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Tuesday, 18 February 2014

'Miss Creedle Teaches Creative Writing' - Some Thoughts

It has been a while since a poem has made me think as much as did Gareth Owen's 'Miss Creedle Teaches Creative Writing' when I happened upon it in an anthology this morning (you can read it here). A cursory bit of research subsequently informed me that the poem is actually quite well-known, and has been mentioned in various academic texts as a satire on the 'Creative Writing Movement' of the 60s and 70s. Owen's poem is seen by many as articulating some of the flaws in this approach to developing pupils' writing.

I got something slightly different from the poem. I am largely neutral as to the benefits or otherwise of the general type of approach adopted by Miss Creedle, in which she basically encourages her pupils to close their eyes and use their imaginations in order to stimulate writing. I know for a fact that this approach can work very well, especially with Gifted and Talented writers with whom I have, like Miss Creedle, used Beethoven as a writing stimulus. I have also, on occasion, adopted a similar approach with mixed ability classes, where I have asked pupils to describe emotions using a 'show don't tell' technique involving each of their five senses. I have seen it work, but I very much appreciate that some children find this sort of exercise extraordinarily difficult and frustrating, and on one or two unhappy occasions children have even been reduced to tears because the ideas wouldn't flow. I see at least two possible ways of rectifying this. The first would be to emphasise very clearly that there are no right or wrong answers or approaches, and not to be in any way prescriptive about the kinds of things the children should write. The second would be to go in the opposite direction and provide some very clear modelling and scaffolding, so the children are left in no doubt what is expected of them. Perhaps these two approaches can each benefit different pupils, and perhaps they can be used in conjunction so that all pupils are given clear parameters within which to exercise their imaginations.

The humour in Owen's poem is derived from the fact that Miss Creedle flounders in the middle of these two possibilities, adopting neither one approach nor t'other. There is an uneasy juxtaposition: on the one hand Miss Creedle is encouraging the free roaming of the imagination (so free, indeed, that it is not even stated what they are supposed to be imagining in the first place), but in the next breath she undermines this with sporadic and haphazard interjections as to the kinds of things she wants her pupils to write. It is notable that the very first verb attributed to Miss Creedle is "cries"; she doesn't 'suggest' or even 'announce' that the children will be using their imaginations, she 'cries'. Miss Creedle is anxious, and is not fully signed up to the ethos she is purporting to put into practice. She is not ready to let go and entrust her pupils with their own imaginations, but paradoxically she wants to do this too badly to be able to provide a clear template for them. In her floundering Miss Creedle has transferred her own anxiety onto her pupils, leaving them longing for a time of certainty when the expectations of teachers were at least explicit, when "hours passed like a dream/ Filled with ordering and measuring and tests".

Speaking from my own experience, I can completely relate to Miss Creedle's anxiety. I hope my approach is less ham-fisted and obviously hypocritical as hers, but I am always wanting to plant ideas in pupils' heads, to inform them of what I think would be good adjectives or interesting things to say, and frequently these ideas come to me in a spontaneous, Creedlesque manner. In part this may stem from a lack of trust in my pupils and a fear that they will end up with nothing to show for their time with me, and in part it stems from a simple desire to impart my knowledge and vocabulary onto them. But I am conscious that these are all (hopefully very much surmountable) weaknesses of mine, not of the exercises I am asking my pupils to do. The real object of Owen's satire, it seems to me, is not a pedagogy in which teachers stimulate pupils to write from their imaginations, but those practitioners who, whether for personal or systemic reasons, are not equipped to give order to this and to follow it where it leads.

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