English Teaching Online - our half-termly themed newsletterEnglish Teaching Online ~ the one with all the ORIGINAL WRITING
Autumn (1) / Term 1 2006

NB. You can also now read this newsletter online in the newsletter archive at: http://www.teachit.co.uk/index.asp?ednews=1

Newsletter bookmarks

Some thoughts - in no particular order - about original writing | David Almond

Giving reign to horror | Darren Shan

Bend it, shake it, any way you want it! | Debra Myhill

Original writing for GCSE | Harry Dodds


Grammar and original writing | Geoff Barton

Supporting writers with SEN | Andrew Buckton

The Arvon Foundation | Stephanie Anderson

The joy of Write Away | Ian McNeilly

Webwatch - essential genre weblinks | Rhiannon Glover


By now, across the land, thousands of students will already have done some original writing for the new school year: for assessment purposes, for getting-to-know-you purposes, perhaps for buying-ourselves-a-little-more-time purposes. Yet writing can be hard to teach - what to set? how much to intervene? for how long? - and even harder, as the work weighs in, to mark.

And by the way, everything in life is writable about if you have the outgoing guts to do it, and the imagination to improvise.  The worst enemy to creativity is self-doubt. 

Sylvia Plath

This newsletter begins with the imagination. As David Almond says in his opening sentence, 'The word itself - ORIGINALITY - is intimidating, of course'. With some timely reminders about the scariness of the blank page and the misleadingly neat end results we're presented with as readers, he writes inspiringly about the bit in between - telling the story - a form of play for all of us, he says, 'wired' as we are to be creative. Then Darren Shan recalls his own teenage experiences of writing horror - a 'secretive, forbidden world' - and reminds us that good writing takes time, and experimentation. He argues compellingly for 'free reign' to be given to the 'quirkier corners' of teenagers' minds.

In the middle are thought-provoking pieces from Debra Myhill, Harry Dodds and Geoff Barton, all with reflections and practical ideas on how to help students to become better writers - more aware, more ambitious, more 'choosey'. Andrew Buckton looks at supporting students with SEN, and finally, Stephanie Anderson and Ian McNeilly each reflect on the value of giving students writing opportunities beyond school, describing the courses run by the Arvon Foundation and the success of the annual TES Write Away competition.

Browse, print, read, enjoy. Autumn will be the mellower for it.

Katie Green
Deputy Editor
www.teachit.co.uk

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2005-6
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Autumn 2 - Poetry
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Some thoughts – in no particular order – about original writing | David Almond

If my doctor told me I had only six months to live, I wouldn't brood. I'd type a little faster.

Isaac Asimov

The word itself – ORIGINALITY – is intimidating, of course. It can hinder us before we even start. Just as abstractions like CREATIVITY and IMAGINATION can. When I was a kid, dreaming of being a writer, I used to look at my friends: 'He looks creative. She looks imaginative. But me?' And how would I write anything ‘original’ when already so much had been written, when I was an ordinary kid in an ordinary place. I guess I suffered, perhaps like most of us do, from the notion that creativity etc is reserved for strange exotic types, that to be truly imaginative is to be somehow superhuman. All nonsense, of course. We are wired to be creative, to tell stories. Ideas can flow spontaneously from all of us. And originality is nothing more than telling a story (which will inevitably be like some other stories) in your own way. 

Writing is a discipline, but it is also a form of play, and it can be close to magic. Pick up a stone. Look at it. Feel its weight in your hand. Now tell yourself that this stone was last held by a boy called Tony Muldoon. He joyfully flung the stone aside as he ran past this place. Look at the stone. Relax, and allow the image of Tony to form in your mind. Can you see him running? What does he yell as he runs? Can you see him throw the stone? What’s he running from and to? What’s he wearing? What has made him so joyful? What did he dream of last night? What is his home like? Name his mother and father. The weird thing is, you know the answers. Tony comes to life in your mind. His story can grow and develop. It is a mixture of daring yourself to do it, and allowing yourself to do it. And it is strangely easy, and the more you do this kind of thing, the easier it gets. How can you do this? Because you are human, a creative being.

The beginning of writing – the empty blank page – can be very scary. The end result of writing – neat lines of black words on clean white pages – can be even more so. It all looks so neat, so accomplished, so perfect. I used to think that the writer’s mind must look like this. How could I ever achieve such apparent perfection? An illusion, of course. Neat printed pages are the product of editors, typesetters, designers, printers  The creative process that leads to it is a messy, playful, sweaty, imperfect journey. Don’t be intimidated. Get some marks on the page, even if they make no sense at all. All would-be writers should look at writers’ notebooks and manuscripts. My own notebooks are a mess of scribble and scrawl and doodle. I spend much of my time scribbling (and enjoying scribbling) rubbish. I look through what I’ve scribbled and find phrases, images, notions that I like and that seem to have some strength. I lift them from the rubbish and begin to form them into sentences, paragraphs, stories. I used to try to plan and plot my stories from the start, but I can’t do that. The stories grow, like living things.

Often I go into schools and ask, 'Who here writes good stories?' A couple of timid hands might be raised. Then I ask, 'Who writes awful stories?' And often there’s an immediate forest of hands. It’s too easy to say, 'I don’t write well.' We have to train ourselves to be brave enough to say that some of our writing is really good, to find the good bits and to throw out or change the bad.

All writers are different, of course. There is no single secret or technique. But to find your own approach, it’s important to experiment and play. I keep going back to the notion of play. Yes, writing can be difficult, deep etc etc but it’s also a playful occupation. Play in notebooks, on scraps of paper, on envelopes. Your mind has an endless store of images, tales, memories, dreams, speculations. Relax and allow your imagination to work. Yes, have a plan/framework, but don’t plan your story to death. Allow yourself to be surprised and to make discoveries as you scribble and write. Allow your story and its characters to have their own life. Don’t give up after a few sentences. Write longer than you think you can. Keep going and you’ll begin to be absorbed by your tale. Be brave. Enjoy yourself.

Copyright © David Almond (UK) Ltd 2006

 

Giving rein to horror | Darren Shan

Fiction is the truth inside the lie.

Stephen King

In school, I wrote a bloodthirsty, futuristic story for a student teacher, thinking, 'She’ll be young and hip enough to dig it.' She wasn’t, and I almost got expelled.

 

I’ve had more than a few letters from children and parents complaining about teachers who don’t understand them, who criticise them if they choose to write horror stories, who demand blood-free, family-friendly tales.

 

In my books, I’ve buried a child alive … killed off dozens of characters … cannibals have cavorted merrily … in Lord Loss a boy witnessed a demon using his split-in-two sister as a hand-puppet. Nice!

 

Oddly, I don’t get many complaints about my books, because as bloody as they are, most adults note the moral resonances. I write about kids who take responsibility, who put their lives on the line for family and friends, who learn the meaning of duty, courage, self-reliance. Horror is the web I weave to capture the attention of my teen readers. But they learn about much more than the workings of vampires and demons. Sure, I like bloody, action-packed fight scenes, but I’m more interested in exploring emotions and the problems my characters face, using fantasy to mirror and probe the more complex real world. Teachers and librarians (well, most of them!) understand this and cut me some slack.

 

But as a teenager, I wasn’t concerned with exploring moral grey areas or in using horror and fantasy to take my readers on a voyage of self-discovery. Hell, I wasn’t able to. Writers develop over time, with age and experience. At thirteen, fourteen, fifteen, I knew I wanted to be a writer. That’s when I began working hard, writing lots of short stories in my spare time, making my first stab at novels. I yearned to make an impression, create a story that readers would respond to, that would excite and thrill all who passed within its reach.

 

Lacking the ability to craft such stories, I went for full-on gore and violence instead. I travelled down many vile, vicious paths with my imagination, coming up with the sorts of stories that never see the light of day, being far better suited to as dark a setting as possible! But I learnt to write good stories by churning out these crimson shams. Where writing is concerned, practice makes perfect. The advice I give young, would-be writers – the only advice I think they ever really need – is, 'The more you write, the better you get.'

 

Naturally, having been stung by showing one of my more colourful stories to a wrathful teacher, I kept these juicy gems to myself. I withdrew into my own world of fiction, a secretive, forbidden world. I couldn’t let anyone into it because I feared the repercussions. My late teens were a very negative time, largely because I was exploring a dark landscape, and had undertaken the task by myself, with no one to guide or encourage me.

 

If I’d had a teacher I felt free to show my work to, and discuss it with, maybe I’d have come through the darkness earlier and easier than I did. I needed someone to tell me less is more, that I didn’t have to go into disgusting details to impress. Someone who wouldn’t criticise me for going off in the directions I took, but who would explore them with me, explain why they weren’t worth taking, and lead me back to the road I eventually, luckily found by myself.

 

I think most teenagers have a terrible sense of being alone, especially if they’re of a creative bent and that creativity leads them to places that are frowned upon by the adults they interact with on a daily basis. Sure, it’s fun to be a rebel — but it can be scary, isolating and depressing too.

 

We don’t live in an ideal world. I know teaching’s a hard job, that it’s easier to mark essays on conventional subjects than give a free rein to surly teenagers who want to write about zombies chowing down on fresh brains. But creativity isn’t a smooth ride. Sometimes it demands detours down grimy alleys of the mind, places no adult might want to visit, but which developing teens feel drawn to. As a teacher, you can choose to block such trends in your classroom and demand your students tread the straight and narrow line, forcing them to give up on writing or labour on by themselves, alone in the dark.

 

Or you can encourage imagination wherever you find it, explore the quirkier corners of writing with those who truly do 'think outside the box', and try to help even the most creatively wayward students find their true direction. If you do, you might help the next Poe, Mary Shelley or Stephen King to blossom.

 

Of course, you might inadvertently create the next Charles Manson too — but, hey, them’s the breaks! 

Copyright © Darren Shan 2006

 

Bend it, shake it, any way you want it! | Debra Myhill

Easy reading is damn hard writing.

Nathaniel Hawthorne

Mike Rosen once wrote that we should help children to see ‘language as putty’.  It’s an image I’ve always loved because it evokes the stretchy, malleable, creative possibilities of language – indeed, I’ve adapted it to a classroom activity to encourage developing writers to be playful and experimental, and to realise that shaping something to be the way you want it may involve several attempts.  With the class in groups, I give one child in each group a lump of playdough and ask them to use it to make something (a pig is a good one!). The other children have to watch what they do and describe this afterwards – they will come up with words like ‘screwed it all up’, ‘broke off bits and stretched them’, ‘rolled it into a ball’, ‘flattened it’ etc.  Then I liken these actions to writing, which has to be shaped and crafted, and where some of your first attempts have to be re-shaped or scrapped altogether. Good writing is about creation, not imitation.

Many writers in our classrooms, whether primary or secondary, think of writing very much in terms of accuracy and correctness.  Even when we think as teachers that we have communicated a broader view of writing, the emphasis on accuracy is surprisingly dominant – try asking your class to tell you what are the qualities of good writing, as this opens up what they are thinking beautifully.   But accuracy is not enough to make writing good: in fact, writing can be both accurate and very dull.  Accuracy is necessary, but not sufficient.  What we want young writers to learn is how to make choices, how every decision about a word, or a particular phrasing, or a particular font can influence the way that piece of writing communicates.   That’s why I like the concept of writing as design, and teaching children that as writers they are designers – with a repertoire of choices available to them.

You could explore this using an email text.  Give pairs a straightforward email message, for example, ‘Bring your CV to today’s meeting – George’.   Invite the pairs to rewrite this message as at least three more email messages, but each one must convey a subtly different meaning (eg ‘It would help me enormously if you remembered to bring your CV today!!! Or ‘No CV, no job.’)

Oracy is hugely underused as a strategy to think about meaning in texts. If you are sharing a class reader, when you have enjoyed an exciting moment together, stop and ask pairs to read one paragraph aloud to each other, conveying the meaning through the voice (as teacher choose this paragraph carefully).    Then discuss how we know where to put the emphasis and how the writer’s choices influence how we read this paragraph.

The more we can use teaching strategies which develop this repertoire and draw attention to choices and possibilities, the more we are helping writers to see how language creates meaning - to use language as putty.

 

Original writing for GCSE | Harry Dodds

When you catch an adjective, kill it. No, I don't mean utterly, but kill most of them - then the rest will be valuable.

Mark Twain

Setting an original writing task for external assessment often highlights the disparity between the kind of activity that promotes good learning, and the kind that leads to a solid, safe grade. The temptation to play safe can be overwhelming.

As a GCSE coursework moderator, I once had the privilege of checking the folders of a prestigious, selective girls’ school. Across the year group, there had been set a single Original Writing task: ‘Describe your journey from home to school’. Every girl had used the same structure, varying only the topographical references. The cumulative effect was deadly – but the writing was technically accurate, the spelling faultless, the sentence structures varied. I can understand giving a formula like the one behind that writing to the student who has two days to complete a piece before a deadline, but to impose a formula on a whole year group seemed to me to be taking risk reduction a little too far.

You can’t rely on falling back on narrative, either, on the grounds that it’s a familiar form. Effectively you’re asking students to write a short story, and that’s a notoriously difficult genre. Much better to encourage students to find something with a real purpose, for a real readership – any school, any community has real issues that need to be addressed, and that’s where the lively writing will come from.

If you’re looking for inspiration, I don’t think you can do better than to dig out a copy of Ted Hughes’ ‘Poetry in the Making’. It’s quite old (1967) and I think it’s been out of print for twenty years, but there’ll be a copy at the back of your store cupboard, and there are several on Amazon at the moment. It’s still very useful, not least because it offers you an accomplished writer’s support in identifying real subjects for writing, and it’s also an accessible ‘how to’ guide. It doesn’t twitter about ‘creativity’ or ‘self-expression’, either – it just addresses the big questions about original writing.

Grammar and original writing | Geoff Barton

To get the right word in the right place is a rare achievement.

Mark Twain

 

One thing as an over-eager wet-behind-the ears young turk English teacher I used to think was: 'I know how to teach original writing'.

We’d read something together as a class – say a short story or poem -  or we’d look at a photograph and tease out its moody possibilities, or in a pre-PowerPoint age I’d hold up a poster of a famous painting or, memorably, get students to bring in items to write about. I had a room full of stones and pebbles once, which proved almost too tantalising for Simon, the school delinquent.

It was all very Joyce Grenfall, if you know what I mean. I realise now that I was a product of my own education in which 'writing stories' was the best bit about English, and a PGCE course steeped in the Romantic tradition of encouraging self-expression through creative writing that was a 20-year-old hangover from the sixties.

Yes, I knew how to teach original writing.

Then at the end of my second year as a teacher, Helen in Year 10 started her GCSE original writing piece with a sentence like this: 'The golden orb hung low in the azure sky'.

'What does this mean, Helen?' I asked.

'Oh, it means the sun was shining, Sir'.

I realised that I was teaching a version of original writing that replicated many of the features of the books I actually liked reading the least – things like Cider with Rosie. I was encouraging heavy modification (lots of adjectives before every noun, at least one adverb accompanying each verb), over-long sentences, and elephantine vocabulary.

I realised then that original writing wasn’t just stories; it was travel writing, biography, magazine articles. I realised that the trick wasn’t about linguistic flashiness; it was about thinking who your audience are and then grabbing, entertaining, and – essential this – surprising them. It was about sentence variety, with the best writers challenging our expectations with their use of very short, very simple sentences. It was about vocabulary that was visual and visceral – words that have an impact on us.

So these days I’d be much happier with the opening of a story that said 'The sun shone brightly'. But I’d be even happier with one that said 'The sun shone darkly' because simplicity and surprise – in our language and our thinking – are essential ingredients if writing is to be genuinely original.

 

Original writing and students with SEN | Andrew Buckton

The difference between fiction and reality? Fiction has to make sense.

Tom Clancy

Independent, original writing can be tricky or even hampered completely for some pupils because they either can’t think of anything to write or have significant difficulties with spelling.  This may affect their self-confidence so that they simply do not have the courage to attempt writing, or it may be that they plough away at their work but produce something that is unintelligible to most and perhaps unreadable to themselves later.  Having a profound lack of imagination can be an irritating excuse for a lazy pupil but a genuine area of deficit for some pupils, especially those with an Autistic Spectrum Disorder (ASD).

So how can we support less able writers in getting over hurdles such as spelling and using their imaginations in order to develop their original writing? 

Learning to be good spellers requires the brain to function well along two different routes (lexical and sub-lexical).  Whilst teaching often focuses on the consistent patterns of language, in particular phonics, invariably the other route, which relies on visual memory, can be neglected.  The word 'lemon' is a good example of a phonetically perfect word.  If you learn the sounds and fit them together, you get it right.  However, the English language is full of words that don’t follow the patterns, such as 'yacht'.  There is no short cut way of learning this, other than memorising it.

This term may be a good opportunity to experiment with ways of developing pupils’ memory – especially visual.  Activities for pupils to work on collaboratively such as picture ‘snap’, pairs and more sophisticated card games are great for this. Word searches needn’t be an end of term activity – they are great for developing visual skills. Learning a few key words each week might prove to be a real confidence booster for pupils with special needs who would love to have a go at writing.

As for helping a pupil who struggles to use his or her imagination, writing frames are a good way of helping pupils order their thinking, sequence events and generate ideas.  Similarly, storyboards and comic strips provide alternative means of approaching a piece of writing.  What about getting pupils to add a visual prompt in their comic sketches such as a sign saying ‘Yacht Club’ or another word they are stuck on?

 

The Arvon Foundation | Stephanie Anderson

Determination not to give in, and the sense of an impending shape keep one at it more than anything.

Virginia Woolf

I’m leaving the Arvon Foundation soon and was asked by a colleague last week to name the highlight of my six years as its director.  I didn’t give it a moment's thought - I didn’t need to – it had been visiting our Yorkshire Centre, Lumb Bank, to see a particular course in action.  It was a group from Castle High and St Patrick schools from Belfast, organised by a wonderful teacher called Shirley Cole.  The course had been a real effort to put together but Shirley’s commitment made sure it happened. 

That evening was the Friday when on most Arvon courses, adult or under-18s, the group share their week’s efforts by reading aloud in an atmosphere of trust and celebration of shared achievement. All the 14 and 15 year-olds in the Belfast group took part in the performance, as did the teachers and the two professional writers who had led the workshops and tutorials. There had been a transformation in the students and their writing during the week and as they proudly read their poems and short stories they were using language in a new way to express something of their selves and their lives in Belfast. The difference the week had made to these young people was tangible in the energy filling the room and I was moved and inspired by them. I felt privileged to be present.

All the groups of under-18s who come to Arvon can register free to become members of the Writing Room, the Arvon website dedicated to young writers. You can visit the site and gather information on writing or reading events taking place nationally and regionally, writing competitions etc and enter a teachers’ section.  Students have to register to enter the personal notebook area where they develop drafting and writing skills using the stimulus of the online workshops created by some of the Arvon writers. The site builds on the experience of the Arvon week, uses workshops and offering guidance. Writing produced in the notebook area can be submitted to the site editor for publication online.

The Belfast week was one of over a hundred courses that Arvon has offered to young writers in the past six years. We are supported by Arts Council England and a number of other grant-making organisations and we fundraise every year to keep the costs of the courses as low as possible. We are committed to this opportunity being open to all young people and if schools and the families have very limited resources we can offer substantial help with funding when we have this available.

More information is available at www.arvonfoundation.org

 

The joy of Write Away | Ian McNeilly

I try to leave out the parts that people skip.

Elmore Leonard

 

If you are a teacher of English, every now and then you will come across a piece of original writing composed by one of your pupils which is like a slap in the face. In fact, these days, you might actually get a real slap in the face – but I’m already digressing.

I mean a piece of writing which reminds you why you took this job in the first place.  You might mark a thousand essays so overly-scaffolded and repetitive that you can give the exact grade in your sleep.  You can mark a hundred stories which peter out and finish ‘and then I woke up’.  And then you’ll pick up something you expect to be run of the mill and awaken yourself, making you rub your bleary eyes and look at the page anew.

In our classroom culture of praising pupils for the most mundane things, there’s nothing like making an example of someone for all the right reasons and meaning it so sincerely you could burst. I remember once taking the rather unconventional step of photocopying a student’s essay and handing it round to his classmates simply so we could all enjoy reading it together.  The content wasn’t embarrassingly personal – I’m not daft. But it was bitingly witty and far removed from the pupil’s accepted public persona.  I know some of the more cynical of my Teachit brethren will be shaking their head at how this might have exposed the boy to ridicule.  Six months later I found out at parents’ evening that the writer’s confidence had grown so much he had not only started writing regularly in his spare time but his self-esteem had visibly risen.  All down to creative writing.

The thing about being a Write Away judge – NATE’s long-standing original writing competition for both Primary and Secondary school pupils, held in association with the Times Educational Supplement – is that you are guaranteed to read several scripts which remind you of the power of narrative.  The most enjoyable day’s work I’ve had in ages was going to London to whittle down several dozen entries in each category to a final ten for both the Secondary and Primary competitions.  These several dozen had been reduced from the thousands of entries sent in by schools all over the UK by NATE regional judges.

All of the entries were very good.  A panel of us argued viciously for hours – getting down from twelve to ten in each category almost saw violence break out as factions took personal ownership of their favourites scripts. 

The standard was remarkable.  See for yourself: http://www.tes.co.uk/search/story/?story_id=2242642.

Jacqueline Wilson chose the Primary winners; Michael Rosen the Secondary.  All twenty finalists won the latest hand-held computer game.  The winners saw their story published in the TES.

 

Webwatch - essential original writing weblinks | Rhiannon Glover

The pages are still blank, but there is a miraculous feeling of the words being there, written in invisible ink and clamouring to become visible.

Vladimir Nabokov

At primary level imaginative ideas for writing stories and poems are to be found at Teaching Ideas for Primary Teachers (<literacy<writing fiction). Stimulus material in the form of PowerPoint presentations and starters will help pupils to begin their stories but there are also some useful resources on story middles, constructing a character and creating settings here. The BBC World Service and British Council English Teaching site (<try<activities<writing) also has suggestions for helping primary-aged children and older students with creative writing.

More suitable for GCSE exam preparation and coursework is englishbiz.co.uk (<main guides<entertain) which offers students free guides to writing an entertaining story and tips for writing to persuade, advise and so on.  Also to be found here are examples of high-grade students’ work and exam-type questions. The BBC’s Blast is a valuable site for budding writers to showcase their work, ask for feedback from other young people, read profiles about published authors and find out how to hone their skills.

If you want to direct your KS5 Language and combined Language and Literature students to a site that will support them with original writing for both coursework and examination, they will find some clear advice on the BBC’s AS Guru (<english<Literature and Language/original writing) which also provides interactive tasks to accompany each stage of creative writing from developing and collecting ideas and deciding on audience, purpose and genre to drafting and editing and writing a commentary to accompany the writing. 

Finally, some of the strategies and examples for encouraging original writing outlined in ‘Developing writing through reading, talking and listening’ funded by the Scottish Executive Education Department are interesting and could easily be adapted for students of any age.

 


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