Like many schools, when we finished the TAG assessments with our Year 13s, we had to find something to do with them which was both meaningful and fun! This was especially important after the most challenging of A Level experiences and we wanted our wonderful students to leave us with a real love of literature, rather than a COVID hangover.
We were blessed with a particularly talented and creative class who had already produced some exceptional writing such as a retelling of Angela Carter’s The Bloody Chamber in the style of The Gruffalo (see Emag, September 2021), so we thought we could take it further.
In conversation with our Year 13s, we created a set of gothic ingredients which took into account tropes, epochs, intertextual references and each of their names. Students paired up, and so did we. Using a wheel of fortune, students learned their creative fates …
Would it be terror, horror or parody? Late or postmodern gothic? Set in graveyard, a castle or the streets of London? Would there be a monstrous mother figure, a Byronic hero or shape-shifter? And, finally, to honour Carter, which fairy story would they have to allude to?
We had great fun writing our own story based on 'The Little Mermaid' but with a range of intertextual references to all of Carter’s stories (lots of feminism, the grotesque and even a sex scene), ‘Frankenstein’, ‘Macbeth’, ‘To Kill a Mockingbird’ and, as a bit of a curve ball, some Virginia Woolf.
Students wrote: a story entitled ‘Hunger’, based on 'Hansel and Gretel', in which Gretel eats Hansel; a story set at the Tower of London and featuring the entire class trying to keep their heads (literally and metaphorically); a story featuring an electrified eel called Mr Tilney and the memorable lines: ' "I must have this male species of yours for I am in need of sperm to fertilise my new eggs,” she declares, holding up an ovary as a microphone’ and ‘retrieving two eggs Miss Havisham pierces them into her earlobes with a satisfied smirk’. Carter would be proud!
After writing in our pairs, we spent a lesson reading our stories aloud and giving feedback to one another. It was gratifying to see how well the students had understood the genre, both in the way they wrote and in their responses to their stimulus texts and wider reading. The laughter, nods and knowing looks demonstrated the breadth and profundity of their knowledge; more importantly, there was a real sense of warmth and joy in the classroom. The creativity made way for collaboration over competition. They probably didn’t even realise that they were consolidating their learning!
We would love to think that this is an exercise that could be repeated in the future, even if it had to be in a more condensed way. We are also reviewing our schemes of work to ensure that there is sufficient room for creativity to enable our students to keep a sense of play in their learning.
COVID has wrought havoc in our classrooms but has also encouraged a new way of reflecting on the teaching we do and how to engage our students. Finding new ways to communicate our love of the subject and allow students to do the same has invigorated both them and us and we would encourage other English teachers to take a creative risk and give students some time out from the relentlessness of essay planning and writing; it can reap great rewards. There is certainly “power in potentia”.