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March Round-up

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I know it’s a couple of days early for the March round-up but I am going to be far too busy eating chocolate at the weekend! It’s been a busy, cold month here. We’re still waiting for Spring to arrive (I struggled to find a brave daffodil in bloom for the photo above!) I finally published the post that hopefully explains what I am trying to do on this blog (Why use Creative Writing in ELT?) as well as posts on fairy tales and another on similes. There has been lots of other interesting things on creative writing happening around the web though.

This month I discovered Umes Shrestha’s blog ‘Oh, late became!’. Umes is a Nepali English teacher, and a fan of using creative writing. His blog is an eclectic mix of gems, but this month I particularly enjoyed his lesson plan using a Nepali folk story and his post sharing student poems as published in a local newspaper. He also shared some haikus his class had written.

Right at the beginning of the month, Josette LeBlanc shared a rather hypnotic, meditative short story on her blog, ‘Throwing Back Tokens’. I thought the use of photos in the story would be a lovely thing to explore in class with students’ stories, especially ones about personal experiences.

Kevin Stein shared one of his favourite creative writing lessons with a lesson plan called ‘But Is it Art?’, combining writing about and drawing works of abstract art.

I also came across a ‘storytelling gapfill’ activity, ‘Elf Story’, on Jamie Keddie’s  ‘Lessonstream’ site.  I could see this working really well with all sorts of stories and is a great way of encouraging students to do intensive listening and think about lexical chunks.

Using comic strips is a great way of getting students to play around with narratives and dialogue, and also being economical with words (another form of very short stories perhaps?). This post by Christina Martidou has lots of great links, and teaching ideas for using comic strips in class, great for young learners and teenagers, but also fun for adults too.

Kieran Donaghy shared another great lesson plan on Film English which incorporates a short film, creative writing and a poem by Leonard Cohen (although I’m still feeling upset that Leonard Cohen is writing poems for Sony!)

Finally, I was sent a link to an article by Scott Stillar in this month’s TESOL Journal about using creative writing to raise critical consciousness by letter writing. I thought it was a very interesting idea, and one that could be easily adapted to other teaching contexts.

That’s all for this month, and happy Easter if you are celebrating it.

Re-imagining Fairy Tales

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A recent thread on a parenting forum about whether or not we should be reading Cinderella to our children reminded me of this activity I used to enjoy doing with my students. I’ve always loved the dark side of fairy tales – the side that doesn’t get into Disney films! If you haven’t read it, you should really get a copy of Angela Carter’s ‘The Bloody Chamber’. With advanced students I have read and discussed her version of ‘Little Red Riding Hood’, which she calls ‘The Werewolf’ before doing the second half of this writing task. It is a very short story (2 pages) but is very dense and quite difficult for all but good advanced learners. Even though this activity is about fairy tales it is not necessarily a task for young learners, although you could use it with them without the reading and rather than re-writing the stories for adults you could just re-write them set in modern times. As the lesson is described here though, it should be a writing activity that teenagers and adults enjoy. It is a good activity on editing and re-drafting, and would be a nice, interesting follow-up to my lesson plan on ‘Getting some flow’.

Aim: For students to write two versions of different fairy tales, one for children and one for adults.

Level: B2 + (although particularly successful with C1 if you use the reading too)

Task:

1. Ask students if they read fairy tales when they were growing up, or watched movies about them. Brainstorm some different names of fairy tales and write the names on the board (often the names translated differently into English so sometimes you need to do a bit of detective work to work out which story they mean!). Some of the stories might be from your students cultures and unfamiliar to you.

2. Ask your class if they know the phrases that we normally use to begin and end fairy tales in English and teach the phrases ‘Once upon a time….’ and ‘Everyone lived happily ever after…’

3. Put the students into pairs or small groups and ask them to brainstorm some different vocabulary that commonly comes up in fairy tales for a couple of minutes then write the vocab they think of on the board. You will probably have words such as: Prince, princess, step-mother, fairy godmother, dwarf, castle, etc… Again, you might need to help with some of the translations as they can sometimes be different in different languages.

4. Ask the students to each choose their favourite fairy tale, or at least one they remember well. It doesn’t matter if it is not a really famous one, it might be one from their own culture.

5. Tell the students to imagine they are going to tell this story to a young child. They should write the story as simply and clearly as they can using simple vocabulary and short sentences.

6. OPTIONAL: This is the point when I would do the reading activity if you wanted to. First, I would give them a traditional version of Little Red Riding Hood, written for children, to read, such as this one. Then I would ask them to read Angela Carter’s ‘The Werewolf’. Students can compare and contrast: Which aspects are the same in both stories? Which parts of the story are different? How is the language different? How is the atmosphere created different (and how is this done)?

7. Put the students into pairs. Try and pair them up with someone who has written about a different fairy tale if possible. Ask them to swap stories. It shouldn’t matter if they don’t know the story their partner has written about as there should hopefully be enough information in the story.

8. Tell them they are going to re-write their partner’s story, but write it for adults. Discuss what changes they could make, i.e changing the ending (i.e do people really live happily ever after?), changing the time setting (making it modern?), bringing out the darker elements of the story (the death, dark magic, etc).

9. Give students time to re-write the stories. You might want to set this for homework to give them time to think about it and write.

10. When the students have written their new stories they should swap back with their partner to read the new versions and then they can discuss which versions they like best, how they have changed it, etc. It’s a nice idea to publish the stories on a class blog or wiki if you have one.

This lesson is based on and inspired by ‘Writing: Creative Writing’ from One Stop English.

Why use Creative Writing in ELT?

I suppose really this post should have been the first one on a blog about creative writing for English language learners but, three months in to Creativities, I think it is time I addressed the issue of why I am a strong supporter of using creative writing in the EFL/ESL classroom – and why I think you should be too!

ImageFirstly, I think I should make it clear that I am not saying the only type of writing students should do is creative writing. I think students should be given a whole range of writing texts, exposed to lots of genres and styles and helped to understand differences in tone, style, register, vocabulary, etc. However, I do think creative writing has a major part to play in creating better writers.

I have had many English language learners (ELLs) over the years who have been reluctant to write, or have really struggled with writing, finding it slow and laborious. I also think writing is one of those things that is often scheduled for the end of a class (as a ‘freer practice’) or given as homework. This means that often there is not much time to focus on the writing, or the reluctant writers (who normally need the most help) just don’t do it as a homework task. Creative writing often shifts the main focus of the class on to the act of writing, and at times gets students writing by stealth! By using creative writing activities I have seen many students both start to enjoy writing more but also become more fluent writers.

(Photo taken from http://flickr.com/eltpics by @mkofab, used under a CC Attribution Non-Commercial license, http://creativecommons.org/licenses/by-nc/3.0/)

Creative writing takes many forms. It can be collaborative, which encourages the students who would much rather be speaking to get involved in a writing process. You can work on very short forms of fiction or poetry, which can help students to focus more on the quality of what they are writing rather than the quantity, therefore avoiding ‘word count hang-ups’ that some students can have. It can have strict restrictions (eg. haikus) which can actually really help students who need help finding ideas and can help with creativity, the rules of the form often helping students to concentrate on the language and ideas. You can use poetry to work on word/sentence stress, pronunciation, rhythm and all sorts of performance skills which will be useful for giving presentations. Creative writing is perhaps most useful for helping students to find their own ‘voice’ or style and giving them confidence in their own ideas, which is really important for them for whatever type of writing they are doing. It can encourage them to take risks with the language and push the boundaries of what they know as the focus moves more to the content than to the form. I have seen students really struggle to find the right word for a creative piece in a way that they wouldn’t in a more informative piece of writing, as they want to create just the right ‘picture’ as opposed to just transmitting information. Similarly, ELLs can often focus on the way a text fits together, the way ideas are ordered and the subtleties of grammar more in a creative piece of writing.

Another major benefit is the relationship creative writing has with reading. My main advice to students who want to improve their writing is to read more, but also to read things that interest them. For many students this won’t be text books or essays, but rather stories or literature. I often recommend students read graded readers and I have had many students who have had a learning goal to read a novel in English (whether that is Harry Potter or Pride and Prejudice). By helping them explore fiction and creative or imaginative texts, they can develop a deeper understanding of the texts they are reading by getting a practical insight into the conventions and style of the genres they read. Perhaps my advice to students who want to improve their reading should be to write more!

Another benefit of creative writing is that you end up with a body of student generated texts that you can utilise in class. You can understand what your students are interested in and exploit this in your lessons. I find it is important with creative writing that the students have an audience, so it is a good idea to ‘publish’ or share their work in some way, whether this is displaying them on the walls, publishing them on a class blog or website, reading them to the class or just swapping with a partner and reading each other’s work. It is also a great benefit for the teacher to get involved too, to share their own stories or poems with the class. Sometimes sharing a creative work can be quite nerve-wracking but, if you share this experience with your students, it can help foster a closer relationship with your class.

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(Photo taken from http://flickr.com/eltpics by @aClilToClimb, used under a CC Attribution Non-Commercial license, http://creativecommons.org/licenses/by-nc/3.0/)

Creative writing often seems to be restricted to general English or young learner classes. However, I have worked a lot with EAP students also and I have found it has a number of benefits here. In addition to the idea of helping them to find their own, unique voice, as I mentioned before, it can also really help them with their writing fluency and connecting ideas (see Getting Some Flow) and also with editing and sticking to word counts (particularly in very short stories), as well as the ideas of planning, brainstorming and organising ideas. I’ve also used the ideas with business students, getting them to write role plays, this being, of course, another form of creative writing.

The argument against creative writing seems to be that this isn’t something that students will need to do in ‘real life’. For many this will be true (although I have had a number of enthusiastic writers in past classes, including one student who used to email me a poem in English every few weeks for a year or so!) but also we need to think about how many of the tasks that we give students are used in real life and how many are just tools to develop skills that they will need. Students want to be able to write emails, tweets, Facebook updates, blog entries, text messages, as well as essays, reports, application forms, etc. All of these will be easier if students are comfortable with formulating ideas and getting them on to paper and being able to write in a way that is interesting and others want to read. More and more these days, our writing has an audience and students need to feel that they can enter this world and use English in a way that is comfortable and feels like they have found their own (English) voice.

Overall, I think creative writing can really help your students gain a feeling of achievement. Even at low levels, the feeling that they have created something only they could have written, which comes from their own feelings and ideas, can be very motivating.

I hope that this post has helped you to realise (if you didn’t already!) that creative writing has an important role to play in ELT and that you will explore my blog to find some ideas to use in your classes. Happy writing!

As Simple as a Simile

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This kitten is as cute as a button!

Similes are a structure that are used perhaps more than we realise, both colloquially in speech (at least around where I live in South London you hear them a lot, although most of those I wouldn’t teach students…!) and also in literature and poetry. Teaching them gives students both a structure they can use in their own creative writing, but also teaches them some well-known phrases that they will probably encounter. I’ve also found that most languages have a similar structure so it is interesting to compare whether the same or different words are used in similes in the students’ L1s and to discuss why they think these words are used.

The activities below focus on the ‘as (adjective) as (noun)’ simile structure.

Aim: To learn a simile structure, to practise and create their own similes and to learn some common English expressions.

Level: A2+

Task:

1. Write the following conversation on the board and underline ‘as good as gold’:

Parent: How was little Gemma today?

Babysitter: She’s been as good as gold.

Elicit what ‘as good as gold’ means (very good). Ask the students when they think you would use this phrase (normally about children, but sometimes pets, adults. It normally refers to behaviour). Ask if they have a similar structure in their language. Why do they think they are compared to ‘gold’? Ask them what type of word ‘good’ is (adjective)? Ask them what type of word ‘gold’ is (noun)?

2. Write the following beginnings of similes up on the board. Space them out well as you will have more to write around them.

1. As light as ______________________

2. As easy as _____________________

3. As pretty as ____________________

4. As blind as _____________________

5. As cold as ______________________

6. As clear as ______________________

7. As dead as ______________________

8. As deaf as _______________________

9. As free as ________________________

10. As quick as _______________________

11. As mad as __________________________

12. As white as _________________________

13. As tough as _________________________

14. As sick as __________________________

Put your students into small groups. Ask the groups what type of word they will need to complete the simile with (nouns). Ask them to try and think of a noun to complete each simile with and give them some time to discuss and complete.

3. Write up all the students’ suggestions on the board and discuss the reasons for any that seem less obvious. Students will probably have some that are the same as the common ones we use in English but also some different ones. When you have all their ideas, go back to the beginning and ask if they know which would be the most common expression in English. Here are the ones I consider the most common (it might be different for you depending on where you are from/learnt English so feel free to teach the expression most natural to you).

1. feather, 2. pie, 3. picture, 4. bat, 5. ice, 6. day/mud (mud has the opposite, sarcastic meaning for something not clear at all), 7. dodo, 8.post, 9. bird, 10.flash/lightening, 11. hatter (you might need to explain this is a reference to ‘Alice in Wonderland’ and the Mad Hatter, 12. sheet, 13. nails, 14. parrot/dog

You can also discuss whether they compare the same things in their culture.

(A nice alternative to the above exercise, especially for lower levels, is to write all the adjectives on one colour of card and the nouns on another colour and try to match them up)

4. Ask the groups of students to discuss some ideas about what object/person they could use each of the similes to describe. For example, ‘as cold as ice’: hands after being out on a winter’s day.  Give them time to discuss while you go round and monitor and help with suggestions for any they are stuck on.

5. Ask for feedback for some ideas and write them all on the board. Try and only accept things that would sound natural in English, although feel free to praise creativity for any more unusual ideas!

6. Ask each student to choose one simile and idea for what it can describe and to write a short descriptive paragraph (100 words?) about the subject. They should include an appropriate simile, but can also use others that they invent if they like. Alternatively, these ideas work well before moving into the lesson on ‘Writing a Rhyming Poem’. You can then ask them to write a poem with a simile.

February Round-up

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Well, February may be the shortest month but it has seemed quite long here! In the UK we seem to be having a long, cold winter and this has been met with neverending bouts of sickness in our household. We are hoping for some more spring like days soon!

I only managed three posts this month (Writing Haikus, Very Short Stories and Newspaper Picture Articles), but my post on Very Short Stories was my most successful yet so thank you for the support!

On the world wide web and in the blogosphere the theme for the month seems to have been reading creative writing.

Nicola Prentis celebrated the publication of her first Graded Reader, The Tomorrow Mirror, with a great set of activity ideas for using Graded Readers in class. I’m a big fan of using Graded Readers with classes but I do think they can be really under-utilised by teachers so it was nice to see so many ideas to pick and choose from here.

Meanwhile, Eva Buyuksimkesyan on her blog ‘A Journey in TEFL’ wrote about some Reading Games to use with readers, novels or short stories, and set a blog challenge for more ideas so be sure to check the comments for some more ideas.

Sandy Millin was in romantic (but not of the soppy sort!) mode for Valentine’s Day with a lesson plan based on a Carol Ann Duffy poem, which also gets students reading poetry aloud.

Mike Griffin has been writing some semi-fiction for trainees on teacher training courses to read and discuss. It is a nice idea, and one that could easily be adapted for ELLs starting language courses.

In other creative writing related posts, Rachael Roberts shared some thoughts on giving feedback on writing over at ELT Resourceful. It is something I think it is even more important to think about when students are doing creative work.

And finally, over on the fabulous Film English website, Kieran Donaghy has a lesson plan involving a short film with a poem about bullying that asks students to respond with a poem or story. It would be a great class to try with teenagers.

That’s all for this month, please let me know if there is anything I have missed! Also, Creativities is now on facebook so please join me over there to discuss and share ideas about using creative writing for ELT.

Newspaper Picture Articles

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(Photo taken from http://flickr.com/eltpics by @sandymillin, used under a CC Attribution Non-Commercial license, http://creativecommons.org/licenses/by-nc/3.0/)

This is an old-favourite lesson of mine which always works well with teenagers or adults, from intermediate to advanced levels. It is a great collaborative writing activity and can work well if you have been studying newspaper language, reported speech or narrative tenses.

Aims: For groups of students to devise a newspaper story based on random pictures.

Level: B1+

Preparation: You will need to prepare several pictures (enough for 4 per every 3 students as a minimum). The best pictures are ones cut out of newspapers, the more unusual the better, and I try to avoid pictures of anyone famous. You could also use pictures from magazines, or find some on a site such as eltpics. I tend to cut good photos out of newspapers as and when I find them and keep them in a plastic wallet (and you’ll be surprised about all the uses you might find for them!)

Task:

1. Put your students into groups, 3 is the best number I find.

2. Lie the pictures face down on a table and ask one member of each group to come and choose 4 pictures at random.

3. Tell the students that the 4 pictures they have were all in a newspaper to illustrate 1 story. Ask them to try and think of a story that would connect all the stories. Give them plenty of time to discuss and come up with ideas.

4. Ask them to nominate one student to write or type the story out. Make sure all the students are involved in this stage, you could even suggest they take it in turns to write. For lower levels, what they produce will often be more like a story but for higher levels try and encourage them to write it more in the style of a newspaper article (ie. clear time, date, factual information, quotes from important people). You may want to set a word limit here too.

5. When they have finished the story, ask all the students in the group to re-read it and check for any errors.

6. Ask the groups to think of a headline for the story. Elicit what features headlines normally have (eg. use present tenses, sensational language, omission of articles/verbs, using only key words)

7. At this stage you might want to ask the students to read their articles to the class (make sure if one student has done most of the writing they don’t also read) while showing the pictures that inspired them, or you could make posters to display in class, or you could scan pictures in and put on a class blog or wiki.

(This is another one of those lessons that I got from somewhere but I have used for so many years I no longer remember where it was from originally. If anyone knows, please let me know so I can reference it – thank you!)

Very Short Stories

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“For sale: Baby shoes, Never worn.” Ernest Hemingway

Ernest Hemingway allegedly wrote the six-word story above in order to win a bet. Some say it is his best ever work.

After my last post on writing haikus I started to think about other short forms of creative writing to use in class. I haven’t written a lesson plan here, but rather some thoughts and ideas about some very short pieces of fiction that you could use for ELT.

Writing often gets pushed to one side as a class activity or set for homework but I believe by using short forms both teachers and students will enjoy writing in class without feeling like they have to sit in silence scribbling away for long stretches of time (collaborative writing is also a great way of avoiding this). Short forms also lend themselves to studying really carefully how words are used and are also good for students that find writing a bit daunting. I have listed a few different types with ideas here, from the shortest getting (a little!) longer. Despite them not requiring students to write a lot, most of them would be better for students that already have enough grasp of English and knowledge of vocabulary to be able to express themselves in different ways and control their writing.

6 Word Memoir

US online magazine Smith was inspired by Hemingway’s story and asked its readers to tell their life story in just six words. Here are some of my favourite examples:

‘Not quite what I was planning.’

‘Educated too little. Learned too much.’

‘Awkward moments make the best memories.’

‘I made everything up, except you.’

‘Got away with more than expected.’

You can find lots more on Smith’s six words site, and could even get your students to submit their own.

There are lots of circumstances where you could use these in the class. A great ‘getting to know you’ activity for more advanced students would be to get students to write a six-word memoir to introduce themselves and then ask them to mingle and discuss each other’s. I could also see it working well as a ‘getting to know you’ with business students, ask them to write a six-word memoir about their business philosophy, career, etc.

You could also use them as a Monday morning warmer, ask the students to write a six word story about their weekend, then write them all up on the board and see if they can guess who wrote which one.

Twitter Fiction

The ultimate modern short form must be twitter. The restraints of 140 characters or less doesn’t initially seem to lend itself to great works of fiction, however,  the Guardian newspaper in the UK has a series on ‘twitter fiction’ where they ask famous writers to come up with a story within the constraints of a tweet. Here are a couple of examples, you could even use them as a reading task:

‘Mother love is strong enough to lift a car. I’d heard that. But when my girl was hit by a Mercedes, I heaved, screaming. Nothing moved.’ – Esther Freud

‘Life is always flashing before your eyes. Look down. Children playing, trees and traffic, your shadow running over the ground to meet you.’ – Mark Haddon

‘Darkness. I woke, felt the familiar weight in the bed, the breathing, the hand on my skin. “Oh, Paul,” I said. “Who’s Paul?” said the voice.’ – Nicci French

I like the idea of giving students a story prompt (a picture, opening line, title, etc) and asking students to brainstorm some ideas for a story. Only after they had come up with some ideas would I tell them they needed to write the story in a tweet (140 characters or less). It is a great way to practice editing and reformulating ideas. You basically have to condense the idea of a story into one image or idea, which is easier said than done! Students can tweet their stories to @twitterfiction.

Classics as Tweets

Staying on the twitter theme, there is also a tongue in cheek movement of reducing great works of fiction to a single tweet. For example:

Woman meets man called Darcy who seems horrible. He turns out to be nice really. They get together. – Pride and Prejudice by Jane Austen

Upper-class woman gets it on with gamekeeper. – Lady Chatterley’s Lover by DH Lawrence

Orphan given £££ by secret follower. He thinks it’s @misshavisham but it turns out to be @magwitch – Great Expectations by Charles Dickens

You could ask the students to try this activity as a follow-up to reading a graded reader, or even write them about each other’s stories by swapping round longer stories that they have written and converting them to tweets. It feeds in nicely to the ideas of ‘getting the main idea’ that are so beloved of reading tests! If your students come up with any for famous books you could get them to tweet them with the hashtag #twitternovels.

Microfiction (100 word stories)

Microfiction (sometimes known as flash fiction, short short stories, sudden fiction, postcard stories, etc) comes in many guises and forms. There are story competitions for microfiction with word limits from 100 to 1000 words. In class I like to stick with the 100 word rule, and to enforce this as exactly 100 words (not 99 or 101!). I have used this task several times with EAP students because I think it is a really good way of getting them to focus on editing skills. At University there are often very strict word limits and I know, for me, I found writing within these limits meant I had to become really ruthless at cutting words or reformulating ideas to be more economical with the language. It is also useful for students who will be taking exams where there are word limits (IELTS for example). Often students have no real idea of what 100 words look like, so they find it hard to imagine 200 words, 300 words, etc. If you give them practice at writing exactly 100 words and they are familiar with this it is easy for them to imagine it doubled, etc. If you ask them to write it by hand (if the test is hand-written) then it is even better as they can see how much space 100 words takes up in their own handwriting.

There are several sites with examples of 100 word stories, and Reader’s Digest magazine even has a competition you could encourage your students to enter (there are also some great examples of 100 word stories on that site). Again, I would just use a story prompt such as a photo, object, first line, etc to give them the stimulus. You don’t have to use fiction either, you could get them to write exactly 100 words on any topic, and could choose a subject related to their area of study for EAP students (although fiction is more fun!)

 

I hope this post has inspired you to try writing some very short stories with your class. If you do, let me know how it goes, and if you have any other ideas about short form writing I would love to hear about them too.

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