Students as “authors”: using creative writing to develop critical analysis

This post is sort of a follow-up to a guest post I recently wrote for my publisher, Hodder Education. I’ve been reflecting a lot lately on how to develop students’ analytical skills. As an English teacher, this is an ongoing focus, but I suppose the reason I am turning my attention more explicitly to different strategies to develop analysis now stems from the fact that I’m wrapping up the first year of the new DP syllabus and preparing for the next cohort (considering what has worked and what needs adjusting). At the same time, we are also reviewing our MYP curriculum and re-shaping it based on lessons we have learned from the remote learning environment (more on that in a separate post, but essentially: less content and more opportunities to develop deep, transferrable, conceptual understanding) and considering how we can better support progression of skills.

Within Criterion B (Analysis and evaluation) of each assessment instrument lies this essential question: To what extent does the candidate analyse and evaluate how the choices of language, technique and style, and/or broader authorial choices*, shape meaning? As a writer myself, I love this wording; it brings the author front and centre. Students have to consider the author as an agent, making deliberate choices to shape meaning. Formalists may argue that the author is irrelevant, but I think that the best way to engage teenagers in authentic interpretation of literature is to view it as a work of art, which involves a creator. Viewing texts in a vacuum can actually lead to an antiseptic analysis, but students need to be guided through the process of personal engagement and cautioned not to assume too much about the context of production. Indeed, I have actually stopped teaching Plath in the DP because students just cannot resist connecting her work to her biography.

A few years ago, I took a risk and shared some of my own poetry with my DP Literature students. Most poets are notoriously introverted, and I am no different. But I thought: what better way to get students to understand the effects of stylistic devices than to talk them through my process and my intentions as a writer; in turn, they could react by telling me directly what the effect on them as readers was. As a person, the conversation was a little bit intimidating because I knew I was potentially opening myself up to critique and therefore felt vulnerable. But as a teacher, it was such a valuable experience. I could explain exactly why I used a particular form or justify my reasons for ending a line on a particular word. Students don’t normally have that luxury when they are staring at an unseen poem in the exam room, but this was part of the journey towards that moment.

As I prepare to cap off the first year of the new DP English Literature course and begin another, I have resolved to make creative writing more of a central focus within my class. I’ve always included opportunities for creative writing, but they’ve been sort of ad hoc and usually used as a means of building on a theme rather than developing an understanding of craft. I don’t really know when that shift in my practice occurred: at the beginning of my career (almost 20 years ago now), I taught creative writing as an elective and it was honestly the most rewarding of experiences; my own Master’s concentration was in Creative Writing Poetry. In the MYP, creative writing is more explicitly woven into our curriculum, and many of our assessment tasks involve an element of creativity. So why does this stop in the DP? Is it because creative writing is seen as less academic**? Have I subtly encouraged that notion by prioritising critical analysis as separate from creative thinking? Allowing students to see themselves as “authors” can be empowering, and giving creative writing centre stage in the literature classroom can enhance critical thinking. What better way to develop students’ understanding of creativity and communication than by creating opportunities for them to be authors — and giving them the space to talk about their choices.

*The previous assessment criterion for Paper 1 (Literature) was labelled “Appreciation of the writer’s choices”, but I like how that appreciation is framed in the new course as an element of analysis, which frames that appreciation as a part of the whole.

**With the emergence of more PhD. programmes in Creative and Critical Writing over the past few decades, I would hope the cultural attitude to creative writing as a “fluffy” discipline is shifting.

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