Teaching Creative Writing on Teams

28 Jan 2021

 

I am a strong believer in the benefits of writing in supporting mental health and wellbeing. I know how much it has helped me, particularly over the last five years. Oliver Sacks captures the immersive power of it poignantly in the final paragraph of his autobiography ‘On The Move’:

“The act of writing, when it goes well, gives me a pleasure, a joy, unlike any other. It takes me to another place –  irrespective of my subject – where I totally absorbed and oblivious to distracting thoughts, worries, preoccupations, or indeed the passage of time. In those rare, heavenly states of mind, I may write nonstop until I can no longer see the paper Only then do I realise that evening has come and I have been writing all day.”

In everyday conversation I am fairly useless and like many more introverted people, I find writing a much easier way to express myself. The same, I have found, is often true of young people.

I have been really fortunate to run a number of creative writing groups and projects. In my first school in London, I was lucky to work with the First Story charity, giving groups of students the opportunity to work with a published author and produce a book. I wanted to give students the opportunity to do something similar in my school in the North-East, and was lucky that my brilliant publisher John Catt Education agreed to produce a book for them. The result was ‘The Write Lunch’ , one of my favourite projects I have run in a school.

In this second lockdown, I was keen to start some kind of creative writing group, and wondered what that format might look like over Teams. That quality that Sacks defines, of absorption and distraction from the outside world, is what I have always found so valuable about a writing group – qualities that they need now more than ever before.

I teach in Tynecastle High School in Edinburgh now, a genuinely wonderful school full of cracking young people and teachers  – and one with great potential for a creative writing club names. ‘Tyne to Write’ started in the first week of lockdown. I asked other English teachers to nominate students who they thought might be interested in the S1-2 age group (Year 7-8).

The first session, perhaps somewhat predictably, had about five kids turn up. One lasted five minutes before vanishing into the online ether.

“We’re here to decide if this is going to be any good or not, then we will tell our friends.”

At least they were honest. Anyway, a few weeks in and there is a solid group of around 15-20 students who attend. There aren’t many things I find enjoyable about teaching online, but I do look forward to the twice weekly sessions.

Here are three sessions that seem to have worked fairly well so far, and I have since used with some of my own classes. I will update this every few weeks with some more ideas and sessions for creative writing that have worked, and would love to hear from other teachers how they are approaching teaching creative writing online.

  1. The Life of a Tree 

The potential of trees for creative writing is limitless. This lesson is very simple and requires no preparation whatsoever other than our trusty friend google images. The idea is that the students have to adopt the persona of a tree, and write from its perspective.

First they had a few minutes writing from the perspective on this delightful tree, typing up their ideas on the chat section of Teams

Then I shared some of the responses, and asked them to consider writing from a different perspective. This is a cracker:

I have done this particular writing task a few times and kept a range of good examples to share. I read them this great example:

The grey filled clouds looked down on me, I tried to look up. I prayed that I wouldn’t be isolated much longer. Silence..

Soon, night came upon me. The creatures that made a bed out of my arms were soon gone. In the morning, the sound of children laughing filled my ears. I wondered what the children were laughing at. I only knew that they were children because I heard a deep fruity voice shouting ‘Children!’ I don’t have eyes so I will never know.

Or so I thought.

One day a man came and sat next to me. I could hear a pencil scraping on paper. After a while, he read me the poem. Finally, I could match the images inside of my head with the surrounding noises. The children were laughing, crying. The monster that made a bed on me looked not as evil as I visualised. They were called ‘birds’. Over the many days of writing and reading, I eventually managed to create the surrounding images around me.

One day, the man didn’t come. I thought nothing of it. However, he never came again.

For centuries I watched people grow and pass, but there was one unique thing that I learned and I’m sure no other tree can learn this. I learned how to imagine. I have my very own vision.

Then off they went to find their own inspirational tree, and write for fifteen minutes. There are no rules: it can be poetry, prose, whatever they feel like writing. The idea is they then go back to afterwards and can submit it as an assignment on their Teams channel if they want to. The final result was some treemendous writing, that branched off in all kids of directions. Apologies.

The aim for this club at the end of lockdown is to share an anthology of their writing, something positive they have worked hard on and they will have to remember.

2. I remember

Again, this was a really simple session (to be fair ‘simple’ encapsulates pretty much everything I try to do in the online teaching world!) First, the students had to write down five memories and share them on the chat function of Teams. They had to be chronological, ranging from their earliest to a current memory.

That always leads to some animated discussion, with them keen to share what had happened and why their memories are significant. This group actually, wait for, unmute themselves and want to have a conversation with me. Shocking.

Again, I am lucky enough to have a good supply of exemplars I can use for this task. This poem is brilliant, and really powerful to share with groups.

Dust 

I never thought that I’d be woken up, On that fateful day,
To my cousin pale with fear,
With an awful thing to say,
I never thought that I’d see the day,
Where my home was no longer cheerful,
Instead we were solemn, broken, sad,
Gloomy, in shock and fearful,
I never thought that I’d feel that lost,
That I’d never feel the same,
Because that was the day that I had learnt,
My home had gone up in flames,
I never thought that I’d be that angry,
I shouted and called her a liar,
She looked at me with a teary face and said,
“Gracie, there’s been a fire,”
That was the day, that horrible day,
That I thought my life was done for,
I blamed myself, it was all my fault,
I should have really done more, I never thought that many years later, I’d be over it, no longer discussed,
But I remember that my old room,
Is now no more than dust.

Off they went to write about a particular memory that resonates powerfully with them. Hopefully it was a passport to another time, one that helped to remove them from the screen-dominated existence they are currently battling through.

3. The City at Night 

For this task I wanted to slow the writing down a bit, and include some tighter rules about what they had to do and write about. I asked them to imagine they were in a city in the deep of the night. For the first image, they had to write three sentences of description, without using ‘I’.

For the second image, they had to write only about the senses, using four sentences

Finally, they had to write five sentences from the perspective of someone in the taxi from this image:

I then shared this creepy wee example with them, before off they went to write their own:

The city is silent. The low hum of engines move around the city as the sun sets below the horizon. The lights twinkle on every corner and the statues look scary in the dusk light. The sound of shops closing and people heading home fills my ears. The air is as soft and silky as a feather falling through the air. As the clouds fall low, a thick fog closes round the city. Lights in every window glow in the dark street. Shadows in every alley seem to breathe in the damp air. Suddenly a dark man jumped out of the alley…

As I explained to the students in the first session to the group, one of the requirements is that at the close of each session, they have to un-mute and in unison shout together: “It’s Tyne to write.” The first couple of sessions this was very tentative, but now it is rather loud, and for me at least, rather joyful.

Perhaps there has never been a better time to encourage young people to be creative in their writing, to set them off on interesting writing projects, to help them to escape their current reality. Perhaps it is time to write.

Reading this week: ‘Franklin and Winston’ by Jon Meacham. Talking of escapism, this is a brilliant account of Roosevelt and Churchill’s friendship and how it was instrumental in World War Two. And yes, I have managed to use an extract from it in a lesson.

Listening to this week: My toddler’s fledging dance routines are still dictating much of my musical adventures. This is his current obsession. Thank you for reading.

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Jamie Thom

English teacher, host of @TES English teaching podcast. Author of 'Slow Teaching.' MEd in Practitioner Enquiry, doctorate student #StrathEdD. Runner.

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