Year 9 have just given their feedback on this blog post.
‘It’s not very interesting, Miss. No offence.’
‘You need to have a snappier opening. Perhaps include some more engaging adjectives?’
‘I can’t even tell who your target audience are, Miss. Or are they just old people?’
When I started writing a book alongside my students, I did it because I was being melodramatic. They weren’t concentrating and it was raining and I needed a coffee, and I can’t quite remember the exact reasons now, to be honest. But I do remember that from the minute I started the writing, their eyes lit up. In that one session they made more progress than they’d made all week, and they left the classroom excited about creative writing. So I did it again. And again.
For several weeks I wrote a few lines of my book while they completed their own work. I also started writing for them, putting together passages and plot developments at home which I knew would pique their interest. This is probably the best explanation for why the story is set on a giant, killer jellyfish, floating off the coast of Wales.
I started each lesson by spending ten minutes or so on grammar, but then I’d introduce a paragraph of my work for students to critique. I filled these passages with common errors. Once the students had ‘found’ them, I would correct the work in front of them, and avoiding those errors in their own work would become the lesson focus for the next forty minutes or so.
I wasn’t really able to write much of my book during students’ lessons, as I was too busy helping them, but just that gimmick seemed to enthuse, and led to some of the best writing I’ve ever received from students.
When the creative writing lessons finished, I realised I had been enjoying the process myself, and that, more importantly, I wanted to see what happened in my own book. So I continued writing, and that’s how Jelly developed.
It has been such a joy to have the opportunity to write a book alongside my students. On occasions it has had unexpected consequences, such as the time a class enthusiastically voted to name one of the main characters after a favourite teacher – and then equally enthusiastically voted to kill her. But it has also shown me the particular interests and passions of the age group.
I had wanted to have the main, teenage protagonists’ lives and interests accurately reflecting the lives and interests of my students for example, but on several occasions they were insistent that they did not want this to happen. They did not want to have the characters’ lives focused on parents or friendships, and they absolutely did not want the characters in Jelly to spend any time at all worrying about their French homework- even if this was something which my students spend a considerable amount of their time on. Equally, they wanted the central protagonist to have a love interest – even if most of them didn’t. As one student put it, ‘We might not have a boyfriend, Miss, but we’d like to.’
From my students I understood that they didn’t want reality; they wanted escapism. They wanted characters which they related to, but which didn’t necessarily reflect them. They did want characters which represented them – and several of my BAME students were particularly vocal on this point (we had lengthy conversations about dreadlocks and exposure to salt water, as well as debates about suncream). But they didn’t need to aspire to be my characters.
Jelly was a lot of fun to write, and I thoroughly enjoyed teaching the lessons too. It’s set me the challenge of trying to write alongside my students more often – including this lesson on blogs.
JELLY by Clare Rees is out now, priced £7.99. Read an extract here
The views expressed do not necessarily represent those of the FCBG.