“If only I were allowed to write freely” — The efficacy of spoken word workshops and creative writing in a Finnish upper secondary education setting
Riina Kontkanen, MA
I worked as a researcher on the Mun tarina (“My story”) project in spring, 2019. In this role, I was able to observe the spoken word workshops conducted by poets Aura Nurmi and Juho Kuusi in the Finnish literature classes of various upper secondary schools (Fin. lukio). This peek into the world of Finnish upper secondary school students was unique and extremely interesting to me.
Over the course of the workshops, I especially observed the reactions, group dynamics, and ways in which the students participated. I occasionally took part in some writing exercises, but mainly I sat quietly among the students while taking notes by hand, so that my presence would not disturb the classes. I brought up my mandate as a researcher as part of the round of personal introductions in each workshop, as well as the end of each session; I also handed out feedback forms to the participants and made sure they were filled in, returned, and compiled anonymously.
In this article, we the authors approach the impact of spoken word poetry workshops on Finnish upper secondary school students and their teachers. Effects in this case are defined as changes experienced by the students and teachers during and directly after the workshops. We approach these self-reported changes from the point of view of both students with existing enthusiasm or competence in reading and writing as well as those experiencing challenges with language, social interaction, and/or self-expression. We analyze the different ways in which the poetry workshops affected the upper secondary school students, as well as the possible needs and desires to which the Mun tarina project could help respond.
The Mun tarina project had an impact in Finnish upper secondary schools on three main levels: conceptions of writing and literature, the reevaluation of the methods of teaching (creative) writing, and the critical evaluation of upper secondary edcation culture in Finland.
1) Impact on upper secondary school students’ conceptions on writing and literature: the guided spoken word education gave rise to realizations about poetry and its functions: “Hey, this is new and interesting; oh wow, so this is what poetry can be!” Students found themselves updating their previous conceptions of poetry as a result of the workshops. They became excited by and interested in spoken word poetry, and became more open to composing pieces of writing themselves.
2) Impact on subject didactics: new methods of teaching creative writing, and their success.
3) Impact on upper secondary education operating culture: discussions on the significance of creativity and self-expression in upper secondary education and their opportunities to increase activity, inclusion, and wellbeing. Immediate impacts on wellbeing included feelings of empowerment, an increase in self-esteem following a successful writing experience, and a positive experience related to spending a day at school.
Material for the study was compiled via questionnaire, group discussions, and interviews. We used a questionnaire with open and multiple choice questions to survey the students’ experiences and conceptions of spoken word, as well as their attitudes toward writing, self-expression, and poetry in general. A total of 185 first- or second-year upper secondary school students from four schools in the Helsinki region responded to the questionnaire. Additionally, literature teachers from schools in Vaskivuori, Vantaa and Vuosaari, Helsinki participated in group discussions centered on workshop practices and their suitability in upper secondary education. In spring 2019 we also interviewed five teenagers from the Helsinki region who practiced spoken word poetry as a hobby. Three of them were actively engaged in producing poetry of their own, while two others were “discovered” through the springtime workshops.
The reported experiences are based on the feelings, opinions, and thoughts of the participants — all of which were borne out through interaction — and both the students and their teachers described them in various narrative, linguistic ways. The workshop participants may find themselves gradually changing their views concerning their own agency as a teacher or as an actively literate student as well as upper secondary education as a functional context (Tökkäri 2018).
All in all, the Mun tarina initiative’s material composes an up-to-date overview of the experiences and conceptions upper secondary school students have relating to writing and self-expression. These, in turn, are reflected in many ways in the students’ social and learning environments, as well as in the attitudes and values related to self-improvement. The teenagers verbalized their own identities, interests, and wellbeing (or lack thereof) within the school context in various ways via their responses. The school questionnaire on wellbeing conducted by the Institute for Health and Welfare (THL) shows that contemporary upper secondary school students experience challenges related to stress control and various learning disabilities. How could creative writing exercises work as a response to these and other issues?
Five notes on the workshops
1. There is a demand for creative workshop activities in upper secondary schools. The methodology of the workshops is easily approachable and applicable to a spectrum of different learners.
2. Workshop involvement increases students’ readiness to write and to perform, and supports all forms of writing. The spoken word exercises are well suited to many courses on language and literature, in a variety of scopes (such as Finnish and/or Swedish language and literature, other native languages and literatures, and Finnish or Swedish studies as a second language).
3. Creative writing supports the wellbeing and humanist development of students. Teenagers have the opportunity to vent their own thoughts and worries even while listening to the output of their peers. When the texts do not undergo criticism or evaluation, the process may enhance conceptions of empathy. Teachers may also benefit from non-pressured and critique-free writing.
4. Creative writing exercises increase focus and develop self-expression and creative thinking in upper secondary schools that emphasize cognitive pedagogy. The significance of hand-written texts is heightened in the era of ubiquitous digital devices.
5. Creative writing and self-expression should constitute a right and an opportunity among all upper secondary school students, not just those who are already geared toward literary or artistic recreation in their lives.
Questionnaire results and key statistics
- 83 percent of the students were previously unfamiliar with spoken word poetry, but 31 percent said they developed an interest for the artform following the workshops.
- Many upper secondary school students considered classic poetry to be alien and uninteresting to them, but also found the workshop directors’ performances and exercises to be enjoyable, novel, and freeing.
“I’m interested because it is impressive; you get to be opinionated, free, liberated, artistic, and courageous.”
“Writing isn’t my number one thing, but the classes were super nice and I would consider familiarizing myself more with the topic.”
“Poetry doesn’t really interest me, but these workshops made it surprisingly fun.”
“It was interesting to hear poetry spoken, because they were very different to what I was expecting.”
- Nearly 40 percent of the upper secondary school students somewhat agreed that they would like to attend an event centered around spoken word poetry.
- The positive development of the students’ mindsets was greatly enhanced by the pedagogically expert and exciting workshop direction from Aura Nurmi and Juho Kuusi; students were allowed to try out spoken word poetry in an encouraging setting. The workshop directors were also able to rouse interest in spoken word culture by inviting the students along to events and to interact in poetry-related social media channels.
“I think it would be nice to go see a poetry event, and see if I get excited. It is a fascinating form of art.”
“I like to writing texts myself, and it would be great to get to perform them live.”
- 30 percent of the respondents said they enjoy writing very much, and 45 percent said they practice some form of writing in their spare time.
Many upper secondary school students said they enjoy free writing, and also practice it in their spare time, based on the data from the Mun tarina project. Pedagogical experts have generally expressed concern over the decrease in recreational reading and writing among young and teenage students, as well as their falling level of reading and writing competence. For instance, the PISA 2018 report shows that the commitment of 15-year-old students to reading in their spare time has gone down. Teenage students increasingly form negative attitudes to reading, and only engage in it if pressured by academic goals. At the same time as the time spent reading has decreased, the variety of texts consumed has also become narrower.
The 2019 THL school health survey shows that upper secondary school students increasingly experience difficulties in tasks related to reading and writing. In 2017, just over 20 percent of girls experienved difficulty, while in 2019 the figure had risen to some 25 percent. About one fifth of male teen respondents reported problems with reading and writing in both surveys.
It is against the backdrop of these challenging experiences that many upper secondary school-age students found it enjoyable to take part in the creative, student-based, and personalized interpretations of various texts brought up by the Mun tarina initiative.
A gender-based alignment is visible in the responses to questions of writing as an interest. Female respondents reported writing recreationally more often than male students. Likewise, the boys’ responses showed a prevalence in wary or pessimistic attitudes to writing. Upper secondary school students typically keep personal diaries or write freeform stories, poems, and song lyrics. Some mentioned writing short stories or experimental novels. Some students also publish their work online in the form of blogs or similar platforms, but most reported keeping their writings secret, seldom mentioning any trusted readers.
Students who had already heard of performance poetry or spoken word or were interested in the topic following the workshops also tended to enjoy writing and reading poetry, and practiced writing in their spare time. Likewise, those students who expressed no interest in spoken word poetry also reported wary or pessimistic attitudes toward writing and poetry in general.
- 47 percent of student respondents said they would enjoy having more opportunities for creative writing as part of their curriculum.
Responses showed that there is a demand for free and creative writing in upper secondary school curricula. Many said they wanted more workshop-esque exercises to be included in their other school courses. Despite the desire for freeform writing, students also called for some form of direction or teaching based on the given subject, so that they would be more likely to engage in writing themselves.
“For instance, different stories related to various subjects. It would provide many with the chance to practice their writing skills and make use of the issues and terminology they have grasped.”
“I think literature classes should have more creative writing.”
“Complete freedom in writing. It is surprisingly hard, because we have mostly been taught to write essays and reports.”
- Creative writing was found to be a suitable technique for working in other scholastic subjects as well:
“I particularly enjoyed the exercises. It is hard for me to start working on any schoolwork, but it was lovely to learn something new. Next time I will start by writing about my own feelings, and when I get comfortable, I’m sure it will be easier to continue working on other schoolwork. I really loved it!”
Workshop responses: surprisingly relaxed and free
In their responses, the students described the feelings and impressions brought on by spoken word poetry in very varied ways. Most responses mentioned the relaxed atmosphere of spoken word and its freedom of expression as highlights. The richness of the forms of expression in spoken word was astonishing to many students, as did the simplicity of the techniques involved in creating and pursuing performance poetry. The writing exercises elicited feelings of inspiration, and the life stories and performances of the workshop directors made a lasting impression on many students.
Another well-liked element of the workshops was the showing of poetry videos produced by experienced spoken word poets, including their messages and relationship with rap music. The atmosphere of the workshops was described as encouraging and the public sharing of texts was considered important, even though some participants declined to read their work aloud.
Many respondents said the workshops awakened a renewed interest in writing, and changed their opinions of what poetry could be:
“I remember that everyone’s writings were praised, and I got the feeling that they really held the listeners’ interest.”
“The writing exercises were nice, as was the sharing of the texts with others. The atmosphere was really inclusive and open, and the workshop was designed in a way that activated the students in a suiable way, but participants were also allowed to just take part more passively.”
“Anyone can write about anything, such as the feelings the writer has about certain days of the week or their own private room. I was also impressed by the poems the workshop directors themselves performed for us.”
“i learned that poetry can be written and performed in many different ways.”
“Spoken word poetry is not that hard really, and it helps the writer to access their issues. I might even use this method in the future, when my head it too full of thoughts.”
The survey also asked the upper secondary school students whether they thought that specific types of student would benefit especially much from the workshops. The responses of 178 student respondents were surprisingly unanimous: they portrayed a hypothetical student who is creative, artistic, performance-oriented, and interested in literature. Here many respondents excluded themselves from this hypothetical group of performative students, while nonetheless also saying that the workshops could benefit anyone at all, especially those who feel they have some message to express or those who are searching for their own voice, who want to develop their skills of self-expression, or simply have their thoughts be heard and acknowledged.
“People who like writing and literature are active socially or like to visit various events to civilize themselves. But I’d also like to recommend the workshops to everyone.”
“People who are interested in writing and self-expression; but I also think the workshops could benefit all upper secondary school students.”
“Maybe the workshops are best for somewhat quiet (shy) people. And artistic people interested in performance.”
“I would recommend the workshops to people who don’t feel that they are heard, or who strugle with many thoughts and worries.”
“People who know how to write and believe in what they do. Personal motivation and excitement are most important.”
“For anyone at all, because I don’t think there is any pressure to be particularly skillful.”
Students found that the spoken word workshops improved the group dynamic and their own attention spans, in addition to bringing inspiration, fun, and relaxation to their school day:
“You were able to maintain order in the class, which is uncommon in this group.”
Poet and spoken word artist Harri Hertell (2017) describes performance poetry as a lively, developing, and highly social form of poetic culture, where everyone has a say. He says spoken word also serves the needs of people who do not commonly read poetry: getting excited about oral poetry can lead to independently picking up a book of poetry. The feedback gathered after the workshops also confirms this observation. Many upper secondary school students were excited by the artform, and many responses show that they were positively surprised.
Students express desire for more creative writing in upper secondary education
The responses gathered during the spoken word workshops provide a fascinating analysis of the identities of modern-day upper secondary school students as it relates to writing and self-expression; more broadly, the responses address the wellbeing of students in their school setting. The material clearly shows that an increase in freeform writing is in high demand in upper secondary school settings.
“Starting to write from scratch. It’s wonderful to finally have the chance to write without a set subject or strict rules, just to write with freedom.”
“Writing with freedom was very nice. I haven’t enjoyed writing before, but this changed my mind.”
“I’d like to invent my own stories instead of always following some specific format.”
The Mun tarina initiative clearly addresses the types of needs that current theory-based upper secondary education does not. As one teacher puts it:
“I want and expect this kind of change to occur in the realm of upper secondary education. There is room for this sort of activity. I consider the current conception of personhood to be too narrow in upper secondary education, and this kind of work would be extremely empowering for students by creating personal trust in self-expression.”
During the workshops we noticed that the need to feel belonging within a group is very strong in many students. The group dynamic and the school’s general atmosphere have a strong effect on how prepared students are to find the courage to bring forth their own personalities. It is important to build trust between the workshops directors and the students, so that different types of writers could bolster their skills of expression. The situational awareness of the poet-directors was central to this: everyone is given the chance to perform their writing, but no one is forced to participate in any way. The tone of their feedback is always positive, focusing on emphasizing individual strengths and praising the courage of the participants.
“It was really great, even though I’m really shy and usually don’t like this sort of thing. It was somehow really easy to talk about my own thoughts, and the directors were able to create a safe and encouraging atmosphere.”
“It was nice that no one was forced or pressured; the relaxed tone was the best thing, it felt like no one was being judged, which is wonderful.”
Even after a small number of poetry workshops, the key figures of the study clearly point to the fact that creative writing confers essential added value to upper secondary education and the students themselves. The encouraging attitude of the workshops directors is primely suited to develop and deepen students’ capacity and interest in writing and self-expression.
Those interviewed students who already had a personal interest in spoken word poetry corroborated the significance of meaning-making related to identity-forming and experiences of community. They said that performance poetry had awakened their confidence as well as their skills in self-expression and the verbalization of their emotions. All five students shared a strong desire to express themselves and trust in their own abilities. Practicing the artform is fostered by the support of friends and family in addition to encouraging communal spoken word events, which students have found to be inspirational and spaces in which to connect with likeminded people. The respondents were unanimous in saying that the best way to understand and learn to approach spoken word poetry is to courageously attempt it for oneself.
As Hertell (2017) says, spoken word poetry at its best can offer young people the opportunity to examine their own emotions and thoughts without judgement. Spoken word workshops and courses on poetry performance can be safe and creative ways to spend time together with one’s peers without the insecurity or bullying that may often occur within the age group. Performance poetry offers experiences of success and promotes healthy personal confidence.
The students interviewed do certainly represent a small and very dedicated group, but their example highlights the significance of workshops in a school context: they offer an opportunity to get excited about writing and can help some teenagers find “their own thing”. As one respondent aptly summarized: “Finding spoken word poetry can change someone’s life.” Examining the long-term effects of the Mun tarina initiative by following the life paths of the students who were most inspired by the workshops would be a promising avenue of study.
Teachers on the authorship of upper secondary school students, and methods to support it
The Mun tarina workshops offered teachers of Finnish language and literature the opportunity to participate in the activities along with their students. Few possibilities for collaborative work between teachers and students exist in upper secondary education, so the workshops were welcomed by the school staff.
The workshops provided the teachers with a path into understanding community and new methods to foster it pedagogically. In group interviews the teachers said they had observed how their students responded to the exercises and made notes on the process. Next we will highlight some of the teachers’ experiences of the workshops, while viewing them through the lens of improving upper secondary school teaching of reading and writing.
Teachers reported that the workshops provided an avenue into enhanced community feeling and the further development of new teaching methods.
The goals of Finnish language and literature education are based on linguistic expression and the analysis and production of written texts. As a school subject, it is the main discipline through which students acquire their reading and writing skills, both of which are considered extensive abilities. Reading and writing also combine to form what is called multiliteracy, which covers the analysis and production of texts as well as the ability to assess them in their contexts of use. Upper secondary education in its entirety aims to furnish students with the skills needed to pass the national matriculation exam; the test on Finnish language and literature appraises the skills of both reading (comprehension) and writing.
The matriculation examination institution acts as a gatekeeper by strongly determining a student’s further study options. The foremost significance of this final set of exams was further emphasized in the new Act on General Upper Secondary Education (714/2018). The matriculation exam regulates upper secondary education, and therefore also affects the ways in which language and literature studies are taught, including assessment practices and reading lists.
Creative writing has been included in Finnish upper secondary education only as an elective course or as part of an obligatory course. The Mun tarina workshops helped teachers to see the potential of creative writing in contemporary upper secondary schools. The teachers started seeking new spaces and meanings in their teaching as the workshops progressed.
“Everything starts with the desire for expression, and that’s where these workshops also started: what grabs someone’s attention, what arouses interest, and what someone wants to say. This (spoken word methodology) can be applied to all forms of writing; it lowers the pressure to succeed and helps participants to find their own voice.”
“Perhaps creative writing should be transformed into the desire for expression as early as the first year.”
Curricula on language and literature in Finland has long made a clear distinction between non-fiction and creative writing; the latter has been used to awaken students’ imaginations with exercises drawing from various forms of art (Vakkuri 2001). Creative writing has been based the written language, with a focus on individual writers. Approaching writing as a form of creativity emphasizes the writer’s self-expression and the intrinsic value of writing itself. A piece of writing is considered high quality when it imaginatively awakens interest and emotions.
Central to creative writing is the author’s own voice and the narrativity of the text (Ivanic 2004). Upper secondary school students report feeling at odds when presented with the norms of scholastic writing and the formation and development of their own voice through text (Juvonen, Kauppinen, Makkonen-Craig & Lehti-Eklund 2011). When linguistic creativity is separated into a little island of its own, students gain a very limited perspective on the practice. The many forms and avenues of creative writing may easily be sidelined and ignored, never to be experienced.
Upper secondary level pedagogy has brought up the principle of creative output or creative production instead of creative writing, in order to broaden the concept of text creation. Creative production is not about composing linear writings, but rather creating texts that utilize multiple forms of meaning formation. The methods of creative production encourage participants to engage in innovative thinking, experience-based learning, experimental problem-solving, and social participation. Creative production is born from a combination of interaction and collaboration (Kauppinen, M., Sintonen, Harmanen & Kauppinen, E. 2017). The exercises used in the Mun tarina project broaden conceptions of creative writing towards creative production, as the workshops involved multidisciplinary or multi-channel approaches; spoken word poetry is about both producing written words and performing those words as fully embodied expression.
The workshops caused teachers to consider their students’ developing identities as authors. The teachers brought up the holistic nature of the workshop sessions, and the way that active participation may cause participants to discover what they want to say, and by extension their own voice. Teachers said that one main outcome of the workshops for the student writers was that the threshold for participation was lowered, so that all the students were able to compose text in a group.
“I also observed those who had trouble with writing, and they had no trouble at all in getting to work. Everyone was able to produce some text without much advice.”
Teachers also raised the emotions felt by their students during the workshop activities and their part in considering the students’ identities as writers: the way students were motivated through grasping the value of expressive writing, the intense and sensitive atmosphere in the group during sessions, and the tangible ways in which students accessed their own emotions and brought forth their inner thoughts.
“While I was doing the same exercises, I was thinking how those students are currently drawing upon themselves for inspiration. The moment becomes that much more sensitive that way.”
“I think these workshops as a whole brought lots of students the possibility to connect with their own feelings.”
Creative production usually brings out results that is valuable to learning specifically for the producers themselves, i.e. the students. Such results may include a strong emotional bond with the task or subject at hand. In such cases, creative production becomes a highly meaningful learning experience. It is also typical to creative production that the outcome is not the sole point of the exercise, but rather the process of production itself. When a student’s attention is focused on the process instead of the ultimate goal, it empowers them and supports their self-sustained learning activities (Kauppinen, M., Sintonen, Harmanen & Kauppinen, E. 2017). From this perspective, creativity is central to producing all kinds of text; creativity is understood as an area of authorial expertise, hence it becomes part of an author’s identity, and may support a writer’s personal development.
Through the Mun tarina workshops, teachers discovered methods and good practices for developing and directing writing processes. Becoming more sensitive to forms of self-expression could help students find subjects for course essays, warm-up exercises could lower the threshold for writing, and every writer deserves encouraging feedback on their work.
“[Spoken word methodology] would be good for ÄI2 courses, which involve writing a literature-based essay, so that no one would forget that writing is always self-expression. The methodology could help students find topics close to their hearts.”
“They were undaunted by the exercises, as they were easily approachable.”
Teachers also highlighted the ways in which feedback and assessment practices affect self-expression, by encouraging or discouraging students.
“I was impressed by the way [the workshop directors] gave feedback. Even those students who usually don’t get feedback from their teachers received lots of it.”
Teachers in the group interviews noted two core strengths of the methods in the Mun tarina workshops: the positive working environment, and the students’ commitment to producing novel texts. The teachers praised spoken word poetry as a genre: writing is was exciting for the students, it was easy to approach, and the technical aspects of the work involved was highly motivating. The teachers were also pleased with the non-critical writing activities in the midst of a setting that tends to be somewhat judgemental by nature. Writing by hand was also considered to have freed up many students’ self-expression.
“The genre speaks to young people and is easily approachable through practical exercises.”
“Students are more apt to be at one with themselves when they have a pen in their hand.”
“These small texts that are produced quickly, by simply writing and seeing what happens, is wonderful for teachers and students alike.”
The teachers also found room for differentiation in the methodology. Upper secondary school students could be guided toward certain types of activities based on whether they are familiar with self-expression or if creative literary production is more challenging for them.
“I wondered whether differentiating excited students from those who found nothing at all to say could benefit them both, by providing the former with the opportunity to work to their heart’s content while the latter could be coaxed into writing something even half-finished.”
The intensive textual work of the workshops made teachers think about the prevalence of reading and writing as hobbies, and other factors relevant to teenagers in literary artforms. The teachers raised intersectional and gendered ways of approaching reading (cf. Sulkunen & Kauppinen 2018):
“I’ve thought a lot about liberality and the avoidance of calcified models, in the form of phtases such as boys don’t read poetry or that any gender would be genetically predisposed to any specific kind of activity. I see exceptions to these ideas all the time, and I see that the teens themselves don’t espouse them; they come from outside. Students may well be interested in old Finnish poetry, for instance.”
Young people’s conceptions and appreciation of texts are also affected by whether reading is widely spoken of as a given or as an option in modern society:
Young people were found to inspire one another the most, both in encouragement and pressure:
“Students who read the same books in class also spar with one another over them. If it’s hard for someone, the book will nonetheless be discussed in class and analyzed carefully. Sometimes we’ll hear negative comments, such as “I don’t get it”. But sharing is absolutely key.”
“Reading the same book creates communality, which makes it easier to learn more.”
“There’s also that pressure of not being able to participate in a conversation without reading the book in question.”
The teachers also made a point of noting how the workshops provided possibilities for building new kinds of routes into the texts, while renewing and replaying their own roles as readers. The workshops made it possible for the upper secondary school students to form a bond with poetry, a genre too commonly considered difficult to grasp. They saw avenues open up to them for the creation of different types of meaning in poetry: “they offered a different approach into poetry. The students were extremely avid in their participation.” Voluntary reading as a hobby was also very likely made possible for many students:
“Someone might feel a spark to investigate what others have done and what others say it means.”
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