Thursday, December 31, 2009


Just a small post to say Happy New Year to readers of this blog!

I will be blog post free for a few weeks in the new year as we'll be heading off to live under canvas in the national forests of Tasmania for a while.

Have a wonderful NYE, and if you're on holidays, enjoy the break!

Kind Regards

Martin Jorgensen

See you in 2010!

Friday, December 18, 2009

Where are you going?

Last year I spoke to several classes of year 12 students about careers, theirs and mine. I've been reflecting on the discussions we had as I explore some new opportunities for next year.

Some of the students I spoke to had no idea where they were going. Some had a plan, a path they had laid out ahead of them, or that had been laid out for them. A number of them asked questions about goals and areas of employment they had heard about that seemed perhaps intangible and unreal. Many were looking for reaffirmation that their intentions were justified, that the goals they were setting might bring them the lives they hoped for.

It's often the case, that simply pursuing the things we love doing will lead us to the greatest success in our lives, and often the greatest fulfillment. But it's hard to convey this without sounding like Dr Phil.

So I told them a story about the beginnings of my career.

I told them about my year 7 English teacher refusing to mark my work due to my atrocious handwriting. That to resolve this problem, I taught myself to type using an early Apple PC and in the process, built my confidence with computers. I learnt to appreciate that making mistakes was OK when working with computers, and that knowledge served me over and over in later years. I told them that those quick typing fingers also helped me all through my career, and still help me.

I told them about my parents reading me books by the armful as a child, my father making up a new story each night at the end of the bed. I told them about the english teacher that inspired me in year 10, and how a love of stories had helped me meet my wife while studying professional writing and changed my life.

I told them about my hating school, but discovering a love of learning when I left. That my love of story, my fascination with computers and addiction to learning would eventually inspire a career teaching professional development, ICT and English. That I developed a passion for digital narrative that gives me a great deal of pleasure.

Sometimes it's hard to see the threads that will pull us through life. Often it can be the seemingly inconsequential events that will shape the direction we take. This doesn't mean we have no control, it just means that we have to take our passions a little more seriously, whether we make careers out of them or not.

Sometimes a career we love can materialise unexpectedly. The trick, is to see opportunity when it manifests itself. The way to do that is to simply follow your instincts, and to do the things you love as well as you can.

For me, story, computers, learning and teaching are the strong threads that have drawn me through life to this point. I'm taking it on faith that they will continue to help me build a career, and a life that I love.

Where are your passions taking you?

Sunday, December 13, 2009

Introducing ...

Executive Summary: Story starters = bad. 10 great ways to engage creative writing.


One of the my favorite rants is on the subject of story starters. Now don't get me wrong, I've witnessed some inspired ways of introducing a story prompt that guide a young writer toward a particular result.

In most cases however (IMHO) ... this just doesn't happen. Story starters like 'Imagine you're in a forest' or 'It all started when' ... are too often whipped out to fill a creative writing pocket in the day.

Writing this way does produce results. You will for example, obtain a markable product at the end of the lesson. For those students that might struggle, it can be a quick way of guiding them to produce a result, but ahhhh .... this is the root of the problem

Starting your writers off with a story starter, however brief, will frame your expectations for your students. It directs for them how you would prefer they be creative, it gives them a narrow channel to follow.

Can you guide creativity so directly? Can you draw a path in the sand for it to follow? Authors use multiple strategies in their approaches to writing a book. Some begin the process with some loose structure, some simply head off in a direction with inspiration as their guide.

Most try different approaches, and discover what works best for them, for that particular novel. There are many alternatives to approaching creative writing in and out of the classroom that don't necessitate you providing the first line.

Don't forget that it's important not to prescribe the form of creative approach students take, a poem, a list, a story ... all forms are valid. One form may inspire another. Trust that your students will find their voice in their own way. The less suggestions you provide, the more inspired the results will be.

So here, for better or worse, are my suggestions. A list of ten alternatives to creative writing in the classroom:

  1. Use props! Creativity is something you have to head out and hunt down sometimes. Take the class outside, ask them to find a rock, small leaf ... something from the garden that doesn't wriggle ... and bring it back inside. Now, 'focus on your find, zoom in and write about it'. Write 'zoom in' in large letters on the board. How students interpret this is up to them. Trust that your students will find their own insights. If you need to provide further guidance, read out some examples of students that have already started. If you start the exercise with 'now zoom in, imagine you're looking through a microscope ... etc' ... well, you may as well put a story starter on the board. Remember this is an exercise to inspire THEIR creative approach! Finished? Now 'zoom out'. Don't frame your expectations any more clearly than that.
  2. Many authors read in order to inspire their own writing. It's not cheating, but it IS something that can surprise young adults, who may not realise professional writers often read to inspire their own work. It's can be particularly valid approach when working with voice. Read to your students from something they haven't heard before, with a distinctive voice if possible. Ask your students to produce some writing that emulates that voice.
  3. Read a picture book, and then ask students to produce a piece of writing inspired by that book. This won't work with a book about Spot the dog ... choose a challenging text, like FOX by Margaret Wild and Ron Brooks.
  4. Ask students to choose a character from your picture book and write about them. This is a wonderful way to lead into discussions about characters and their needs and wants. With a picture book, you'll only have a few characters to select from ... and as a follow on task you can also discuss the needs and wants of each of them in the story.
  5. Economic writing is something I'd strongly encourage. Start with 30 word stories, then 15, then 6 word stories. An extension of this task can be to ask students to write out their small six word stories on a small object just big enough to accommodate the words like a small stone.
  6. Writing about an unreliable memory is a way of approaching personal experience with some degree of safety ... be careful when explaining this concept or you'll find half the stories written mirror your example.
  7. Words associated with a particular sporting pastime can be fascinating. Have students turn to the racing, rugby or soccer section in the paper, and take unfamiliar words associated with that sport and use them in a creative piece.
  8. Take a simple story familiar with all students, like Cinderella, and have them retell it in their own fashion. This is a wonderful way of introducing archetypes in stories.
  9. As an extension of task 8, have students change the chronology of a story familiar to all of them in their retelling. This is an activity that may be best suited to slightly more confident young writers. It is however, a wonderful way of exploring structure.
  10. Including a physical element in the telling of a story or poem can be an exciting way of exploring writing in a classroom. Have students cut the words they want from newspapers for a poem or short story. You'll find the way students approach this activity can be varied and fascinating ... like all storytelling!
You'll find numerous other ideas for creative writing approaches on the Breaking Writers Block resource on Lightning Bug.

One last note ... there are always students in the class that struggle with the creative writing process. Here are a couple of sure fire ways to help them find inspiration:

  • Simply relieving a student of the expectation that they need to finish the piece of writing can be an enormous release for them. This is good advice for all your young writers if need be! Starting the writing process off with an remark that you are looking for good examples of writing, not the person that completes their work first.
  • Rather than focussing on the story, encourage them to start with a character - ask them to describe the character, tell them they might base it on a family member, or a conglomeration of friends and family members' behaviors and traits. Once they have accomplished that, it's a wonderful place to talk about the needs and wants of that character ... and it's from these discussions that a story can be uncovered.
  • Ask your students to consider what sort of writer they are, what sorts of stories they find inspiring, what they are reading. Ask them to attempt to emulate that writing style.
Finally, make sure you are reading examples of different approaches taken in the classroom during the writing process. Yes this is something most good teachers will do, yes it's an obvious suggestion ... but it's important. Those students that don't read regularly need to hear as many examples of creative approaches to a story as possible.

Ok ... rant over.

Tuesday, December 8, 2009

Up to their necks in it

I was angered today to see an article published by the Fairfax newspaper group about a father choking his child treated with such careless disregard.

The article carried a headline of 'Up to his neck in it: dad chokes girl over Twilight movie', an obvious reference to vampires.

Stories are powerful, and to be able to tell a good story is a life skill that can help you no matter what your vocation is likely to be.

It's important that young adults see the power a story can have when used effectively and constructively. We need to be able to show our young adults moral role models in the media, and Fairfax is evidently lacking in this regard.

Violence against children is not a thing to be joked about, it's not a subject to be treated carelessly. Violence against children is never appropriate, and our young adults need to see this.

It's important that this sort of story is represented in the media, just as issues of politics and religion and all manner of other behaviours and beliefs are explored in a public forum.

It's also important that these sorts of stories are treated with a respect for the diverse readership and for those directly involved.

Perhaps I'm over reacting? Perhaps a crass joke about a man committing an act of violence against his child is something to be joked about? Disgusting.

Saturday, December 5, 2009

The story of stuff

I recently started helping my mother go through some of my late fathers belongings. It's a slow process, because it is a lifetime of acquisition we are sifting through.

There are some people that approach the belongings left after the death of a relative with a roll of garbage bags and a truck for the furniture ... and I can understand that. There is something cathartic about cleaning away old clothes and keeping only a few precious items for remembrance.

I've been discovering however, that real value can be in the smallest things, often seemingly inconsequential objects. Each week, my mother and I select a drawer or a cupboard and sort through it. In a dresser this week, we found a plastic jar full of coins and badges, paperclips and an odd assortment of other small items.

I was about to disregard much of it, when my mother took up a cuff link, and reminded me of the time years ago when Dad had made them. We were approaching Christmas with very little to spend on friends and family, and so my Dad bought a piece of copper the size of a dinner plate from a friend. He cut the copper, and made a dozen pairs of cuff links to give as presents.

Cuff links, a coat, a pair of shoes a coffee mug, there are so many objects in our lives we invest with stories. Sometimes it is because the object represents a moment in time, a bookmark for that place in our lives, when or why it was given.

Monetary value has no bearing on the weight of the story contained in an object. We hand down items of all shapes and sizes through our families and in our communities that represent stories.

Sporting cups with a list of names long forgotten still resonate for us, their layers of stories may only be remembered by a few, but we all feel the weight of collective memories in these objects.

A family bible, regardless of our own attachments and connections, have an inherited value because of the reverence with which they are often treated and kept. They are totoms representing the stories of our family, community and culture.

Flags are another, weighted heavily with story and significance, they may carry a smaller story of ownership but they will always reflect a vast store of community values and memory.

My Dad collected, he loved garage sales and markets, loved fixing the objects he found and I think, loved the stories that came with them. He loved people and the stories they told, and this was perhaps a large part of his motivation for collecting things of often not immediately apparent value. Much to the horror of my Mother I might add.

Dad always asked about the objects he bought, wanted their stories, needed to understand their value for the people he bought them from. It was one of the reasons he loved making things with his hands ... he then had a story to hold within him and to tell others. A story about time spent, and the care he had taken, and perhaps, the value it could represent for others.

Some items we have uncovered in my fathers large collection of things only had value to him, and held stories we have forgotten or that he never told us ... some of them include:

A Braille clock
A delicately constructed aeroplane made from whisper thin balsa wood
A collection of beautiful wooden handles - for what sort of tool, we have no idea
An old solitaire board, lovingly restored
A Danish made pistol less than an inch long, with a tiny container full of bullets and a ram rod