Teaching students to be creative is difficult. If they don’t think they’re very good at it they feel shut off by it, as though it’s a skill you either have or you don’t.
To make it harder still, there’s a number of things which hinder these students in accessing their creativity.
In the teaching of English, we’re always looking at the work of our classic writers. We analyse in detail why the writing is great, explain the hidden meanings and the cultural relevance. But, rarely is the painful, arduous, creative process that went into it explored in more than just a side-note. The fact that these writers all dealt with struggle, self-doubt, confusion, and often (quite frankly) “faking it” before the completing the thing we’re reading is forgotten in our analysis of its construction.
Without meaning to, we are perpetuating the idea that creativity flows effortlessly. Which is, unsurprisingly, demeaning for our students who find it hard.
They can find the idea that they need to work, develop, and practise creativity a surprise. Then they are insulted by the suggestion that they should edit it, as though once it’s done that’s it – when in fact many creatives talk of their work as being a process that’s never truly finished, they’re always editing it.
Here’s the first page of Charles Dickens’ Christmas Carol – if editing’s good enough for him, then our students can do it:
Secondly, how often do we talk about the idea that creativity is really borrowing ideas from other people? You’re just putting your own angle, view or slant on an idea that already exists.
In the classroom we look at these great works in isolation as though they appeared fully formed in the writer’s mind. In English we study Shakespeare, but we rarely talk about his contemporaries, the people that he admired, those that inspired him to write.
The idea of Shakespeare’s Romeo and Juliet was borrowed from Arthur Brooke’s 1562 work The Tragical History of Romeus and Juliet.
Is creativity really borrowing ideas from other people and developing them into your own?
WH Davenport (writing in The Gentlemen’s Magazine in 1892) thinks so:
“Great poets imitate and improve, whereas small ones steal and spoil.”
How could we apply this in the classroom to demystify and encourage creativity? Even to those who think they’re no good at it? Here’s one of the things I do:
Start by reading a great piece of writing, look at the detail, the techniques and the language. Ask students to underline the parts they feel particularly drawn to.
Show a picture which could represent the piece of writing you’ve just read. Maybe a similar setting or mood. Then ask students to write their own description of it.
If needed, give them a structure for the description (four paragraphs, in paragraph one write about… in paragraph two write about…).
Here’s the key: encourage them to borrow phrases and techniques from the example – but not more that 3-4 consecutive words.
Is their result more creative, powerful and interesting than if they hadn’t been able to borrow some phrases from the example?
This is what professional writers do, so why shouldn’t we teach it like that?
Is anything really created in isolation?