Helping Bell students express their creativity
One of the things I enjoy most about teaching at Bell is planning afternoon lessons. These lessons allow us teachers to offer students more specialised support. That might be grammar guidance, vocabulary development or exam preparation skills, or it might mean projects such as film-making, where learners can put all their skills into action.
Recently, I had the chance to launch a new course: English through Creative Writing. I have always loved writing poems, journals and stories, and I wanted to see whether I could help students improve their English in fun and unexpected ways. I felt sure that writing stories would encourage students to focus on their use of grammar, and that studying poetry would make features of pronunciation, such as rhyme and rhythm, clearer. Surely writing dialogue for TV dramas could build listening and speaking skills? And the thought that real readers needed to understand a story would motivate learners to pay attention to tenses?
Preparing for the course, I found two books particularly useful: Teaching Creative Writing to Second Language Learners by Ryan Thorpe (Routledge, 2022) and The Creative Writer’s Notebook by John Gillard (Quad Books, 2016). I also drew on my own experience of taking writing courses with The Open College of the Arts, Curtis Brown Creative and The National Centre for Writing, courses which had offered both technique and inspiration. As I sketched out a scheme of work, one big question was at the forefront of my mind: how could I adapt the writing activities I’d enjoyed so that they were beneficial and enjoyable for English language learners?
We spend a lot of time at Bell thinking about how best we can help students learn. Recently, we’ve been revisiting engagement, this time following the GOSCH model. We wanted to make sure that our lessons included goals, options, surprise, challenge and hooks, so that learners felt both enjoyment and a sense of progress. It was with this in mind that I began planning the first set of creative writing lessons.
From the start, I set simple but realistic goals, which each student could achieve using their existing English. Learners had options such as ‘work alone or with a classmate’ or ‘use a framework or write freely’. Surprises included audio prompts such as the relaxing sound of waves or ‘let’s go outside and discover some poems!’. There was always challenge as students – who ranged from A2+ to C1 on the CEFR scale – stretched themselves to express original ideas in their second (or even third) language. And at the beginning of each lesson, I tried to include hooks – in the form of an image a sound or an unexpected question.
So, what happened? Well, the course started with a large group of mixed nationality and mixed level learners (including two teachers of English). It’s unusual to see such a range of learners together in Bell classes, but for both practical and experimental reasons, we decided to try it. In spite of some anxieties on my part, for this particular class, it worked well. Any learner can visualise, use their imagination and share ideas about literature they’ve enjoyed.
Following a rough cycle of poetry, prose fiction and script (dialogue), each week we analyse a sample text, seeing what we can learn from it. Then we draft, edit and write our own texts. Scaffolding is provided for tasks but is usually optional. The same applies to word counts; learners simply write as much as they want to. For each productive task, students are encouraged (but not obliged) to share their work. Most, however, do post their work on the class Padlet. In the very first week, for example, having been given an audio prompt of waves on a beach and a simple scaffold, learners produced nostalgic poems, such as the following two examples:
In my mind’s eye I see the beach
His sand is white
I hear the sound of the waves
I touch the white sand
I smelled the sea and tasted the grilled fish
All five senses mingling together
A memory of last trip to sea
With my family
In my mind’s eye
I see an orange sunset
I hear the lake water moving,
I touch the hard rock beneath me
I smell the cold, oxygenated air
and taste the bitter mate
and sugary biscuits
All five senses mingling together
A memory of Juli and I
contemplating Villa La Angostura.
We also spent a week exploring poems in translation, embracing the CEFR concept of ‘mediation’, which, allows students to focus on making meaning and/or enabling communication beyond linguistic or cultural barriers. Working in first language pairs, students selected a short poem they loved and then translated it so that classmates from other cultures could understand and enjoy it. Here, for example, is B2 student Abdulaziz’s translation of an Arabic poem by Al-mutanabbi:
Be good to everyone
There is a farewell moment that has no time
And here, with the original Spanish, is the work of C1 students, Felix and Justino:
Querer a las personas como se quiere a un gato,
con su carácter y su independencia,
sin intentar domarlo,
sin intentar cambiarlo,
dejarlo que se acerque cuando quiera, siendo feliz con
As you love a cat,
With its nature and independence,
Without trying to tame it,
Without trying to change it,
Letting it come when it wants,
With its happiness.
The delight in creating and sharing these poems was evident as students wrestled with English to express precise meanings. They had to draw on every ounce of their knowledge and skill, and this process, it seemed, gave them a sense of ownership.
But did these activities actually improve their English language skills? It is too soon to answer this question in a robust way. However, learners are asking more questions about whether certain words ‘work’ in a sentence, or have a negative or positive connotations, or will create a rhyme. They want to know whether action, description or dialogue is the best way to present character. They have a clearer sense of main clauses and subclauses when writing prose (learning a lot from Elene Ferrante’s My Brilliant Friend!). And I have noticed an increased motivation to write, to edit and to complete tasks. Overall, I feel I’m seeing greater engagement with language as students try to shape it to their own ends.
We are now thinking about sharing our class work more widely. Already, we have created a class magazine of haiku in English and I’m planning to introduce them to websites where they can – if they wish – share their creations. The course is still very much a work in progress but judging by what I’ve seen so far, I think it’s a positive addition to Bell’s afternoon classes.
Alison Pledger, teacher at Bell Cambridge