely falling ribbons of hot spectra soon burnt to naught. Another went up, a long whishing sound, fishtailing aloft. In the bloom of its opening you could see like its shadow the image of the rocket gone before, the puff of black smoke and ashen trails arcing out and down like huge and dark medusa squatting in the sky

and the second, hounds attacking a boar –

Ballard watched this ballet tilt and swirl and churn mud up through the snow and watched the lovely blood there in its holograph of battle, spray burst from a ruptured lung, the dark heart’s blood, pinwheel and pirouette, until shots rang and all was done

There are countless more, some where the poetry is more lyrically in tune with the qualities being described, others even more antithetical in the grotesque juxtapositions of beautiful language and horrific events/situations.

On Blood Meridian

……I know it is stylised and in an American tradition of writing exemplified by Steinbeck, Hemingway, Chandler and Carver – to name a few excellent and obvious exponents. It is also an extreme example [just one wonderfully long sentence!] to make a point, but that is what has prompted this piece. I commend to anyone reading this the use of the simple connective ‘and’. This exhilarating extract is describing an Apache raid, and the use of ‘and’ to connect the clauses/advancing details is so simple and yet potent. I do acknowledge that McCarthy’s extensive and vivid vocabulary is a necessary accompaniment to the success of such a style:

They crossed before the sun and vanished one by one and reappeared again and they were black in the sun and they rode out of that vanished sea like burnt phantoms with the legs of the animals kicking up the spume that was not real and they were lost in the sun and lost in the lake and they shimmered and slurred together and separated again and they augmented by planes in lurid avatars and began to coalesce and there began to appear above them in the dawn-broached sky a hellish likeness of their ranks riding huge and inverted and the horses’ legs incredibly elongate trampling down the high thin cirrus and the howling antiwarriors pedant from their mounts immense and chimeric and the high wild cries carrying that flat and barren pan like the cries of souls broke through some misweave in the weft of things into the world below.

Again, on Blood Meridian

……I didn’t think it would be possible to trump, so to speak, the violence described in the Apache raid [exemplified in a previous post, though the extract quoted is more about style than content], but Chapter 13’s account of the spontaneous, indiscriminate, kneejerk, calculating and inexorable slaughter of the Mexican villages passed through is a kind of writing, both in content and style, that is entirely new to me. I read fascinated but I don’t read on because I want to find out how things progress/develop. I know what will come. I read on because of the language McCarthy uses to describe such butchery and mayhem that in its descriptive beauty and evocation manages to counterbalance the depravity of what it is describing with the elevation of poetry. I know Shakespeare mastered this so it is hardly original in that literary historical sense, but McCarthy’s prose presents a modern equivalent, distinctly American, if you’ll excuse the platitude:

An old woman knelt at the blackened stones before her door and poked brush into the coals and blew back a flame from the ashes and began to right the overturned pots. All about her the dead lay with their peeled skulls like polyps bluely wet or luminescent melons cooling on some mesa of the moon. In the days to come the frail black rebuses of blood in those sands would crack and break and drift away so that in the circuit of few suns all trace of the destruction of these people would be erased. The desert wind would salt their ruins and there would be nothing, nor ghost nor scribe, to tell to any pilgrim in his passing how it was that people had lived in this place and in this place died.

Poetry/Creative Writing Ideas – Adverb Poems

This can be an active exercise where pairs work together to compile their poems. It is another idea that encourages exploring and discovering the accident of meaning.

Adverb Poems

The aim of this unit of work is to get you exploring other types of writing created by the ‘accident of meaning’. You will be relying on an element of chance in structuring your own writing.

Your poem will be called Commands With (Optional) Adverbs which is based on an idea by the inventive poet Adrian Mitchell. Here is an example:

15 COMMANDS WITH (OPTIONAL) ADVERBS

Tackle that (drearily) running footballer

Spin out a (sleepily) woven thread

Hold on to your (sarcastically) fleeing bird

Strip this (beautifully) rotten chair leg

Eat the (mischievously) oozing sausage

Collapse that (sloppily) folding chair

Bandage his (caustically) running sore

Slide on the lake’s (hotly) frozen ice

Shout at the (splendidly) stupid dogs

Spice up the (outrageously) dull punch

Grip those (indignantly) turning wheels

Cultivate every (hurtfully) growing turnip

Spin on a (pointedly) unusual spot

Invigorate the (spasmodically) sleeping child

Flatten the (superficially) uneven soil

Writing the Poem

First stage: This is best done in pairs. Part of the fun of this exercise is the ‘accident’ and ‘surprise’ of creating lines that have unusual, often poetic meanings.

One person will be responsible for writing a set of commands, between 15 and 20. The second person will be responsible for matching these with a set of adverbs. You should keep these a secret from one another. A command is an instruction to do something. An adverb is a word that usually modifies a verb and sometimes an adjective or another adverb. Here are some examples of commands and adverbs:

Commands                                       Adverbs
Tackle that running footballer          Drearily
Spin out a woven thread                     Sleepily

The command should begin with a verb and then either have another verb or an adjective to describe its subject:

Verb                   Adjective                 Subject
Collapse   that    folding                         chair

Verb                    Verb                         Subject
Grip          those   turning                       wheels

Most adverbs end in ly and it will be easiest and most interesting for your completed commands to look for these.

Final stage: When each person has completed their individual task, cut out the commands and the adverbs. Turn these face down on to the table. Then, by alternating between each pile, turn over a command and then an adverb. Each time this is done, write out your new command containing its ‘optional’ adverb. There should be some unusual and lively ideas produced by this random process!

Extension: You can alter this process by putting your adverb at the beginning of each command so that it qualifies the opening verb. Or you can produce two adverbs for each command:

Mischievously eat the oozing sausage
Hurtfully eat the indignantly oozing sausage

English Teachers and Poetry: ‘Making Poetry Happen’ book review

DSCN1952 (2)

The pre-colon title of this article/review ought to be a mantra that encapsulates the symbiosis of Poetry and English Teachers [I mean more than just inverting that title!], as if an existing reality where a mention of both is as obvious as sky and blue, peace and love, hamburger and cheese. The mantra would be easier to sustain if simplified to Teach Poetry, but that could sound like a conditioning imperative, though if this works…..

It has always seemed the case to me that most English teachers are uncomfortable with teaching the writing of poetry, and are even more hesitant about writing it themselves. In the excellent Bloomsbury book Making Poetry Happen, there is reference to evidence to support this view, not that I think it can be seriously challenged. Teachers have, of course, had to ‘teach’ wheelbarrow loads of poetry at GCSE for years, but this isn’t anywhere near the art, and desire, of making the writing [and reading] of poetry an integral part of the English curriculum at all levels.

I like the way in his chapter The Challenges and Opportunities for Engaging with Poetry Nicholas McGuinn outlines the historical prompts – from HMI, DES, MES and right back to Matthew Arnold writing in 1852 – that either rue the lack of effective teaching of poetry or celebrate its importance. This is an essential cultural statement for its enduring importance to the English curriculum and how this was recognised by the Establishment, though even here that was more about its study than its writing. Indeed, one could argue Michael Gove as Education Secretary continued a similar recognition and promotion of its significance, were it not for the fact he is an idiot and wanted to legislate for the compulsory and discrete teaching of the Romantic poets at GCSE as an ideological rather than educational purpose [and he surely misunderstood the elements of subversion, creative and political and more, in much of their work].

But I do digress. Gove has this effect. Making Poetry Happen is a fundamental resource for all English teachers for the way if collates both thinking about and exemplifying the practice of getting students to write poetry. I will admit now I haven’t read it from cover to cover and I can’t imagine many teachers could or would do this for all kinds of obvious reasons, but it is a wonderful book from which to cherry-pick and it should be in every English department as a reference text. Cliff Yates writing in his chapter Inspiring Young People to Write Poems matches theory to practice with evidence from students’ writing that should of itself be convincing enough. My favourite, however, [of what I have read so far] is Mandy Coe’s chapter Teaching Poetry Based on Actual Writing Practices: Beyond Words where I recommend her many engaging and convincing ideas for prompting poetic writing, for example Connective Leaps.

I will mention one more chapter, Emma Benyon’s Engaging Invisible Pupils Through Creative Writing as this too is convincing, and supported by evidence from a Write Team project, in how it demonstrates the liberating impact of ‘free’ writing to name one common approach for those students who find it difficult to engage in lessons, but also how this impact goes far beyond just reluctant or reticent learners. It certainly chimes with my many experiences of working with students who were not conventionally ‘competent’ or engaged writers who could/would flourish in lessons and a focus that was creative for its own sake and not about tracking or progress or even the stumbling blocks of accuracy [and similar notions of right and wrong/conventions]. This significance of the Write Team project is in getting writers into schools and the influence and effect their sessions with students had on teachers themselves: and that is the whole point – this book cannot of itself address that fundamental problem of so many English teachers being uncomfortable [or just inexperienced] with teaching poetry/creative writing, but it does go some way to providing guidance and the encouragement not just of these ideas but also of experience.

What is needed ideally is writers in schools and teachers going on courses to be writers/or to write themselves. Cliff Yates makes that point in his chapter already mentioned: ‘a free Arvon Foundation course as part of teacher training!’ He is right, and I would go further as such courses should be regular throughout a teacher’s career, but for years we have been consumed by targets and tests and other sharps. I have been quite nostalgic in my writing on this blog but not for the rose tint of the reminiscences: my early teaching experiences in Devon were to attend LEA English courses designed explicitly to encourage and support teachers as writers, and I did attend one Arvon Foundation course for teachers, and these consistently inspired and motivated me in the classroom. Whilst always wanting to write anyway [and I do wonder how many English teachers do write for pleasure, and/or have the simple practice of writing regularly….] these courses were such dynamic fuel for that ambition both as a teacher and writer.

The editors of this book – Sue Dymoke, Myra Barrs, Andrew Lambirth and Anthony Wilson – have form in actively promoting teachers as writers and helping teachers to be writers. I have read a little of Sue Dymoke’s work and know she cares about poetry in education, and I have had the pleasure of working with Anthony Wilson when he would visit my school as a writer and work so positively and creatively with my students. They and the contributing writers can be proud of the collective theoretical background and practical underpinning that this book provides.

It does seem to me, as a final point, that the next few years may be the first time in a long time when English teachers can begin, however tentatively, and with whatever inspirational strengths those who have been around for a while still have [!], to seriously consider increasing the role of creative writing in the English classroom. With that despicable testing and target culture changing – though not completely gone, and many SLTs will hang on to the simplicities and power it provides them for dear life – English teachers can take back more control.

This will inevitably be at Key Stage 3 – the GCSE curriculum is too prescribed and full, and has Gove’s paw-prints all over it. As a concluding piece of nostalgia, I always used to have my GCSE English students write poetry for their Original Writing coursework, though sadly that option no longer survives. I was at that time able to argue honestly [Crafting Poetry: Original Writing for GCSE, dMEC] how writing creatively and in particular metaphorically/adventurously – I used existing poems as models for student to emulate – could without question help most students to meet the language/linguistic assessment objectives well above their ‘normal’ levels of attainment: with reservations about using those latter terms. One has to hope that placing creative writing at the heart of English KS3 could still have that impact, as Making Poetry Happen does argue, though not so simplistically or directly in terms of ‘attainment’. It seems highly unlikely, but I occasionally wonder that if I was still teaching would I encourage students to write poems for their GCSE English Writing terminal examination. One of the current AQA specimen papers for Paper 1 has a Writing task where students write a description based on a picture of a train on a coastal route being lashed by waves. Would my students be experienced and brave and cajoled enough to respond, perhaps using one of my list poem models:

The train surfing inside its curve of wave
The train cresting its way home
The train drying its tears inside
The train as grey as the bridge of stone
The train is just a train and it is on train tracks and it is carrying people…..damn that idiot Michael Gove……