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Inspiring Creative Writing

English Teacher, Gemma Treeby, explains how to use role play to get the students thinking more creatively.

One of Ms Treeby's Year 8 classes getting into the spy role to help with their creative writing.

When approaching a creative writing unit, I always think of the Ernest Hemingway quote, “In order to write about life, first you must live it.”

Many would probably agree with this statement and certainly a richness of life experience allows you to develop more of a sense of realism and complexity to your work. Yet, we constantly ask students to write. We challenge them to write from the perspective of different people, in different places, at different times - relying on imagination alone.

Of course, the essence of creativity is imagination and in fact this is something that becomes stifled when we become older, so whenever asking students to write it is important to provide varying stimuli to help nurture this and cultivate it instead of dampening it. We can’t fast-forward them into the future, but we can certainly bring ‘life’ to the classroom.

This was the recent thinking behind a unit of work on Spy Thrillers. Students were taught the nuts and bolts of writing: genre, narrative, punctuation, grammar, language techniques. However, truly good creative writing doesn’t come from a criteria or a checklist. For every rule of ‘good writing’ that can be followed, there are just as many examples of writers who have produced incredible work by breaking it.

One thing that I noticed was often similar in students’ work was an issue with conceiving imagery. We teach students the different types of sensory imagery, but time and time again in writing students tend to focus on plot and action with a heavy focus on what characters see and maybe hear – other senses, gustatory (taste), olfactory (smell)  and tactile (touch) senses are often skimmed over or totally absent.

To try to encourage students to think about this and also develop their ability to write emotively from the perspective of their characters, I developed ‘Spy Games’.

Students competed against each other in a range of activities which targeted the different senses and also focused on a different essential spy skill - from maintaining an excellent poker face, to the dexterity and focus required when tying someone up under timed conditions.

Teaching in role is an essential part of this mix. Many teachers fear it, but you don’t need a silly voice or even a costume. The students are delighted and highly amused at the sheer fact you won’t answer to your usual name and insist on being addressed as an agent.

Finally, the sheer opportunity to spend most of a lesson out of their seats and providing a competitive writing element means the students are developing skills without even realizing it and the richness of such experiences translates into their writing effortlessly.

Whether it be a code breaking sequence that leads to ‘an agent’s heart thumping in his chest’ as he counts down the seconds and struggles to focus on ‘letters jumping around the page’, or a spy who suffers ‘burning wrists’ and ‘flaming arms’ when trying to break free from being tied by their enemy - it cannot be underestimated how much play can develop their originality and ability to creatively craft language for effect.

- Gemma Treeby, English, Media & Drama Teacher

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