Using the body and memory to inspire creative writing

2 May 2018

My Creative School practitioner Andrea Puerta shares some innovative exercises to help bring students' imaginations to life

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(Image: Suzanna Welikala’s year 5 class explore the Mayan landscape which replaced their classroom)

Back in the Autumn Term I met with Suzanna Welikala, a Year 5 teacher from St Joseph’s Catholic Primary School, for the first time. This first meeting was to mark the beginning of an exciting six-month collaboration that would reveal for us how the body can be central in making children engaged and inspired creative writers.

The School Development Priority that St Joseph’s chose to work towards as part of the My Creative School programme was: to raise the profile and engagement of children in writing and continue to improve standards in writing, particularly boys. Suzanna shared with me that many of her students seemed to be disengaged with their writing, particularly the boys in her class. After a lot of discussion and observation, we summarised the issue with one of the class’s common refrains, “I can’t think of anything to write.”

We decided to focus our My Creative School Creative Catalyst Project on three key areas, identified by Suzanna as the most significant challenges for her class's creative writing:

  • A lack of independent writing and an over-reliance on modelled writing
  • Lack of ‘caring’ about what goes on the page. “Especially boys rushed through tasks with little care on quality of content”
  • The “I can’t think of anything to write” mantra

In our first preliminary session, we started exploring using drama and movement techniques to see whether students could feel freer and more inspired to share their ideas outside of the writing format.

This is a methodology I have been using in schools for years and, yes, this method can get most kids engaged, excited and able to have fun.

However, it is also common for some children to become scared and to either wait for others to tell them what to do, to copy the ideas they see from their classmates or to copy something I have modelled as a demonstration. Often TV or the gaming world is the 'go to' idea generator. Rarely do they feel at ease generating ideas of their own.

So, what is happening? Aren’t children supposed to be full of imagination? Why the lack of ideas? Why are our children not coming up with ideas of their own?

At this point, I am going to risk losing you as a reader because I am going to ask you to stop reading for a moment and try something. Trust me; it is essential if you want to get something valuable out of this reading.

  1. Get a pen and paper
  2. Set your watch for 2 minutes
  3. Begin to write

You can write about anything - the only rule is that you cannot stop for two minutes...

How was that? Unless you are an avid writer with years of experience or a very creative person who likes talking a lot, this was probably a demanding task to do.

Now, I don’t want to be a pain, but for this blog to make sense, it is crucial you bear with me. I’m going to ask you to write again. This time, before you write, close your eyes and take a moment to remember a holiday; maybe the most recent holiday you've been on, or a holiday that for some reason is very memorable or significant to you. What was the place like? What did the air feel like on your face? Perhaps it was humid, maybe it was cold, or perhaps you were lucky enough to be in a hot sunny place! Think of the light, the colours and sounds. Who was there? How did you feel? Let your mind really wander back there.

When you open your eyes, you are going to repeat the writing exercise you just did, but this time you are going to try to write about this holiday...

What was the difference between these two experiences? Which one was easier? In which one did you do the most writing? Perhaps there was one where you even wanted to write more? For the vast majority of people, the answer to all those questions is the second experience. Why is this? The answer is simple; because in the first one we had to come up with words on the spot, on the second one we had somewhere to pull words from.

This writing activity helps to demonstrate the process that we began to observe our children were going through when attempting to come up with ideas to write.

If we look at what happened in the second writing attempt, we could say that the process went something like this:

  1. Personal experience
  2. Flashes of images/sensations
  3. Translation into words
  4. Words onto paper

Perhaps this way of looking at creative writing explains why we say it is essential to have the imagination to be able to come up with ideas. As, if we look at the meaning of the word imagination, it comes from the Latin word imago which means image and imaginari, which translates as ‘picture to oneself.’

As we saw with our simple exercise, creating something new is easier when it comes from personal experience. As a performer and dancer, I would go one step further and say that it is even easier when it engages with our emotions and senses; smell, sight, touch, and hearing.

If we look at the parts of this process that teachers typically dedicate most time and energy to, the answer would be ‘translation into words’ (vocabulary) and ‘words onto paper’ (grammar and syntax). Perhaps schools do also try to build experiences, but often these are more as a didactic activity intended to transfer information from a particular part of the curriculum.

Our project’s primary objective became the exploration of the two areas both the school and the curriculum seemed to be neglecting: personal experience, and flashes of images/sensations.

The body and its senses became the primary tools for this exploration. We used sound, images, touch, shaping the body (statues), thinking or paying attention to smells, sounds, textures, colours etc., but it also became apparent to us that we needed to do much work in engaging our students emotionally. Much of their responses when articulating or expressing what was in their ‘mind’s eye’ were quite literal and simplistic, so engaging emotionally with their language needed work.

To address this, we began to explore similes and incorporated them into their language and writing, this was quite difficult and slow but very effective when it worked. We also used personal questions to connect the students emotionally with the material and ideas they were beginning to form. For example, we got them to research and find in Google Images four photos of Mayan worlds that could represent for them: a place where their character spent most of their time, a place their character loves, a place their character hates and a place where something significant happened to their character.

We also tapped into their own lives, dreams and desires, which was incredibly effective. We got them to use these forms of connections to create a timeline of their character. I would suggest that this was one of the most important and effective parts of the project. If students connected sensorily and emotionally with their language it seemed their writing began to just flow out of them.

Try an immersive experience like transforming your classroom into a Mayan or Victorian world, or go to the park and take your class on an imaginary journey. Let them play in it! Present pupils with sensorial stimuli like sounds, smells, or use mysterious objects to provoke thought and activate their imaginations.
Suzanna Welikala

In response to the experience of our Creative Catalyst Project, we would both encourage teachers to let your students explore their own internal worlds through their bodies. Let them make choices, let them fail. Let them dream somewhere where there is no right or wrong. Let them sense the world around them with freedom.

If you are curious about their ‘mind’s eye’, their desires and fears, it may help them to become better and more inspired and motivated writers. It may also teach them to value their own opinions, think independently and to find their own way of solving problems.

Download the classroom tools

These ideas have informed a tool and case study for the MCS Learning Resource - read about it here.