Seminar activity Ideas 2: Rewriting Nursery Rhymes and Fairytales

Seminar teaching

Advantages

Many HE courses in Literature now acknowledge the value of students writing creatively as a way of understanding more about the texts they are studying and helping them to become better critical readers. Writing imitations and parodies of a writer’s style can develop and consolidate understanding of the key features of a writer’s work. Nursery rhymes and fairytales can be a really enjoyable and neat way of using creative writing in this way.

What to do

  1. Students share key aspects of the style of the text or writer they are studying, the defining characteristics that make a piece of that writer’s work instantly recognisable. This may be something they’ve thought about in advance as preparation for the session.
  2. They then choose a moment from a fairytale or nursery rhyme and try writing it as a passage from the text or fragment of a poem by this writer. In doing so, they are asked to imitate the style of the writer as closely as possible. The choice of fairytale can be made by you, so that all students are writing to the same one, or can be left up to the students themselves. If students select their own, this can add an extra dimension. For instance, why choose Cinderella as particularly appropriate for Jane Austen, or why might Humpty Dumpty be a good choice for Shelley? The writing can be very brief – just a ten or fifteen minute exercise – though of course they can take it away to develop more fully if inspired!
  3. Students read out their fragments of writing, either in pairs or as a whole group, and comment on each other’s work, identifying phrases and passages which seem highly characteristic of the writer and others which are less convincing. In talking about what’s convincing and what isn’t, there will inevitably be debate about the finer nuances and subtleties of the writer’s style e.g. ‘that section doesn’t have the balance so typical of Austen’s use of sentence structure’, or ‘the use of free indirect style there is really typical of Austen’s subtly nuanced third person narrative voice’.

Variations

If you are teaching a broad course, such as The Gothic, or Contemporary Fiction, or Modern Poetry, you could use a common fairytale or nursery rhyme and ask individuals to write versions of that story, in the style of a chosen writer from the course. Without telling the rest of the seminar group which writer they have chosen, they read out their version and the rest of the group has to guess the writer. If they have successfully identified and imitated key aspects of the style and concerns of the writer, other students should be able to guess the writer easily. For example: everyone writes a version of ‘Jack and Jill’ in the style of a Modernist writer: Virginia Woolf, James Joyce, T.S.Eliot, Ezra Pound etc. or in the style of a Gothic text – The Monk, Dracula, Northanger Abbey, Wuthering Heights, The Bloody Chamber.

Activity contributed by Barbara Bleiman and Lucy Webster, of the English and Media Centre