Teaching Creative Writing on an inclusive, whole class basis – how and why.

Dave Lordan teaching creative writing to local teens in Clonakilty Library
Dave Lordan teaching creative writing to local teens in Clonakilty Library

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One demoralised writer recently told me that he was giving up on creative writing teaching in general classrooms and would only work in future ‘with children that are interested’. I empathise, but wonder where we would be if every professional mentor took the same attitude? Whole class teaching of any subject is difficult, and getting more difficult with the barbarism of the cutbacks. It isn’t easy, in the couple of hours usually allocated to us, to get every child interested and participating. Classes can go embarrassingly flat if a general rapport isn’t quickly established. Challenges inevitably present themselves in the form of poor discipline or simple blank refusal to take part. However, dealing with the difficulties of whole class teaching is a professional necessity if we are to develop a creative writing pedagogy for general use within the public education system, rather than just stay within our comfort zones with ‘children that are interested’- a phrase which I fear may translate in practice into ‘children from good homes’.

With the help of partners like Sphere 17 Youth Club, Mater Dei Institute of Education, Youthreach, and a number of DEIS (disadvantaged area) schools-as well as all the participants- I am trying to develop a workshop model flexible, patient and participatory enough to include all children, regardless of their literacy level or attitude to ‘poetry’. In this regard, I think that performance poetry has some crucial pedagogic advantages over ‘page poetry’.

Foremost of these attributes is the inclusivity of the mouth, as opposed to the exclusivity of the page. Due to lack of resources- a situation noticeably worsening- many working class and poor children still have lower reading and writing levels. They can therefore develop an entirely rational antipathy towards poetry and all things high-filutin’ in which advanced literacy is pre-requisite. Like it or not- and I guess there are some out there who do like it- the page shuts many disadvantaged children out.

Conversely, concentrating on talking and performing, with writing as part of the process but not the end goal, gets more children involved from the beginning. Privileging personally authentic expression over correct (and I use the term advisedly) grammar, spelling and diction, frees up participants to concentrate on saying what they want to or need to say, in whatever way they want to say it, rather than on getting it ‘right’ in an alienating format. It also means the workshop leader can concentrate on encouragement over correction.

Broadening the definition of creative writing to include rap, storytelling, and songwriting also helps to bring more children in. The crossover between performance poetry and popular forms like rap is a great help.

One doesn’t have to be interested in ‘literature’ to be able and willing to mouth a story, best of all a story about your own world, one in which yourself and your peers play the central roles. So, it’s important that participants are allowed to choose their own subject matter – even if, as is sometimes the case, the result is distasteful, or merely boastful. Let the yappers yap away. One will often find that the greatest disturbers of the peace in mainstream classroom situations will be fine allies once showing off is legitimised.

Children with dyslexia or other reading/writing issues can take part in group or pair activities and have their contributions equally valued. Very shy children can be put to work preparing props, or backdrops, or whatever else is required. With effort, and imagination, everyone can be found a contributory role they can feel comfortable and valued in.

Someone out there will at this stage be reflexively damning me and all my kind, fulminating about how we are lowering standards and tones, about how what we are doing has nothing to do with the sacred art of poetry. It baffles me that some poets are so unaware of their own genealogy that they don’t know that poetry was around as an oral-performative art form- developing in alliance with song, dance, drama and community- long, long before the printing press flattened it onto the page. Many technical and sonic attributes of poetry, like rhyme, alliteration and assonance, and most metres, are, of course, tools of long term oral memory, developed over aeons by societies who had no use for or knowledge of paper, or reading. Performance poetry is therefore not to be so snottily dismissed, in my opinion. In the long term, page poetry may even be archived away as a brief and entirely too self-regarding diversion from the natural or at least the integrated path of poetry: singing in company of things that matter to us all. In any case, it is page poetry which is the junior. So, show some respect!

Last July, after an intense week of workshops and rehearsals, the teenagers of the Sphere 17 Youthclub in Darndale, with me M’C ing, performed our collectively created original pieces before family, friends and staff, as well as Lord Mayor Andrew Montague, at Coolock Libary. We had a right variety show. We sang two pieces as a group. Two other pieces were performed in pairs. The remainder were individual pieces. One was a rap. I think it’s fair to say it was a highly successful project. Everyone came out of it happier and enriched. I think it self evident that youth services and writers would mutually benefit from long term relationships. The creative and educational possibilities, it seems to me, are limitless…