Wednesday, 11 December 2013

I Don’t Know How To Start...

Imagine a world without imagination. How plodding and prosaic life would be without the opportunity to envisage something other. How dreary our dreams would be if they reflected nothing but reality. Imagine your hopes, your fantasies, your deepest desires - and then imagine them no more.

We would grow stale. Stagnate. Original thought would shrivel and die, leaving us devoid of invention, innovation, art, music and literature. We wouldn’t dare to strive for something better. We would not seek to improve, develop or grow; we’d lack the facility to do so.

It’s a nightmare scenario. Only in this world of our creating, there would be no nightmares.

Welcome to my Y10 English class.

They are an able and eager bunch. They’re not wonderfully gifted, nor without literary pretensions. Realistically, they’re likely to achieve Cs – although I’ve told them their reach must exceed their grasp (they love a hoary old cliché). Problem is, they have absolutely no imagination. None.

We’re about to start the ‘Moving Images’ controlled assessment: produce a piece of writing inspired by a still image from a film. They can write anything – description, narrative, monologue, poetry, script - from a perspective of their choosing.

Except they can’t; they “don’t know what to write about”.

I have attempted to address this. A practice piece was based on Simon Armitage’s poem Out of the Blue, which every pupil re-interpreted as a first person perspective from the POV of a character trapped in the World Trade Centre on 9/11. I encouraged such a focus, even producing model paragraphs and responses which did something similar.

This was a mistake.

Not only did they steal the essence of my narrative, but they lifted lines verbatim from my work. It was shameless. I forgave them, realising that I had been too prescriptive. The source material was too narrow. I’d given them the answers.  I’d not allowed their imaginations to run wild. I would not make the same mistakes again.

This time, we have studied various elements of the horror genre – short stories by Poe, prose by Susan Hill, films like Pan’s Labyrinth. We’ve reviewed movies, written practice paragraphs, explored figurative language, looked at planning techniques and filled our editor’s toolkit with techniques from Steven King. We are ready.

I have collated images from various films: monsters, scenery, creatures, people. Pupils can select their own source material. The movie stills range from Guillermo del Toro’s aforementioned masterpiece to The Shining, Beetlejuice, Let The Right One In – even Abraham Lincoln: Vampire Hunter is an option.
It hasn’t made one iota of difference. They don’t know what to write. They haven’t got any ideas. They don’t know how to start.

Whose fault is this? I’d like to think it’s not mine. I reflected and remedied what went wrong first time around, but maybe I’m still making mistakes. Maybe it’s the school’s fault for focusing for so long on language rather than literature. Maybe it’s our educational system creating pupil-automatons conditioned only to pass exams.

My suspicion is that it’s their fault. Their imagination has atrophied, withering year on year as they move further from a childhood of play and invention to a teenage where imagination is replaced with computer games, social networking and I’m A Celebrity. Their palm-sized smartphones connect them to the world automatically, requiring little cognitive effort – a far more convenient way of engaging with the ‘outside’ than through the cumbersome chore of reading a book or engaging in a genuine exchange of ideas with a flesh-and-blood human being.

It’s a trite and obvious conclusion, but if our children read more books and spent less time alone with their gadgets, maybe this malaise might be alleviated? But how can we encourage them to engage with the world, to dare to dream, to fantasise? We are bombarded with stories telling us that Britain is Broken, but we have to convince our pupils – and ourselves that this is the case. Only I don’t know how to start.

If you have any tips on helping me overcome this problem I’d love to hear them! Add them to the comments or tweet me @PGCEng

1 comment:

  1. Hi there, here are a few ideas that might help:

    - Firstly, stop focusing on the 'end product', that can come after you've freed up the ideas for them. Otherwise as you've found they write what they think you want to hear, rather than digging into their own imaginations. The secret to imagination is to take risks and stop focusing on the end product, or worrying about what anyone will think.

    - Do some 'freeing up' activities. Try a 'stream of consciousness'. Give them a theme (could be horror). Explain that they will have 2 minutes. During that time they must simply write. They should not worry about punctuation, grammar, spelling, making sense. They must just write whatever comes into their minds. They must not stop writing during the time. If they freeze up then they should write the same word over and over until they get freed up again. At the end of the time, get them to count how many words they have written. They should then cut this number in half, by crossing out half the words they wrote. Then they should do this again, so that they end up with a quarter of the original amount. Write each of these words on a slip of paper and then rearrange them into a word picture.

    - Here's another one. Show them a picture and ask them to close their eyes. Then they must imagine that they are in the picture. They turn right - what do they see? They walk along - what do they hear? What can they feel? In the distance they see something - what is it? Carry this on for a while, inputting various sensory questions. Then get them to write about the journey that they took.

    - And one more. Tell them that they must write a story, but that it can only have 20 words - not 19, or 21, but exactly 20. Give them a tight time limit. This forces them to really focus on the words that matter, not all the extraneous stuff around it.

    I do hope that helps! Good luck ... it's in there, the imagination, they just need to be relaxed enough to let it free.