Summer is sitting staring at her blank page. She’s chewing the end of her pencil, and you can see a flake of HB yellow and black paint stuck to her top lip. “Come on Summer,” you plead, “there must be something you can think of…”
Many children find generating ideas when writing difficult. This is worrying for them, frustrating for teachers, and can be a hard barrier to break through. It’s a common problem. We recently surveyed 100 teachers from across the UK, asking them “What do children in your class find challenging about writing stories?”.
Two-thirds of those teachers said that coming up with ideas and writing creatively was a barrier to their children’s progress. Is this an epidemic? Are we seeing the death of creativity in children?
No, I don’t think so. But the situation that we ask children to write in isn’t always the most conducive to creativity.
As with all things in the primary school, time is at a premium. We cram our teaching day full to bursting, barely managing to fit everything in (woe betide any lesson where the work doesn’t get finished – half completed worksheet, languishing in a box until the end of term…). And in the midst of all this, we ask children to jump from subject to subject, specialism to specialism; “Now we’re going to be experts at addition… And now we’re doing writing instructions… today we’re studying the water cycle”. Employing a more creative curriculum helps work against this, but we often still ask children to swap very quickly between skills.
Part of the problem with creative writing is this: we only ask children to be writers when they are sitting in their Literacy Seats or on their English Tables in the classroom. So when we ask Summer or Cameron or Alif to be a creative writer, how much time have they really had to think about what they’re writing? To mentally prepare? To plan?
Authors don’t only sit down for an hour one day and plan, and then write the piece the next day. They don’t have one designated hour to edit it the day after, and then it’s done, never to be thought of again. Of course they don’t. They spend hours thinking. Reading. Noting ideas down, finding inspiration.
“Ah,” you say, “but we don’t have the luxury of time to spend on this!” Very true.
So, we need to ask children to be writers before they reach the classroom; before they’re staring at the blank page, attempting to scale yesterday’s story mountain, ashen-faced.
Time and Preparation: Necessary Experience for Creativity
As adults, we have the luxury of drawing on our experiences. That time you went on holiday and saw that waterfall. The vocabulary you learned from your conversations with your friends, your family, your teachers. The sentences from all the books you ever read and every David Attenborough documentary you ever heard. We mash together all these ideas in new and strange ways to find something creative.
Isaac Asimov’s posthumously published thoughts on creativity explain:
“…the person who is most likely to get new ideas is a person of good background in the field of interest and one who is unconventional in his habits. (To be a crackpot is not, however, enough in itself.)”
Children don’t always have what Asimov calls a “good background” in story writing (although some of them may seem like crackpots at times). But we can help them gain this experience by encouraging them to be writers at all times. We can send our children home with writer’s notebooks ready to note down how Grandpa talks, because they’re going to be writing about an older character. Let’s tell them a week in advance that they’ll be writing about a forest, so they can look at pictures of trees, watch trees on YouTube, and (gasp!) maybe even climb one.
Asimov also wrote:
“The creative person is, in any case, continually working at it. His mind is shuffling his information at all times, even when he is not conscious of it.”
Imagine the ideal world, Summer running into school desperate to show you she’s drawn a picture of her baby brother because they’re writing a story which has a baby in it next week and she’s just noticed that her drink is leaking but it’s okay because she wants to write her story. She is unconsciously preparing herself for its creation.
But right now Summer is still sitting on her English table, staring at her blank page. The flake of paint stuck to her top lip has found a friend in a soggy splinter of wood. Where do we go from here?
Sometimes, we don’t have any choice but to ask children to suddenly be “a writer”. We are, after all, preparing them for a world where skills must be transferable, where they will be doing jobs we haven’t even had the time to imagine. Summer will need to be a writer, in some form, one day.
So right here and now, how can we help Summer over her writers block? It’s too late to give her time to form her own experiences, this piece of work needs to be assessed and levelled ready for parents evening tomorrow night.
We can however provide Summer with the benefit of our own experiences. Giving children some options to work with, a couple of ideas to get them going, will give them a much better chance at showing how well they can write. Using story cubes, story sticks or similar can be a good way to quickly stimulate an idea too.
In “Mark Twain’s Own Autobiography” we read:
“There is no such thing as a new idea. It is impossible. We simply take a lot of old ideas and put them into a sort of mental kaleidoscope. We give them a turn and they make new and curious combinations. We keep on turning and making new combinations indefinitely; but they are the same old pieces of colored glass that have been in use through all the ages.”
There is no bad thing about using someone else’s starting point. From there, we can create something different, something beautiful, and something that is ours. And if you let her, then Summer can too.
P.S. We’ve made some videos to help you discuss with your children about what to do when they are stuck. The first one is below. Click here to find the others, and also a matching poster to put up in your classroom.
We’re currently fundraising to support our writing workshops for primary schools. We’d be hugely grateful for clicks, shares, likes or contributions.
Thanks to https://www.flickr.com/photos/83633410@N07/7658034524/ for the girl in the story mountain picture, who has been slightly edited to look a little more sad. Used under Creative Commons License which allows free sharing and adaptation of the image.