How can we encourage and develop young writers? Carol Archer describes an ambitious project designed to extend creativity and enable children to evaluate their own narrative and poetry

In January last year, I worked on an ambitious writing project with 30 Year 6 and 7 pupils from a wide range of Warrington’s schools. I have previously led creative writing courses and masterclasses, but this project was different; it was to extend over three terms and therefore include the period of transition to high school. This was a superb opportunity to work with young writers in more depth than I had done previously, and as Warrington LA has a tradition of using innovative approaches to the teaching of writing, I was especially delighted to be working with Linda Percival, their primary English specialist.

The project We chose Neil Gaiman’s enigmatic picture book, The Wolves in the Wall as the stimulus for the project. It offered opportunities to explore character, relationships, settings and the power of inference through a short illustrated text. Initially, the children were surprised we were using a picture book, some suggesting that it was ‘too young’ for them, but they soon appreciated the author’s skill in communicating so much through such a short text, and the power of David McKean’s illustrations.

Our objectives for the project were clear, to challenge the children to use language creatively across a range of genres and to have the opportunity to experiment with different approaches to planning, drafting, proofreading and presenting their writing. We also wanted the children to be challenged in term of timescales; to write a five-chapter novel over the nine-month project as well as engage in many ‘quick-write’ sessions and conventional 30-minute and one-hour sessions. However, above all, we wanted the children to perceive themselves as writers and to be able to evaluate their own and others’ work. The sessions comprised four two-day themed units each with distinct teaching objectives and written outcomes. The final day was an evaluation and celebration day. A local high school offered us the use of a large classroom, drama studio and ICT suite. We used a range of stimuli to support the writing; high-quality texts, film, PowerPoint, internet, drama, visualisation and discussion. The children worked individually and in a range of groupings and they soon became a supportive community of writers.

Planning

I will explain in more detail, two ongoing features: narrative and poetry. A major challenge for the children was to plan and write a five-chapter novel around one of three suggested plots.

Plot 1

  • The setting for the story is a remote island.
  • The yacht on which you were travelling was blown off course during a terrible storm.
  • The vessel was destroyed on the rocks along with everyone’s possessions. Fortunately, all the passengers have survived with only minor cuts and bruises. You now have to work out how to survive until you are rescued.
  • You must write the first four chapters from the viewpoint of a different survivor.
  • Each chapter should reveal details about the character and how s/he adapts to life on the island.
  • The final chapter should detail the end of the ordeal.

Plot 2

  • The setting is Britain in the year 2090.
  • A major incident has occurred.
  • Life is in turmoil in Britain at this time.
  • You must write the first four chapters from the viewpoint of four different characters…
  • Each chapter should reveal details about the character and realities of living in Britain after the catastrophe.
  • The final chapter should unite all the strands of the story and describe how the characters will face the future after such a major incident.

Plot 3

  • The setting for the story is a city in the year 2007.
  • There is a reunion of a group of people connected through a life event for example; they were school friends, they are war veterans, they are attending a 100th birthday party of a celebrity who they once knew…
  • You must write the first four chapters from the viewpoint of four guests at the reunion.
  • They all share a secret of something that happened in the past.
  • The story should reveal the details of their lives and their connections with their fellow guests and hint at the shared secret.
  • The final chapter will reveal the truth about the secret.

The children wrote a chapter between each meeting (two during the summer break) and their work was shared and enjoyed during the sessions. It was satisfying to see that the children readily redrafted their work in the light of new learning from each session. The children rose to the challenge, sustaining the narrative at length and creating a truly amazing range of characters and settings. The young writers wrote in original styles with maturity and perception as illustrated in the following short extracts from three of the novels.

Plot 1

‘Come on!’ someone cried. So I jumped. The ocean’s skin greeted me with a bone-shaking smack and I thought my life jacket would surely give in to the icy clutch of the sea, giving me a one-way ticket to under the surface. But it didn’t. Somehow.

Plot 2

Tuesday May 24th 2090. Simon is dead. He’s been assassinated. He was the greatest prime minister Britain ever had, lost in a few seconds. My mind is so full of questions, some maybe never to be answered; some maybe never to be spoken.
Plot 3
The phone continued to ring out. Pierre sighed as he paced through his hallways, each side of the corridor lined with expensive-looking abstract art. If you were to enter his residence, you, just as I have, could taste the loneliness spread throughout these rooms. Since business and greed were the most important parts of his life, little time was given to consider building a family of his own. He gave orders; anyone who dared to disagree suffered the consequences.

On our final evaluation and celebration day, we displayed the completed novels, each with an accompanying blurb and author biography.

Box 1: Children’s responses

It’s all over when the sun rises at midnight

To shine on Luna’s craters

It’s all over when spirits roam the earth

And sound is silenced

It’s all over when volcanoes spurt bubbles

And birds melt when they sing

It’s all over when every object that was once

Coloured and beautiful becomes a deathly pale white.


Box 2: A sense of place One child described a winter landscape:

Who dropped the snowflakes?
Me whispered the sky.
I scattered the land with white wonders,
I dropped the snowflakes.
Who froze the trees?
I did, muttered the frost.
I silenced the leaves and sprinkled the sparkles,
It was I who froze the trees.

Another child chose a more autumnal view:

Who scattered the leaves?
I did whistled the wind
I blew them with my freezing breath,
I scattered the leaves
Who enveloped the forest?
I did hissed the mist
The thick white blanket that surrounds it all,
I enveloped the forest.

Poetry

Each two-day writing unit included a poetry focus with a written outcome. Poetry writing frees the imagination, develops precision in word choices and encourages children to appreciate the music of the language.

We began with a series of word and association games and ‘quick-write’ sessions intended to build confidence and a sense that each individual’s ideas were unique to them – there were no wrong answers. A ‘quick-write’ session is when children, in pairs or individually, compose two lines in response to a given stimulus. We then blend them together to shape a group poem for performance. In this way, the children learn about the visual and sound effects of language such as alliteration, effective imagery, rhyme and rhythm. One such session used a line from The Wolves in the Wall: ‘It’s all over when…’ This idea is about reversing normality; it allows the children to move away from conventional explanations and to let their imagination fly! The children’s responses were both thoughtful and original as the examples in box 1, above, demonstrate.

After reading and discussing a range of poetry, the children enjoyed writing their own. Initially, we modelled a poetic format for the children to use so that they had the freedom to concentrate on composition, imagery and word choices. During the final session, the children had enough experience and confidence to create their own poetic structure.

We demonstrated how to adapt the structure of Ted Hughes’ poem Leaves in the unit ‘A sense of Place’, in order to create a poetic landscape using personification of the elements (see box 2, above).

The culmination of the project was a display and performance for an invited audience of parents, carers, teachers and councillors. It included the group poems, scripted interviews, PowerPoint presentations, individual poems, biographies and narratives. At the beginning of the project, we had asked the children what they hoped to learn. The answers included:

  • Not to mix up tenses.
  • To make sense of my writing. Punctuation and spelling.
  • I would like to achieve 5A and vary my range of connectives.
  • Improve my handwriting, writing neater.

As the project progressed, the children’s comments became those of mature writers actively honing their craft and showed a greater awareness of audience. Their final comments included:

  • I think that during this course I have learnt lots of new and different writers’ techniques such as how to create tension and how to make a piece of writing have a certain mood.
  • I feel I’ve learnt much, much more about writing and especially learning why the verbs in a story mean so much – a less effective verb could destroy the reader’s interest.
  • I have never written at length before so I feel I have improved and have produced a whole novel.
  • I’ve really improved my poetry techniques and I’ve learnt a variety of structures.

It was clear that the children perceived themselves to be writers with all the joy and power that entails. One of our ‘quick-write’ sessions asked the question, ‘What is a writer?’ Their answers created the group poem in the box below.

What is a writer? What is a writer?
A writer is a magician who can create a masterpiece
 With a wave of a pencil
A writer has the key to a new world
Capturing readers and taking them on a roller coaster ride away from reality
But a writer can be a commanding tyrant
Or a hypnotist stealing minds

What is a writer?

A writer is a powerful being, an intelligent thinker
And an artist creating mind pictures through words.
A writer is a keeper of secrets
Or like a roomful of words waiting for a book
But a writer is also a puppet master taking control
With no strings attached

What is a writer?

A writer is a true friend
Using words to spread smiles to the world
A writer is…..
The voice of the heart

Carol Archer is an education consultant specialising in primary English and G&T

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