Initial snapshots of possibility: Writers in Schools revisited

Every possible use of words should be made available to every possible person: this sounds like a good motto, with a very democratic sound. Not because everyone should be an artist, but because no one should be a slave.
(Rodari Grammatica dell Fantasia)

I’m walking down along an English corridor with the Advanced Skills Teacher in English, Chris, when a lad strolls by and Chris calls out to him Hi! You’ve grown! Stop growing! The lad acknowledges the call but continues his walk. A ridiculous command if ever there was one. This seems to be what corridors are for: the placing and issuing of ridiculous shouty instructions “Keep left! Stand up straight!! Health and Safety! Punctuation!”

There’s lots of old written material here which is out of date and irrelevant: decrepit texts with no significance any longer, speaking of old regimes, older authorities and matters of older importance. They have no current didactic value and no learning value but try their best to remain authoritative. Public places in schools – like these corridors – have their fair share of texts which have lost their power, written in a language which exerts no pull or push of influence. And whilst they might not be chronologically out of date (where they might advertise an up and coming Senior Managment meeting for example) they can be ignored through over exposure (keep left!).

We talk about whether anyone reads these notices and figure probably not; and so see how writing in this school offers some dreary role model examples to work from. No wonder that, according to Chris, reading is sometime seen as a chore; writing is limited with little spark; there’s little ‘natural’ interest.

Chris wants children ‘to fall in love with writing’ and wanted them to care about how they express themselves; especially those who he thought didn’t have that culture at home. Not that the school doesn’t focus on writing at all. Chris feels that it was the kind of writing that was the issue here: there is sometimes a habit of concentrating on writing with style as opposed to content.

Not that this means that the project has to become overly serious or academic : we want to inject fun and enthusiasm into literacy, he added as we continued our tour of the school. He also was intent on exploring the possibilities of new, original writing through this process, and thought that by dedicating future CPD sessions to the theme of original writing, the project’s possibilities could be communicated and extended to a wider staff grouping. According to Chris, schools are sources of certainty and not so much of possibility:

Schools are very much about what is certain, you know, about passing exams, about repeating facts and knowing that you can jump through those hoops – in some respects. What we need to do more is explore creativity, possibility. What you’ve been doing is discovering what is possible; you’ve come out with knowledge that you didn’t go in expecting, you’ve suddenly learnt things that you didn’t know you were going to learn in terms of the creative process.

The importance of heightening possibility, as opposed to the desire for probable, pre-determined outcomes is an important contributing factor to the work of the writer in residence at this school: and the stories of the writers working here are stories of the tension between the worlds of the possible and the worlds of the pragmatic.

A long time ago: the retelling of very old stories. Writers in Schools revisited

It’s a bright Saturday morning deep in the frosty Staffordshire countryside. Greg (teacher) and Pat (writer) arrive simultaneously at the school gates and we’re all let in by the caretaker who’s come especially to open up the building. There are no children in sight yet: it’s the weekend after the half term so there’s some anxiety about whether they’ll remember to turn up or not. Placing this outside the curriculum and even outside the mainstream timetable suggests that this is driven by an agenda of ‘enrichment’ rather than ‘entitlement’ – relying as it will do on students memories, parents encouragement and the absence of lesser distractions such as boy / girl friends, imminent football matches later this afternoon an all the usual distractions of a (cold) Saturday morning…. We’ll see….. and as I write, one girl arrives, Laura.

Pat starts with a story he learnt from his great aunt – “who would be 115 years old if she was still alive. A long time ago….” and he continues with the story of a woodcutter, a version of Hansel and Gretel – but without the wicked stepmother – and after some five minutes, someone’s mobile goes off which generates a moment of distraction and embarrassment for Laura who’s sat to his right.

But as in the case of where Pat relates his story to new, non-committal and inattentive ears of young children and teachers, the re-telling of the old stories of writer, teacher and children is not without its own diversions, asides and re- interpretations.

Pat moves onto a second story, one from Nigeria – “I’ve found that is popular with secondary school children…” He points out that the story will have a dilemma in it. The kids are still sat still, listening in their own ways – but let’s not forget this is a Saturday after half term and the group are here voluntarily… the session is built upon focussing for a presentation at some point in the future in a middle school, working with younger kids.

Unlike much secondary work which gets kids to focus on (and be frightened by) their future employment prospects, the future in this session is relatively benign event in which younger kids will benefit from the efforts of the group here. This is about a contribution to the local community’s future; not about the future achievement or attainment of a specific individual (although that of course may well be an outcome too).

Laura writes some notes on one of the scraps of paper; the collection of pieces on the floor suggests a small scrap yard of paper clippings which might eventually be elaborated into some kind of artefact…? Mark demos a story he remembers, using his folded boat paper as an aide memoire to the story telling; he starts the story of a shipwreck, and tears something off to indicate the progression of the story. They start to think about telling the Hansel and Gretel story of earlier. Pat talks about how the brain can remember anything… and how we emphasise aspects of stories in order to persuade, ask for sympathy etc.. He splits his group into partners; they have to share memories and see how they can be turned into stories: “Put your hand up when you think your memory has turned into a story…”

The final part of the session and Laura feedbacks the stories she’s read through the course of the day – without props in some cases but with fragments of learning of presentational skills – variation of voice for example in order to surprise the audience… both Greg and Pat comment on linguistic specifics which make the story her own: in the process Pat refers to the specific nature of the Leek / Staffordshire accent. I wonder if she is aware of this accent. He finishes off by asking for any questions from the group; these revolve around how they will get time to practice their newly acquired skills and stories; the logistics of the mainstream timetable; the issues of how to catch up work; the confirmation that other teachers are aware of the demands that the children now face in their short term futures.

Do you like my claw hand? Writers in Schools revisited

Roy, front of the class, is demonstrating through a simple walking exercise five things which are involved in writing: the children recognise these as the five senses – smelling, tasting, touching, listening, looking and Roy says you need all five in order to write a story. He elaborates by suggesting that it’s the senses that make characters and places of stories come alive and also help you get ideas and help you describe situations.

It’s a large class – the whole of KS2 and year 2 : there must be at least 50+ kids in the room together with 3 staff who are sat at the back, watching. He stands front on to the class; behind him is a data projector and 2 school benches upon which are placed, stood up, a selection of about 20 of his books. These help draw the gaze to him and give him a status: another form of disguise perhaps.

The attention of the group wanders: a small group of girls look at each others socks, a small group of boys natter quietly to each other. We’re in the afternoon, feeling a bit post lunch lethargic and we’re post serious education of the morning. He moves on to the ‘shed in the heads’ concept – ‘where all the things you’ve sensed go, you can see what’s lurking around’. He points to a red bag he’s previously planted in the hall – an example of something which is in his shed in the head…. He brings out a box of fish fingers and points to one of the books on the bench as including a box of fish fingers. “This book by Roy Apps…” he refers to himself in the third person.

He starts to read out from one of Roy Apps’ books and offers the group a chance to join by calling out ‘Cheerios’ as he reads out sentences in the book which have the ‘c’ word missing. He points to a magic word in the paragraph which suggests something is about to happen: SUDDENLY.

Suddenly, he points to another bag which he’s planted in the hall earlier. He collects stuff out of the bags – ketchup bottle, garlic, blood stained stake, capes – the competition in the book is a device to get rid of mum and dad so that lead character, Jonathon, can go and stay with granddad who’s a vampire. He reads out and splits the group so that they can listen for things that Jonathon senses. He calls out for a gold bag – kid pulls out blank piece of paper (scary! He explains the fear of the blank piece of paper to a writer) and goes onto suggest that the five senses aren’t everything…. The magic of stories needs imagination too (which he describes as a word with a silent letter c – imagi©nation…

Imagi©nation causes a shift from the ordinary to the extraordinary. How? He hands out sheets of paper to kids who line up.. which spell out ‘I wonder what would happen if’ when aligned properly. He relates his own background to the family story – his Uncle Watte, the cook in the navy who would scare people and had teeth which looked like vampire fangs: ‘Do you like my claw hand?” Uncle Watte would ask when playing with a piece of chicken tendon. Years later, Uncle Watte’s claw hand has metamorphosed into the hand of the story teller.

Tips for teachers: 21 suggestions for better writing in a digital age

1. Psyche yourself up to write something that needs writing.
2. Write it out as a word or pages document – or use any other relevant software.
3. Don’t save it at all.
4. Close the doc without saving it.
6. Watch your hard wrought efforts disappear.
7. Try and write it again.
8. Admire it, second time around.
9. Don’t save it again.
10. Close the doc, watch it disappear again.
11. Continue this process for as long as you can bear it OR
12. Upgrade your computer to the newest operating system and carry out steps 1-6. The effect is the same.

13. Don’t cut and paste. Write it as it comes.
14. Print off.
15. Don’t save the doc. Shut down the app.
16. Scribble all over your hard copy, make amendments, cut it up with scissors. Get it close to what it is telling you.
17. Re-type on your computer – or better still, non-correcting typewriter.
18. Throw away the tippex.
19. Print again, despair again.
20. Discard computer, typewriter and anything with a memory. Apart from yourself. Buy a Parker. And some nice parchment.
21. Write with physicality, with full body attention.
22. Sweat, breathe hard, ache.
23. You are now a better writer.

Tips for teachers: how to make a micro story in under 100 words

Think of an incident in your life and ask the following questions:

1 How old were you and when Did it happen?
2 Where were you? Be specific.
3 Who were you with?
4 What can you see and what can you hear?
5 What are you doing?
6 What are you feeling on the inside?
7 What was the outcome?

Meld and compile these separate lines into a short story of no more than 100 words.

Voila, your short story for the day!

“Mr Torpey Nick Sir!” messing with identity. Writers in Schools Revisited

Tony, a professional animation artist has entered a classroom of a High School in Liverpool and greets a teacher who is about to introduce him to the class he is about to work with that afternoon. Tony is visiting a school which he used to attend as a teenager. After having not visited the school for over 25 years he has now been employed as visiting screen writer and animator on the NAWE Writing Together programme which has placed him in that school for what will be six half days of work with a group of year nine boys in order to get the ‘pleasure back into their writing, and to develop more ‘colour’ and expressiveness in their creative writing.’

Nick Torpey – a teacher of Tony’s when he was 11 – is still teaching at the school; and the first two words of Tony’s greeting – Mr. Torpey – are the words Tony was accustomed to using whilst being a pupil the school. A split second later, Tony realises that this formal approach is inappropriate for the enactment of the role Tony has now found himself in and adds to his greeting the less formal “Nick” – only to realise immediately afterwards that given this interchange is taking place in a classroom in full view of the on looking boys that Tony is about to work with, that this informality is too informal and that he must resort to another type of formal style which is used by many teachers in their communications with each other – the tendency to refer to each other as ‘sir’ or ‘miss’. Hence the birth of the rapid fire utterance, ‘Mr Torpey Nick Sir!”

Tony is introduced by his new colleague – Mr. Torpey Nick Sir – to the class as a freelance, professional animator who has come to share (as opposed to teach or instruct) his writing skills with the class in front of him. Tony doesn’t recall having anybody similar being introduced to him when he was at school and for this class, they too have not been introduced to this type of adult presence in the classroom by the current school managers before. It is clear from the start that the relationship that the pupils can expect to have with Tony will be of a different nature to the one they are accustomed to with the regular teachers in the school. They are encouraged to address him by his first name and discouraged from calling him either ‘Mr Ealey’ or ‘Sir’. Discouragement comes in the form of explicit, friendly guidance that using the artists first name when addressing him is acceptable, or the occasional joke with a pupil who stumbles over the construction “Tony Mr Ealey Tony Sir.”

They are led into a series of exercises by the writer which are different in terms of both style and content to their usual classroom exercises. They have been asked to describe ‘pitches’ of films and stories they have known (short descriptions which aim to capture the essence of the story of that film in as few words and as punchy a way as possible) and are soon developing pitches of their own for film stories they are encouraged to imagine. The class is marked by an atmosphere of attention and focus on Tony; contributions from the majority of the class to Tony’s questions and suggestions; a lively, informal and good humoured interaction between artist and pupils. The teacher who is present sits at the back of the class, scanning the room for any signs of distress, discomfort or potential trouble. Mr Torpey Nick Sir left the room some minutes after the class began.

I want to be the first whisper first heard by a deaf man: Writers in Schools revisited

Terry, a big Scouse presence appears as if by magic on the floor of an imposing, oaken school library dressed in the hybrid clothing of part teacher gown, part trainer top, part designer trousers and complete black and white brogues.

The seats and tables are shoved back to the walls, giving him the floor space which he takes to like a duck to proverbial, slurping out of his bottle of noisy water, telling me about the fecundity of the group’s work from the previous week. An awkward gaggle of angular faces, beaks and folded arms look on and I’m reminded that despite all the experience in the world, you never know what you’re going to face: all the preparation, all the theory, all the lesson plans, all the tricks and tips and turn ons is fine but… in the end…. you’ ve got a line of expectations, gazes, hopes, resentments, gaps, blank minds, active minds fidgeting just waiting for you, for someone, for something to switch them on….

He starts with an impromptu solo improvisation about his own experiences of education and the resistances he encountered: “what are you going to night school for, you poof?” before launching into the session proper by reading some of his own poetry, a love poem about a boy and girl on Wigan Pier. Straight into a flip chart exercise, the rule being to complete the phrase, ‘I want to be the first…’ “I want to be the first whisper first heard by a deaf man.’

Momentarily, we’re all stunned. How do we acknowledge, consider and value that moment produced by a young lad who looks as bemused as his contribution as those of us who have just registered it? I’m reminded of the moment in another writer’s class when a boy calls out, in response to a question about film making, how do you squeeze real time into 90 minutes film time? A huge question but not followed through: perhaps we’ve forgotten how to follow through? For all the talk about personalised learning in the classroom, can we ever have the wherewithal to respond to moments of beauty that don’t entail ticking off an outcome within the confines of a cell in an excel spreadsheet? But we move on and gloss over.

Back to the rules. Rule 1: it can’t be wrong, whatever you write. Followed by a quick exercise: complete the following phrase: In case of… X then Y. Rule 2: the last word starts the next line: but remember Rule 1: all answers are equally valuable “it doesn’t matter what you say, it can’t be wrong…” he urges. Rule 3: the first line and last line have to be the same, “like a jigsaw puzzle: ironically meaning that the final rule negates the principle of Rule 1. But we’re not worried as we frantically scribble, trying our best to fill that empty page of lined paper. In the fluidity of the writer, child, teacher relationship, the writer establishes the rules, yet breaks them rapidly, easily, without consternation or complaint. “It can’t be wrong, you’re the author”.

From the transience of the writer’s rule setting regime an essence emerges of a kind of super-author who makes and breaks the rules for his apprentices, his minor authors. Through the walls he drifts, from the floor he rises: the meta-author, the author of authors. Welcome to the world of the writer in residence.

The Blind Date Experience: Writers in Schools revisited

A  Blind Date pre-date encounter

Questioner       If you were a crisp flavour, which one would you be?

Contestant     Curry flavoured, because I like to be hot AND spicy!

Audience        Whooooooooo!
Subtext          Pick me and we’ll have sex.

Contestant 2    Beef flavour, because I like a man with some meat!
Audience         Whooooooooooooooo!
Subtext          Pick me and we’ll have sex.

Contestant 3      Obvious really, tomato sauce flavour because when you pick me I’ll be getting saucy with you!
Audience          WHOOOOOOOOOOOOOO!
Subtext            Pick me and we’ll go on holiday. And have sex.

A real world, lived experience of a writer visiting a school encounter

The protagonists: Carol, (writer), Jean(teacher), Jeff (head teacher)

What they said (1)

Carol      I think there’s much fertile ground in the class for more of the same, and hope that what we began together can be a first stage for others — including their lovely class teacher — to develop further. The time felt so short, but the nurture of the imagination wont be hurried. So, with the little time we did have I was delighted, often amused, and frequently moved by all that happened. The children clearly respect and like you Jean. I know you were modest enough to say it was because they were such a nice class — they are — but your cheerful, authoritative and sensitive approach must also set a standard for them to behave as well as they did. It was a pleasure working with you I’m still chuckling at the head stands and cartwheels and ‘sausage rolls’!

Jean      We all got on well and the children like Carol. Our aims were to develop writing skills of children and help children understand some of the different processes involved in producing a finished piece of writing. Also to have fun….We worked to a bigger scale than usual – 3 stories was a challenge…. A day of writing is hard going but we were all able to mix in different activities…. We worked together on a story…. We have finished and edited the work to produce books…. Writing in the past was an area where they lacked knowledge….We spent time discussing what they had done both with the writer and later in class….. Many increased confidence by achieving a finished book….We produced bound books.

Jeff   Our residencies to date have varied considerably, but all have added huge impact. Carol helped develop pupils extended fictional diary writing which had huge benefits of off-site research and writing – highly recommended for both adults and children. The atmosphere of writing in a local museum had considerable impact on the final piece.

What Happened Next: writers in schools conference, 6 months later

What they said (2)

Jeff      I have huge concerns about what I heard from Carol at this mornings conference. I am not sure if she was being deliberatly contentious, but felt too uncomfortable to challenge her comments or indeed present what I wanted to. I just hope that none of her bitterness filters back to my school community. If our work is all that wrong, I see no point in continuing with the project.

A Blind Date post-date encounter: on the sofa with Cilla

Questioner            I think I really love her and I hope we keep in touch.

Lucky Contestant    I thought he was a bit of a tosser really.