In November 2019 I was lucky enough to be able to go on a 3 day residential at Lumb Bank, (Ted Hughes' old house) in West Yorkshire on an Arvon Teachers as Writers course. To say it was inspirational is an understatement. We were tutored by the super -talented Bali Rai and Alicia Stubbersfield and took part in a variety of rich writing workshops, examined and shared our own work and discussed how we could transfer activities to the classroom. We played Articulate on an evening by the fire - in short an English teacher's idea of heaven! The other teachers were just lovely, and it's an experience that I know will stay with me forever.
So... I wrote my English plans over the summer around the activities we did, which really encourage the children to enjoy the process of writing and to explore and have fun with the written word. This style of teaching is completely free and without formula, and it's meant to be an organic process which brings out the best writing. I appreciate this might scare the pants off those less creative bods and you may well be wondering how the lower ability will cope, but stick with it.
The first set of lessons I started the term with were a 'How I Write' account by each child and a free write which were very informative for me to find out how they approached writing and whether they were any good at it.
The first workshop was this one : a detailed description of an object and it's all about Imagineering (as per Hywel Roberts) via questions we provide the children relating to their senses. It encourages multi-sensory description in narrative writing.
First, get a load of interesting objects like below. If you can't quite see, I've got a telegram from my grandparents wedding, an identity card, an invitation... charity shops are best for this sort of thing or family heirlooms.
Next, move all the chairs to the side and sit in a circle with the objects all placed in the middle. This I think was crucial to the success of the sessions. Arvon promote moving to different writing areas as much as possible and to get away from that same old desk space as it helps with the creative process (not that easy with distancing!).
I showed the children the items first, so that they could understand what some of the more peculiar ones were. (Usually you'd pass them around the circle but I couldn't because of C19) Children then silently think about one of the objects (the one they are most drawn to ) for 3-5 mins. I guided this a little with questions but it's about encouraging day-dreaming.
I then asked them to 'Let Their Pen Take Their Imagination For A Walk' and just asked them to write any words or phrases that came into their head when looking at the object. I showed a modelled example of what I'd done with a velvet purse. No worries re spellings etc, just write. I encouraged them to let their mind wander. See example of lists created below:
My version on a velvet purse
Robin Hood, knapsack, money bag, belt, diamonds within. Jewels, earrings, Grandma, soft curls, smile that didn’t reach her eyes, bet she’d have one. Precious, rich, Grandma Parr in a car, going to a ball, this bag in her gown, brushing her long hair.I had a a black one once, to put precious things in, Frederick, precious stones in his. What is it about little velvet bags of jewels that is so enticing? The stitching around sides is is precise. The opening edge has ripples/tiny mountains along the top. Green, verdant, evergreen, pine trees, forest green, Christmas green, stained on one side, brown patch what was it from? Sense that what was once pristine was now frayed and stained. Bit like old age. Why would you have something like that - jewels, money?
We shared our thoughts, and I asked the children to think about the best bits that their imagination had come up with. Were there any golden nuggets? Was there anything weird or 'out there? You can use highlighters for this bit. Ask the kids to highlight their own favourite parts. I highlighted my favourite bits from my version and explained why I liked it. They then share lists with a partner and get another opinion on a juicy bit that might have legs.
Next you guide the thought process a little more with the following questions:
1) Appearance - what does it look like?
2) Smell - what does it smell like?
3) Focus in on a particular detail about it
4) Texture - how does it feel?
5) What does it remind you of if anything?
6) Who did it belong to?
7) How could you lead this into a story….?
Examples of children doing this below:
So, from here they had some pretty good phrases and sentences as you can see, which were very creative and bang on with imagery and originality. I particularly loved: The teacup smelled of floral gossip and a side of old ladies; it smelled of betrayed friendships and broken trust.
The next stage was to look at our sentences and to create prose from them. I showed them how I had turned my initial ideas on the velvet purse into the prose below and talked about how I had added vocabulary, detail, depth and linked the ideas.
Modelled Ideas Into Text
The petite, velvet purse was a deep bottle green - a rich, proud evergreen like the colour of a school uniform. It carried the unmistakeable scent of a charity shop, musky and overlaid with strong, old-lady perfume. The cord gathering around the top had frayed and with it the purpose and value of the money bag had also weakened. The velvet was soft, nice to stroke, back and forth, back and forth, its smooth texture delicate under her fingertips. It reminded the girl of the times when Tudor men wearing tights and puffball skirts would retrieve such a bag from their waists and count out their strange currency into the grubby hand of an eager tradesman. Or perhaps it belonged to another era, a debutante’s purse, carrying a stick of ruby red lipstick and a dancing card? E did not know. But she did what she might have done 5 minutes ago and opened it. It was then that the story began.......
We examined the above text, looking at techniques I'd used. I zoned in to the fact that I hadn't brought in a person until the very last line and that they absolutely must not start telling the story, moving into action yet as I wanted the focus to be the object. We talked about the start of a film and how it would be a close-up of the object and then pan out to the person holding it or move to the scene where they stood, so the character was only introduced in the very last line. We discussed having the reader in the palm of our hands and hooking them in, making them want to find out more. At this point, the children were desperate to tell me where their stories were going to lead, in a full story mountain ..." and then.. and then...(!) " but I kept stopping them and saying, "Don't tell me...yet! I should not know where this is going..yet. Focus on the little details, the finer details." We discussed foreshadowing too.
A first draft by one of the children on the What Katy Did Book in the photo.
One of my favourite English lessons - give it a go! And many thanks to Alicia Stubbersfield who first did it with me.