The current debate
Lucy Hewitt's 'Teachit staffroom roundup' last June, condensed English teachers' responses to Leonara Klein's assertion that there is 'no place for creativity within the secondary English classroom'. Some teachers were outraged but some admitted, albeit a little hesitantly, that the current climate made this so.
A love for English; that's the simple reason most of us chose to study it and go on to teach it. How else to teach but creatively? Certainly training to work in the classroom is a hugely creative experience. Hands-on seminars for us included a multitude of exciting ideas all designed to help with 'getting writing going'--allowing students to get writing and to get creative. This was the stuff. This was why we entered the profession as English teachers.
The reality, what with curriculum commitments, government initiatives and the relentless nationwide drive for results, is ever-so-slightly less creative for many of us. Revision sessions, after-school tutoring and the exams themselves leave teachers less and less room to instil a sheer passion for reading and writing, or enjoy experimentation with personal, creative writing. Who knows, with the death of SATS perhaps will come the re-birth of creative writing for writing's sake for Year 9.
Committed to avoiding such feelings, as the Subject Leader of English at Holland Park School in London, I found it possible to ensure that our extra-curricular offering provided the writing opportunities we had longed to deliver in our lessons. Cue 'First Story': a charity that promotes writing and provides an in-house, resident writer for schools to run extended day sessions for a mixed year cohort of budding authors. The scheme injects a large dose of creativity into the school day and perfectly complements the English curriculum, seasoning the work of English teachers in and out of a classroom context. The cross curricular benefits are clear: drawing on " content from other subject areas, honing editing skills and the discipline of writing to deadline for specific audiences to a professional standard.
The creative process
Inspired by the experience and work of Katie Waldegrave and William Fiennes, the former teacher and acclaimed writer who worked together to set up this charity matching state schools and well known authors, I leapt at the chance to have Louisa Young as our writer in residence for a year as part of the First Story group. Hoping to develop an extra curricular experience designed to strengthen talent, liberate creativity and encourage inter key stage links, the first question was how to select the participants.
Holding a 'literary tea party' after school for all students in key stages 4 and 5 to gauge interest was a resounding success. Amidst the tea and cakes, students and teachers were moved to tears by those brave enough to read aloud their intensely personal responses to Louisa's first exercise 'I am who I am because ...'
The sheer number of talented students who at first felt they couldn't commit to an hour and a half each week due to 'exam commitments' is a sign of the need for just such an activity and it was heart-warming to note these students joining us throughout the year and attending the 'Open House' event in force. We were thrilled to recruit a core of twenty budding writers, who ranged from melodramatic 'performers' to those who wouldn't, couldn't, share their work initially and included a talented brother and sister combination from Year 10 and 12.
Louisa worked her magic. Week after week she cajoled, praised and refined their efforts, putting together the most inspirational exercises, inviting them to trust their instincts and inspiring the members of the English team who joined us each week. As word spread, we found that colleagues from other subject areas began to join us, understanding the cross-curricular potential of this kind of creativity. …