As a trainee, I was reluctant to share my writing with pupils. Not my exemplars, they were fine. Pretending to write like a pupil, as a way of modelling good and not so good responses, was a doddle. But using my own writing – articles from my previous life as a journalist, short stories and extracts from a novella I’d written for an MA – was a different matter. My subject mentor was adamant however that I should use some of them in class. The kids will be impressed, she insisted. Looking back now, I think I was worried about the following:
- making myself vulnerable to abuse (I’d been given some tough, tough classes and was very much still finding my confidence in terms of behaviour management)
- the fiction might not be of a good enough standard to share. How dare I muscle proper high quality texts out of the way with my scribblings?
- it might be too good for them. They might feel inadequate in my godlike presence and be demoralised when asked to compose something of their own
- they wouldn’t understand it: they’d find it too highbrow or pretentious. Even worse, they might not laugh at the bits that were meant to be funny
- the content was too adult for them. I might upset some pupils. There may be complaints by parents
I needn’t have been so cautious. They were impressed. They were intrigued. They asked sensible, thoughtful questions. They asked to see more.
Over the last decade or so, I’ve continued to use my own writing – opinion pieces, short stories, scripts, shopping lists – in lessons. Contrary to my initial fears, these lessons have been some of the best I’ve taught.
My favourite ever lesson used a poem I’d written for my wedding. I gave it to the class as an unseen poem with my name removed. One pupil asked why there wasn’t a writer’s name at the bottom. ‘It’s by anonymous,’ I lied. This was high risk, of course. They might have hated it and slated it. Yet it was a gamble I was willing to take: they were a collection of lovely, polite (albeit very opinionated) pupils and I didn’t want them to feel obliged to say nice things to protect my feelings. Surprisingly for ones so young, they quickly understood the sentiments of the poem. They also spotted things that I hadn’t consciously thought about during the creation. It was quite moving actually.
This week I shared a poem I’d written recently with my Year 12s:
Wrapped around the slanted lamppost,
embossed by a sign that reads
7 miles from home.
Snared around the resurrected lamppost,
pressed dry by wind and diesel breath.
Each time I speed by, outraged:
cut off in bloom; allowed to brown, now
bandaged in a pink cellophane shroud.
I stop, one day, read a mildewed note
‘To Lily, our precious girl.
Forever growing in our hearts.’
Wilted stems offend no more –
neglect seems like the only course,
while green stalks persist in distant minds.
The poem was bespoke, written after struggling to find something suitable to go with the one we were studying. It worked a treat. As some of this class were wise to my old ‘anonymous’ routine, I adopted the pseudonym Tom R. Barkers, an anagram of my name. The class enjoyed the daft trick and provoked sophisticated, nuanced interpretations of my amateur offering. One pupil sheepishly told me it was his favourite poem ‘of all the ones we’d been studying’. This was a nice touch but we had just done ‘Tissue’ so anything else was bound to be an improvement.
Previously, I shared the opening to a short story with my Year 11 after they’d been pestering me to show them some of my fiction. Instead of just reading it, I set it as a ‘literary’ extract for GCSE language Paper 1:
This is the opening extract to a 2005 short story by Mark Roberts, which tells the story of a dog’s dislike for his owner. In this scene the main character is describing his relationship and daily routines.
The Captive of Camberwell
A dignified temperament and awareness of the need for sycophancy prevents one from showing one’s true nature. Take today for instance: what does she feed me? Chicken and liver in unspecified meat gravy. Despite having no access to calendars and the television not yet being switched on, I know that today is a Thursday. How? Because, as sure as unkind winter follows indifferent autumn, one’s diet is also cyclical and unchanging: Monday rabbit, Tuesday beef, Wednesday lamb… I shall not bore you with the rest of the week, suffice to say that each day brings a meal made of dubious meat, which remains cylindrical despite the sickening wobble it performs as it is shaken from the tin. This form of dietary torture, a recipe only for heartburn and irritable bowel syndrome, is exacerbated by the following familiar scene.
‘Tyke? Tykey! Dinner’s ready.’
I feign enthusiasm and skip mechanically towards the scene of the crime, licking my lips with a sarcastic air that I’m confident she is too moronic to notice.
‘Tykey boy loves his din-dins doesn’t he? Doesn’t he baby?’
‘No I don’t you stupid old cow. Have you actually smelt this stuff?’
Of course, she can’t translate this comment. She interprets my outburst as a sign of pleasure and caresses the back of my neck with her podgy, sausage-like fingers. It sends a shiver of repulsion along the hair on my spine. I wolf it down, purely to avoid prolonging the ordeal, yet she takes this also as a sign of contentment.
‘Mummy’s going to have her din-dins now, isn’t she? If Tykey’s a good little boy there might be some left for him.’
Now imagine if she really was my biological mother. Picture the scene: a morbidly obese woman in her late-forties is on all fours. Her sickeningly tight leggings are wrenched down around her knees. The odours that might escape the confinement of the Lycra are beyond comprehension. She is attempting to coax her theoretical mate towards his nemesis. In order to reproduce he must first scale her vertiginous behind. This is not easy when you are a Yorkshire terrier.
Eventually she finishes her main meal and reaches predictably for her arsenal of jam doughnuts. Self-loathing grabs me as I realise that I look forward to the sugary delight of the dusty white powder, not to mention the sticky red goo nirvana that erupts from its core. What sickens most is the build-up to this treat.
‘Come and give mummy a kiss.’
‘Oh god…’ I head toward her and allow her to scoop me up with her flabby palms. She brings me to her furry upper lip and I am forced to close one’s eyes and contemplate an alternative target: the hot little Jack Russell from the park; a muddy puddle; anything to take one’s mind from the task at hand. As a result I lick wildly, catching her nose, cheeks and chins as well as the syrupy bliss. She squirms with pleasure and drops me to the ground gently. I head back to my basket feeling like a crack whore, satisfied but forever soiled.
sycophancy – pretending to like someone to get something out of it
vertiginous – extremely steep
nirvana – an ideal or perfect place
Despite the challenging vocab and disturbing content (‘you’re not right in the head, sir’) another very successful lesson.
Beyond the apparent ego trip – and let’s be honest here, this is a rare occasion when you’ve got a captive audience to read your fiction – here’s why I think sharing your own work is a good idea:
- It’s a brilliant way into the structure question (Q3 on AQA). The writer (you) gets to explain the decision to begin in media res, use flashback devices, adopt the second person, use particular spatial shifts etc. The benefit of gaining insight to the deliberate nature of the construction process cannot be underestimated
- The same goes for evaluation (Q4 on AQA). Why did the writer chose that name? What was intended by describing the character in that way? Why use such a mocking tone at a seemingly tragic juncture? Let’s ask the writer. S/he’s here!
- It allows pupils the opportunity to develop critical evaluation skills in a safe environment. It’s hard to find fault with Heller’s opening to Catch 22 but much less so when the teacher has said, this isn’t perfect, I’m not 100% happy with it. What could I have done better here to create enigma or increase tension?
- With the right class, it allows you to let your guard down and be seen as a human being, not just an educator. The fiction we write says a lot about us – whether we write what we know or the opposite – and this fascinates pupils. Since using these extracts a few pupils have been far more likely to show me their writing and ask for reading recommendations from me
- It gets you writing more. English teachers are generally frustrated novelists or poets, who have become bogged down with writing reports, feedback, lesson resources and exemplars. I tend to find that writing poems or short stories doesn’t feel like extra work. On the contrary, it’s a valid excuse to ditch the marking for a couple more hours
Thanks for reading. Unlike my pupils, I know you don’t have to.