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.