Hi Alan. Thanks very much for taking time to speak with us. ETAS old-timers continue to remember the workshop on using poetry in the classroom you gave at the first ETAS AGM in Neuchâtel 30 years ago. Do tell us what inspired your interest in creative writing, particularly in using creative writing in language teaching.
My interest in creative writing arose from the work I did in Paris with Alan Duff on drama activities, and from our shared interest in literature in language teaching, although I had started writing my own poems and stories much earlier than this. By the time I left the British Council, first to work for Bell in Cambridge, then at the National University of Singapore, and in Thailand, I was beginning to realise just how powerful creative writing could be as a resource for language learning and for personal development too. Eventually, I started an MA module on creative writing at Assumption University, Bangkok, and things have developed from there. Among other things, at the suggestion of Dr Tan Bee Tin, who was then a colleague at Assumption, we started the Asia Creative Writers’ Group. If you’re interested, you can find out more about it on: http://flexiblelearning.auckland.ac.nz/cw
It has been 30 years since that workshop but your passion for connecting creative writing with ELT has only grown stronger. What is behind this passion?
My interest in creative writing has evolved alongside a passion for incorporating more creative and artistic approaches as a counterweight to the prevailing culture of narrow objectives, measurement, and bureaucratic control. It is partly because of this that some of us started up TheC Group (Creativity for Change in Language Education) a year or so back. To find out more about that group, which is open to all to join, you can go to: http://thecreativitygroup.weebly.com
What makes creative writing a particularly powerful tool for teaching and learning?
One of the interesting things about using creative writing is the power of constraints. Contrary to what many people believe, creative writing is not just about letting it all hang out. Most writing of this kind has rules, sometimes very strict rules. If you want to write a sonnet (I do not recommend this), then there are rules about the rhyming scheme, the number of stresses to a line, etc. If you do not follow these rules, you will not have written a sonnet. Now you might think that this makes creative writing more difficult, but the fact is that the constraints are also a form of support, because they limit what can be written. For example, if I ask my students to write a mini-saga and require them to compress the story into exactly 50 words, this means they have to use all their language resources, however limited, to do that. So the constraints are a form of scaffolding. Over the years, we have developed a large number of quite simple activities which push the frontiers of linguistic creativity, while providing a relatively secure support. The activities in Jane Spiro’s books (Creative Poetry Writing, 2004 and Storybuilding, 2007 – both OUP) are a good example of this. Once students get hooked on writing in this way, you can start giving them more demanding tasks. You will find they rise to new challenges. As Jim Scrivener reminds us, we need to aim for Demand-High Teaching, not lowest common denominator teaching.
From the perspective of pedagogy, how do you prepare English teachers to become competent creative writing teachers?
Teachers are just like students in that they need to be helped to write more creatively. But it is essential that they themselves believe in what they are doing, and that they themselves become creative writers. It is no good telling students to write creatively unless we ourselves demonstrate that we can also do it, and love doing it. From the point of view of pedagogy, I think teachers can then learn how to teach creative writing by being exposed to the kinds of techniques I mentioned above. Once they are familiar at first hand with the range of activities available, they find it relatively easy to incorporate them into their own teaching.
You advocate an ‘aesthetic approach’ to teaching. What is the highlight of this approach? Is it applicable to all teaching and learning contexts?
An Aesthetic Approach to teaching foreign languages argues for an approach which drew more heavily on inputs from the arts and explored more ‘artful’ ways of using them – so it involved both art and artistry. I proposed three parts to this: the Matter, the Methods, and the Manner. The Matter concerns the types of input with more emphasis on using music, song, drama, mime, clowning, poetry, storytelling, art, drawing and painting, film, etc. The Methods would involve more use of project-work, activities offering greater choice, student-made materials, multi-sensory activities, etc. And the Manner involves the way the teacher creates an atmosphere within which a learning community can develop. There is a lot more I might say about Manner, especially since I began working with Adrian Underhill on the concept of teacher improvisation and spontaneity. Teachers need in dealing with the essential unpredictability of the classroom, so that they are in a state of preparedness for the unexpected, and can turn it to positive use.
Finally, away from ELT, how do you spend your free time?
I read a lot, and read promiscuously – newspapers, novels, short stories, poems, current affairs books, popular science, sociology, biography, travel writing, crime writing, horror writing…you name it, I read it. I think it is unfortunate that teachers so rarely read much outside their own narrow domain. I write a regular column for English Teaching Professional magazine called Over the Wall, and that’s what I’d like to see teachers do more of – read about things that are over the ghetto wall of ELT. I think this would make them more interesting as people – and students tend to like interesting rather than boring people as their teachers.
I also write a lot – mainly poetry. As I get older, I find that poetry offers me new insights into the world I live in, and new ways of looking at it and making sense of it– it helps me to find out what I think and who I am. I also write stories, and am starting to write memoirs too, mainly trying to rediscover that elusive country of my childhood.
I walk a lot, too. It is a psychological as well as a physical lung, and a machine for thinking. I recently read a book by Robert Macfarlane, The Old Ways, which is a wonderful evocation of the power of walking to bring about psychological balance, and to learn to appreciate this extraordinary world we are so lucky to live in.
I enjoy music – mainly western classical, but also jazz, Indian classical, and some folk traditions. I would feel severely diminished without the redeeming power of music.
I enjoy good food and drink, especially wine. I also enjoy the physicality of preparing food, though I am not an expert cook. I grew up on a small farm where we grew most of our own vegetables and fruit, and pleasure from the feel and smell and taste of fresh food is something that has stayed with me.
And along with these pleasures, there is the pleasure of good conversation. Friendship (and I do not mean Facebook friendship) is one of the great consolations of this life. We should never stop growing, and exploring, and enjoying friendships.
And I am trying to get better at doing nothing. There is a book In Praise of Idleness. I like that idea. Idleness has great virtues… Montaigne, the great French essayist was an enthusiastic advocate of doing nothing. Of effortless effort. I am trying to emulate him!
Thanks very much for sharing your precious time and wonderful insights with our readers.
This interview was originally published in ETAS Journal, 32(1), Winter 2014, p.19-20. Reposted here with permission from ETAS Journal.