Cultivating Creativity: Secondary School Students Write Their Own Storybooks
The Yew Chung International School of Beijing Secondary School welcomed acclaimed Australian children’s book authors Michael Wagner and Jane Godwin to host a daylong writing workshop. The two authors led students from Years 7-10 on a creative journey, providing them with the proper inspiration and writing tools to compose their very own short stories, many of which will be shared with Primary School students next month!
The Secondary School English department team spearheaded the event’s organization. Head of English Brad Locke and EAL Teacher Rebecca Flavin introduced the event and how it benefits both mainstream and EAL students:
We were recommended these authors by our Primary School Librarian Sora Lim and the greater Beijing community! As they’re both children’s authors, we decided it’d be perfect to get the students involved in writing children’s books, plus they’re accessible to everyone, making it an ideal fit for both mainstream and EAL students. Curriculum-wise, students in both Lower Secondary and IGCSE are required to create pieces of narrative, so this offers a unique opportunity to create a polished piece of work for a different audience than they’re used to writing for.
We’ve also used technology in a very unique and interesting way. We’re using a platform called Storybird, recommended by Year 7 English Teacher Alana Martin, which allows kids to create children’s books in a wide frame, complete with illustrations. In addition to giving kids greater ownership when creating their stories, the tool lets us publish stories as PDF-style ebooks that can then be read on a kindle, computer, or tablet just like a magazine. Parents can even purchase a physical copy of their children’s stories!
Beyond becoming better storytellers, this activity offers a lot of benefits for student development. Besides creativity, students hone their divergent thinking through coming up with different possibilities for things, thinking outside the box, etc. Narrative is going to be more and more important, especially with the increasing use of technology. It’s more and more important to be able to curate information to tell a story, no matter what you do.
In our context as an international school, we also want kids to develop global mindedness, encouraging them to look at things through different perspectives. Reading creative works helps you to understand different cultures and ways of thinking, so it’s very beneficial for that as well.
We were also lucky enough to sit down with Michael and Jane to learn about their experiences writing children’s books as well as learn some valuable tips from true professionals on how to write creatively.
Please introduce yourselves and your work.
Michael: I’m Michael Wagner and I’m a children’s author from Australia. I’ve written over 70 books for children and young adults, a couple of which are picture books, and I’ve got a lineup of about six more books coming in the next year and a half!
Jane: I’m Jane Godwin and I write books for young people, including chapter books, novels, and picture books. I’m also a publisher and have worked for many years with penguin books in Australia as the publisher of the books for children and young adults. I also work with a Chinese publisher, the Guangxi Normal University Press, through a picture book imprint called Magic Elephant. Most of my books are published in Chinese through them, and I’ve done author tours as well to schools to do writing workshops through a translator.
What is a common mistake that people, students or adults, tend to make when doing creative writing? How can they fix this mistake?
Michael: I think a common mistake is that people often write a nice character doing nice things. Those stories are very boring! What you need is a nice character having a really hard time; that’s what makes a story interesting. Make your hero suffer! However, you have to get them out of trouble as well as getting them into trouble. That’s your challenge as a writer: to find that brilliant way of getting them out of trouble, and to make it reasonably believable.
Another common mistake is coming off too heavy-handed. Remember that your story will teach the lesson you want. Your personality is infused in those words and your DNA is there on the page through every decision you make. Your worldview will come through in the story without you having to slam it home. Let the reader find it themselves, because they will delight in that discovery!
Please recommend a writing exercise that students can use to enhance their creative writing skills.
Michael: My writing was transformed by the simplest, most silly-sounding exercise ever: write for 5 minutes without thinking. Without taking your pen off the page or your fingers off the keyboard, just write. If you’re thinking “I don’t know what to write”, then write “I don’t know what to write.” When you write quickly and without thinking, you engage your imagination and the back of your brain, not just your intellect. As a creator, you need your imagination engaged in the writing process. Get your imagination going so that you’re surprised by what you write. Your imagination is where your innovation is; the genius is back there. While it needs to be controlled, it also needs to be part of the process.
Jane: When I work with kids, I emphasize how we draw ideas from three aspects of life: our own experience, observations of the world around us, and our imagination. Often we’ll start with what I call rocket writing: we think about experiences that have happened to us, and we turn it into a story. We call it giving it a twist: you start with something that really happened, then explore what would have happened had something not gone the way it originally had. This is to help kids realize that they have plenty of stories within them through their own experiences!
What advice do you have for older students who want to seriously pursue creative writing, either in higher education or as a profession?
Jane: My advice would be to read. Read as much as you can, including different styles of fiction and different genres. Even if you’re not consciously studying a book, the more you read, the more you’ll subconsciously perceive how other writers use language.
Additionally, try and write regularly. It can be difficult for older students due to their studies, but writing is just like any others skill: you have to practice it. Even if it’s just for 10 minutes each day, write a description of something, even something as simple as what you’re eating for lunch. Keep that writing muscle active!
The final tip would be to submit your writing to any kinds of publications you can, whether it’s a school magazine, a writing competition, or anything else. This can be a great exercise as it will encourage you to really polish a particular piece of writing.
Learn more about our Secondary School today by visiting its dedicated page!