Teaching Writing

I’ve been lobbying for creative writing classes at almost every place I taught, whether at university or high school level. Partly this is because I love writing and I love teaching writing. Besides, I also believe that creative writing can be enormously beneficial in so many areas in life. There’s even research to back me up, in German even, which I routinely cite to head teachers and other people in charge, when trying to persuade someone to let me teach creative writing to their students.

Alas, so far I haven’t been able to persuade anyone to let me teach a creative writing class. However, I try to incorporate writing into my regular classes whenever possible. Since I teach ESL, I can’t do that with every class, because some kids simply haven’t reached a sufficient language level yet. However, if the skill level is high enough, I include free writing exercises in my lessons. And the kids usually enjoy it, even if some have initial reservations.

With my class today, I did a “Write a story in four steps” exercise called the Instant Story Machine. The exercise is based on a PowerPoint presentation. I had to take my laptop to school today anyway, because I had promised my aunt and uncle to visit them after school and burn some photos on CD for them, so I could just as well do the PowerPoint exercise.

Step 1:
In the first slide, there are photos of four different people, two men and two women. The photos are stills from films and TV shows, because the range of facial expressions is greater than with either shots of models or snapshots of random people and there often is some action in the picture. I take stills from TV shows that have never been broadcast in Germany in order to eliminate any preconceptions. British soap operas are particularly well suited to this, though I also use pics from crime shows.

I ask the kids to pick one photo and write a short text about the person on the photo, who they think the person is, what he or she is doing, thinking, feeling, etc… Most start off by describing what the person is wearing, some even describe the background in detail. After a while, they go deeper and write stuff like “She is sad because her boyfriend dumped her” or “The policeman looks shocked and sad, because he has just found a dead person” (which was surprisingly accurate to the actual scene the still was taken from). I let the kids read out their paragraph, then we go on to the next slide.

Step 2
The second slide is similar to the first. There are again four photos, two man and two women. Again I ask the kids to pick someone and describe that person and have them read out the result.

Step 3:
The third slide shows photos of four different places. The photos were taken from my harddrive. There is a futuristic looking building (in case someone wants to write SF), a medieval ruin (in case someone wants to write horror or historical fiction), a snowy landscape with a house and a panorama of Blackpool beach complete with the Tower.

I ask the kids to pick one photo, imagine the two people they described in steps 1 and 2 meeting in that place and write down what happens next.

Step 4:
For this step, I have a list of plot twists, e.g. it starts to rain, a man with a gun comes in, someone’s mother shows up and is angry, an old woman makes a mysterious prophecy, a fire breaks out. I ask the kids to pick a plot twist and write what happens.

The results are always fascinating. True to cliche, boys usually write espionage or crime stories with lots of action (there are photos of a woman shooting and a man being arrested), girls write domestic stuff or romance. One boy quite memorably had one of his characters throw another off Blackpool Tower and pointed at the photo and said, “There! You can even see him falling down.” I replied, “Actually, that’s a seagull.”

One photo shows a black woman, another an Indian woman. Quite a few kids have picked those photos, but none of them has ever mentioned the race of the women, even though there are always detailed descriptions of clothing and hairstyles. There also is one photo, a still from Hollyoaks or some such program, where a man and a woman bump into each other and she pours a drink on his shirt. Every kid who has picked that photo so far wrote an elaborate description of the woman stabbing the man, mistaking the drink for blood.

Anyway, this exercise always gets good results. There’s also the possibility of adding more steps for more advanced students.

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  1. Pingback: A Bouquet of Writing Links | Cora Buhlert

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