Over the last 30 years there has been an erosion of the idea that the best way to improve children's and young people's writing was for them to be taken into the heart of a piece of good writing by an adult writer, and to respond from within it in the the form of poems, alternative fictions, letters, doctors' reports or whatever.
Instead, various people - not usually writers themselves - have conjured up a variety of formulae, methods, processes which, they say, will produce good writing. These lock into the various kinds of government diktats, tests and exams which privilege certain kinds of writing over others. Most teachers are now expert at asking for and getting the kind of writing that is demanded by the exams and tests.
Meanwhile, bubbling along (or is struggling along) there are groups of teachers, writers, advisers and trainers who have been sticking to their guns. I'm one of them. We believe that the best teacher of literature is literature. I, for one, also believe that if a teacher or a pupil wants or needs to know about a) what is worthwhile about writing, b) some good ideas of how to write c) some good tips on how to maintain an interest in writing, then the best people to ask are writers. We are not unanimous, we do not agree on these things nor do we usually think we need to. So, unlike the people who produce the formulae, we don't usually say (for example) that there is only one reason why writing is worthwhile for all people. We'll usually try to limit the answer to that question to our own personal reasons. Our good ideas and tips will also vary widely.
And usually, we'll think and say this variety is a good thing in itself. It is very good for writing in general that it is diverse across people and diverse across time and space - ie in different places and at different times and for different audiences.
So how does literature teach itself? Well, that's an exaggeration. Literature needs teachers or writers or practitioners to open it up, pause it, and send readers off into explorations and writings of their own. However, the starting point is literature and not a formula or a worksheet. And, we would mostly say that the end point of whatever work comes out is not the exercise book, but stuff on walls, in magazines, in blogs, in school bulletins, in performances, in films, in cartoons, in home-made books and the like.
I've just spent all day in a Shakespeare workshop with John Doona who you can find here:
We were working at CLPE on The Tempest (Shakespeare). This involved us in all kinds of drama activities eg making a soundscape with our mouths of being in a wooden ship at sea; discovering an island where we had never been before; being a spirit of the wind and so on.
Sometimes are cues for thought, words, sounds and action would be Shakespeare's words, sometimes John Doona's summaries, sometimes my suggestions on what to write.
When it came to writing, we mostly made up poems out of everyone's words or clusters of words, sometimes with a chorus, sometimes by laying down on the floor our respective words (having been written on strips) and then moving these strips of paper around till we got the order we wanted.
Cues for these came from a moment of 'drama' within the general drama of situation or plot offered by the play: eg Miranda doing things on her own, and feeling alone; Antonio tempting Sebastian that he could kill his brother the Alonso, the King of Naples and so seize the crown. We acted these situations sometimes collectively all being the same character and saying out loud what we thought even as we took up stances representing them. And then we produced thoughts when asked and turned these into poems.
This method of working produced work of real power and emotion, the climax of all of it was in response to Prospero telling each of us (being Caliban) how he, Prospero, could cause us great pain with his spells and enchantments. We each were Caliban cursing Prospero, represented in the middle of our circle by a pile of his old books of magic.
Having talked about Caliban's sense of injustice we wished nothing but fullscale destruction of Prospero in all kinds of unpleasant ways. I think John will be putting some of this work up on his website very soon.
The Tempest is a terrific play to do this with because it shows us very easily recognisable relationships and events because it is a kind of fairy tale. Within that there are many open-ended questions about motive and feeling which are ideal starting points for movement, speech and writing arising out of the ways in which we had expressed these in terms of sound and movement.
As a principle, this could be taken into any kind of writing and of course it's particularly fruitful with folk tale and myth. So, let's say we were looking at 'Hansel and Gretel', the place to start (unlike the story itself) might be the forest. This is the key motif of the story as a whole, it's where some of the key episodes happen (the abandonment and the seduction and capture of the children by the witch). So we might want to act out the forest through sounds, movements, a few sparse words. We might want to 'voice' trees or animals and allow them to say what they thought and felt. We could perhaps write a kind of forest chorus, a sound and word picture of the forest.
Then we could go back to the first part of the story and consider hunger. What is hunger like? We might want to mime hunger, do hungry movements, explore what we would do if we were unbearably hungry.
And then off the back of that we might write a hunger lament...or a hungry 'tall tale' along the lines of 'I'm so hungry I could...' or 'I would'...
And then once all this was done, we could tell the first part of the story where the mother and father say that they're going to abandon the children in the forest because there isn't enough food left.
Here there are all kinds of themes - secrets, eavesdropping on parents, and then the real cruncher - abandonment. How to explore such a dangerous thing? Through the eyes and minds of the two children in the story, where it's 'safe'. We can each be Gretel. Then each be Hansel. You're about to be taken to the forest and abandoned...do you believe what you've heard? Have you got excuses for why they're behaving like this? Do you think there's anything you can do to stop them doing it? Are you going to admit that you've heard? What are you going to do about it?
All these could make up for a great 'inner speech' arguments...which could be represented separately on strips of paper which we could lay out on the floor, move around and recite...so that it's a kind of soliloquy.
And so on...