How can a dystopian nightmare stimulate amazing creative writing?

Early in my teaching career, I taught as part of the Key Stage Three curriculum, a sequence of learning to Year Eight, delivered principally from a text book, which was based around the premise of students as applicants for an interstellar space mission. As part of the sequence, students were exposed to a range of non-fiction texts, such as applications, CVs, persuasive letters and non-chronological reports, and would learn the codes and conventions of these texts and how to use them.

At the same time, I had began my first year of teaching A-level media studies. I set the students from this class an exercise which involved story-boarding, scripting and shooting sequences based around the same scenario the Year Eight students were working on, with the intention of using these moving image prompts as part of the scheme of learning.

Some years later, I was still using these moving images as part of the scheme of learning, but this had by now evolved into something different. The focus was no longer wholly on non-fiction text types but rather on the science fiction genre and its associated codes and conventions, to which students would respond creatively. As a recently qualified teacher, I had stumbled up on the idea not only of moving image as a creative writing prompt, but also on the idea of what I called the ‘fictional construct’, an immersive narrative arc which is ‘seeded’ by the teacher, but developed and made whole by the students.

My Year Nine group had fond memories of this process from when I had taught them in Year Eight, and when it came to the summer term, during which there was some weeks of freedom, I asked whether they’d prefer to spend those weeks reading and studying an existing text (I was thinking about a drama version of The Chrysalids by John Wyndham) or whether they’d prefer to collaborate on a brand new story. They unanimously chose the latter.

Having taught drama as well as English, I was intrigued to see how the provision of a ‘fictional construct’ might bring about learning connected to story-telling, to unpack the concepts and structures we all know are implicit in stories but the schema of which we rarely pause to deconstruct.

My first instinct was to establish a scenario that created a mystery of some kind. This was around the time I had spent many hours watching Lost (2004-2010; Jeffrey LieberJ. J. Abrams and Damon Lindelof) on television, and I was inspired by the questions it posed, not just in terms of the enigmas at the heart of its own storyline(s) but also about the nature and structure of stories themselves and how the viewer or reader can easily find their perception of narrative outcome, protagonist and antagonist obfuscated for dramatic effect.

I rather liked the idea of a sinister leader. Benjamin Linus from Lost was obvious inspiration. I played around with various contexts, such as a remote, desert-based cult. I even took this idea as far as pricing up gospel choir style robes. But then a different scenario emerged. What if the students were inhabitants of a strange community; ostensibly survivors of some kind of apocalypse?

In creating this ‘fictional construct’, I lay the ground in advance. I display teaser posters around school with embedded QR codes which the students can scan and learn clues about the origins of the narrative.

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Once the teaching sequence begins, the students explore their new characters, attempting to ‘recover’ memories of their barely remembered, pre-trauma past lives, in a kind of ‘going clear’ process.

We explore the idea of narrative equilibrium in our community, describing the daily routines, relationships and tasks. Discontent is sowed, through my role as a sinister leader-type figure and the exemplar texts I write each week. Writing is focused around narrative voice and building tension through, for example, events such as the characters being forced to leave the confines of the community to repair a malfunctioning radio mast.  The sudden departure of my character, David, from the narrative allows the students to write a climactic piece that details their escape from the community and the their characters’ realisation that the world they believed they were part of is a conceit: they are essentially the subjects of a psychological experiment conducted by an overarching pseudo-scientific research organisation.

When I first taught the scheme of learning, I was careful to shape the narrative conceit so when the week of the sequence was taught, the revelation that the students’ ‘personas’  had been duped would engender genuine surprise and outrage. This was successful. But for the second time of teaching, a year later, I was both surprised and pleased to note that rumours about the narrative trompe-l’œil had already spread amongst the class members. Therefore, to what extent, I wondered, should the students become responsible for shaping the narrative into its final form?

This is the question I’ve faced for the last couple of years each year now, and I find myself giving the students more freedom to experiment with possible climaxes and resolutions, which feels like a much more exploratory way of learning.

Some other questions persist:

How can I use drama as a way of probing and prompting character and monologue? I have done this successfully as part of the sequence. Exploring scenarios through the teacher-in-role method really helps to palpably build the ‘fictional construct’.

To what extent can this ‘creative talk’ be helpful in developing writing?

As a unit essentially focused around skills – ‘reading’ a genre and ‘writing’ in response to it, how can I ensure there was sufficient ‘knowledge’ or ‘content’ – terminology and concepts – as part of the sequence of learning? I want the students to become au fait with those ideas, devices and concepts connected to story-telling: the idea of the narrative arc; of climax; of .

I think there are a lot of strong aspects of progressive teaching and learning here: collaboration; group work; drama as a stimulus to creative writing; allowing productive ‘talk’ to generate ideas. The teacher plays a keep part in being an active role model as a writer – and throughout the sequence, modelling is key at every step. Ultimately, there is a feeling that we are collaborating to produce something new that has value.

To some degree, this sequence of teaching and learning has encouraged me to think about how I can resolve the paradox of whether we approach our classroom practice as a ‘progressive’ – encouraging collaboration, group work and discussion – or from a more traditional standpoint – knowledge based and rooted in independent work. To this end, thinking about our practice pragmatically – and understanding that there is space for a variety of approaches – is really valuable.


Featured image: Photo by Paulo Silva on Unsplash

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