Inspiration, Courage and Creative Writing

As I stare at my blinking cursor, stuck on the opening sentence, I’m trying to give myself a pep talk to create my very first blog entry….’just do it, just do it already’. 

Two minutes later, I am still at the opening sentence.  Why is this so hard?  I mean, ask me for an academic essay, or a report and, instantly, it feels a much more familiar territory.  But this, this is different.  No expected structure, no task requirements to fulfill, no thesis statement to prove or disprove.  I’m at a loss…  I think I’m supposed to find my ‘voice’ (… where has my voice gone?…) and a unique way to get my message across (…what’s my message again?…).

This creative writing business is tricky!  Yet, this is precisely what we, at Kaplan International Pathways , decided to ask our students to get involved in.  Kaplan’s pathway courses prepare international students for university studies in the UK, US and Australia. Our focus is on ensuring they have the subject knowledge and English language competence to cope with the academic demands of their undergraduate or postgraduate courses.  So, at first, the idea of creative writing seemed quite counter-intuitive to what we are trying to help them with – creative writing does not really feature on the EAP syllabus.  So, why do it?

Well, Kaplan’s pathway courses are not just gateways to university degree courses.  They are much more than that.  They are like rites of passage marking the transformation of our students into confident individuals, who, being away from their homes, bravely take on the challenge of surviving the freshers week, making it safely through each year of their degree, until that final moment when they can throw their graduation caps in the air with pride.  By including enrichment activities into our curriculum that allow our students to gain new experiences, we help them build that kind of confidence and readiness for new challenges. 

Yes, I hear you say, but what has confidence to do with creative writing?  Well, it is one thing to ask our students to write an academic essay in a second language, yet another a poem, a story, or a personal reflection.  That, my dear reader, does not only take talent and skill, but courage.  Courage to open up and let the reader into often an intimate side of you, courage to apply your own personal lens on issues you speak about, and courage to let your creation provoke reactions. As Paulo Coelho once put it beautifully: ‘Talent is a universal gift, but it takes a lot of courage to use it.[1]’ 

Sometimes, however, a gentle push may be needed.  Or rather, creative talent needs inspiration.  That extra something to help you get rid of self-doubting whispers from your head and get you going.  So, how did we inspire our students to be creative? 

We have recently partnered up with National Geographic Learning who provide a range of English language learning materials for us which are inspirational in themselves with stunning imagery, fascinating texts and videos.  These were a good start, but we knew that this inspiration needed to come from outside of the classroom,  that it should not feel like yet another prelude to a homework task.  That is how the idea of setting up a creative writing competition using photographs as prompts was born. Centred around a single motif of a student journey,  our competition invited students to submit a poem, story or a personal reflection titled ‘My Path My Way’ inspired by one of five carefully selected, eye-catching and thought-provoking National Geographic photos.  Wanting to involve as many students as possible, we also set up a photography competition to run in parallel, for those students who preferred to express themselves via non-verbal means. 

In the run-up to the competition we had our hands full creating competition posters, defining competition rules, drawing judging criteria, selecting the competition jury, figuring out submission and voting mechanisms, writing competition implementation guidelines for staff… you get the picture.  But there was also one other aspect which got us thinking , that ultimate bait for students to get involved – prizes.  Too many school competitions end up with certificates for winners.  Nice to have.  Small impact.  We wanted a more impressive outcome, a permanent, tangible, and portable evidence of the winners’ success.  Enter the Competition Anthology – a professionally published, Kaplan and National Geographic Learning branded book showcasing the winning entries.  Now, that’s worth the effort! 

Once launched, the competition posters adorned college walls, National Geographic photos beamed from large atrium screens and beautified social media posts,  and emails with competition details were pushed out to every single student – we made sure students knew about it.  We made sure they got involved too – there were classes run to generate more interest and get them started.  Within a couple of weeks, we had our first submissions.  At the end of the competition over 200 entries were made.  And what came surpassed our expectations!  Students’ poems breathed life into photographic prompts, stories took us on indulgent journeys, photographs moved and amused us. Choosing the winners was tricky – one had to be more sensitive towards the creative message than perfect grammatical accuracy or technical expertise, more appreciative towards the courage the students showed to use their talents.  The jury selected their winners, but students had a chance to pick their favourites too.  And in the end the competition run smoothly. 

It was a lot of extremely satisfying work for us.  And what did the students make of it?  The engagement and the number of entries we had speak for themselves.  But let me leave you with a couple of quotes from our contestants:

Education has been a major part in my wonderful journey of life. Being here, given the ideal circumstances, I was provided with a delightful opportunity to express my thoughts and feelings through this poem. (Kanitpirom Wattanasan, University of Essex International College)

I never been able to express my feelings with words until I started to write poetry, it is not hands that did the writing but it was my heart. (Jasem Dashti, University of Brighton International College)

The winning pieces which found their way into the Competition Anthology are as varied as our student body.  Yet, for me, there is something unifying across them all – they all inspire me.  And I am sure they will inspire other students too!

P.S. This really is my first blog post.  I am a former international student who got her English proficiency certificate in the last century.  So, go easy on me.  It took courage to write this.

[1] Paulo Coelho,  The Winner Stands Alone

Author: Margaret (Malgorzata) Bryndal

Head of Learning Measurement and Evaluation, Centre for Learning Innovation and Quality (CLIQ) Kaplan International Pathways.

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