My ‘be a better teacher’ resolution last September was finding a way of encouraging my Year 9 class to be more independent with their creative writing. What does often seem to make the difference between engaging and mediocre is the focus on detail and taking the time to do some establishment for the reader – using ‘show don’t tell’ to make the reader ask questions and become intrigued. Because I teach some GCSE Drama as well, and Drama students need to know about establishment of setting and character through audience observation, this year I decided to cross over the skills and see if it helped.
So, I enlisted the help of one of the more confident ‘performers’ in my mixed-ability Year 9 class. He was briefed beforehand on what I wanted him to do, which was, basically, to role-play the word ‘Waiting’. He was to simply stand at the front of the room and we were going to watch him to see what he did. He could inject any mood he wanted; anxiety, impatience, fear, excitement – the choice was his. He could decide where he was and what / who he was waiting for. The rest of the class were in pairs and their brief was to observe and jot down everything – gestures, facial expressions, movements – every tiny detail from our willing performer.
Five minutes of this yielded an average amount of detail of a side of A4 full of notes. We then discussed who this person might be, what they were doing, what they were waiting for and so on. Our volunteer explained what his actual context was – most of the students were miles off but that wasn’t the point. They came up with some amazing ideas, elaborately subtle and really creative, which they then used to write the first paragraph of a piece called ‘Waiting’, using only the descriptive details they had collected to ‘show not tell’ their central character’s mood. They produced some lovely results and seem to have completely grasped the concept – and I managed to not interfere at all!