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English teacher interested in language and culture, and also in fiction using magic, myth, folklore and the supernatural. Now teaching part-time in a Leicester Upper School (ages 14-19) and also writing for children, teens and teachers.

Sunday, 13 March 2011

Sunday Writing: Creativity and Rules

There are two main tensions in my day job.

That's tension in the sense of existential-type conflict, rather than the hassles and squabbles endemic to all work (if pushed, I could probably identify more than two of those...).

As a teacher of English Language for A-Level, I have a tension right there in that single role.  On the one hand, I have to teach teens not to be judgemental of others' use of language.  "These people can't use English properly because they are uneducated" is not an acceptable comment!  On the other hand, of course, I'm underlining every instance of "alot", "infact" or "aswell", every "sentance" and "grammer" and every poorly-chosen "their/there/they're" and offering helpful advice on where commas, full stops and apostrophe might usually be found in Standard English.

My other great tension lies in being both the person running the "Creative Writing" enrichment, and a teacher on the GCSE English resit programme, for kids needing a second chance.  One poor girl has the misfortune to find herself in both groups.

In teaching GCSE English, we're encouraging creativity in Original Writing, with no time to really correct the students' existing assumptions that creativity = an abundance of adventurous adjectives, dialogue tagged with anything but "said" alongside descriptive and elucidating adverbs.  We try, but since marks are allocated for demonstrating 'interesting' vocabulary, we'd be letting them down if we prevented them using these writing methods.

In Creative Writing, however, we've been working on showing and not telling and using straightforward and precise vocabulary, even when an obscure word or phrase would convey a similar meaning and demonstrate intelligence at the same time.  We looked at speech tags in published novels once, to make the point about adverb-free "said", and we examined how settings and people were described.  Yes, I know in GCSE, we do as-descriptive-as-possible writing, but in the real world, where people buy stories to escape/relax/whatever, readers want stuff to happen, and will picture people and places through incidental detail rather than pages of prose painting.

Sigh.

Why is nothing ever simple?  I guess I can more easily live with the first tension than the second.  I always end up discussing it with the class - it's part of the whole "should Education equip kids to use Standard English or not interfere with their language" debate, after all.  The second, however, is more directly caused by said Education system, and the aims of English in the National Curriculum, Literacy Framework and so on, which have nothing particular to do with the art of writing for publication.

Any thoughts on this clash between taught writing for 'English' as a subject, and 'real' writing in the world?

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