For teachers wondering about how to shake things up in the writing, reading, talking, listening field:
How about a whole school writing project? I’ve seen these work really well in several schools. So, the staff get together and choose a ‘big’ or ‘important’ text or a single author. You each work out how you can work with some part of that text or that author’s work for whatever period the school can give to this. So, I’ve seen this work for a week long project where the school suspended the curriculum, a term-long project where the school worked on it for a fixed time each week, and even a year-long project.
By ‘big’ or ‘important’ I mean something like a Shakespeare play like ‘The Tempest’ or a set of myths like the Greek myths. You can explore texts like these in many, many different ways: reading, writing, performing, art work, dance, music, history, geography, picking out elements of the text that’s appropriate for your year group. So, with ‘The Tempest’ I saw one school did ‘Islands’ and ‘Storms’ with some of the youngest children, and picking up on different themes all the way up the school to Year 6, where they were looking at what happened to indigenous peoples when settlers and colonisers arrived. Alternatively, you could pick an author like Michael Morpurgo who’s written books for children across all age groups and do a whole school project on different aspects of his work.
One great effect of this approach is that everyone works together, helping each other, and there’s a kind of accelerating, intensifying effect. Meanwhile from the children’s point of view, as they see each other’s work, the original text comes alive in many different ways. It’s a very deep way to explore reading and writing.
In tandem with this, you might want to think about the idea that a school can be a ‘performance and production house’. So, many schools treat what children write as material that goes into their exercise books, which is marked by teachers and then often stays there. Again, most performing of their work, stays inside a single classroom. But of course, anyone reading this will say but in fact we do much more than that – making videos of our poem performances, or doing wall displays and much else.
How about then building on this – on the one hand exploring as many different ways of performing and publishing the children’s work through the year? And/or putting aside a week, where you all go flat out on publishing and performing?
So, publishing can include: making books, pamphlets, leaflets, blogs, school bulletins, magazines, wall displays, letters…The children can write their stories, poems, recounts, news, write-ups of school events, jokes, crosswords, in all these different formats, working on their own or in teams. This is a fantastic way for children to see themselves as ‘real’ writers with ‘real’ audiences (the rest of the school, parents, grandparents, the wider community and even, in the case of blogs, a school or several schools on the other side of the world). You can create a blog in about two or three minutes and you can confine the readers to exactly who you want, so there is no worry to do with unmoderated readers or commenters. This way of writing puts the ‘audience’ into the children’s heads and is a superb way for children to ‘get’ what writing is for.
I read a lot of stuff about how teaching writing is about getting things in the right order or using the right structures. When writers think about writing, we quite often spend a lot of time thinking about our audience, and how we can make them laugh, cry, be fascinated or as Philip Pullman says, ‘beguile them’ – that is trick them into reading more and more and more. You can’t teach that in some formal way. You have to learn it by doing it, and talking about how this or that ‘worked’ or didn’t work. That means writers talking to readers. It’s great if teachers – or visiting writers – work alongside the children bringing their ideas and expertise into the matter.
When it comes to performance we have now such terrific ‘platforms’ available to us: live shows of plays, sketches, songs, musicals, dance, performing stuff on the video in our phones, and iPads, working with ‘proper’ cameras, making powerpoints and so on. So rather than thinking just of the big end of term show, we can think of many small shows using all these different platforms as part of discovering ‘audience’.
Many apologies if all this is obvious and you’ve done all this before. If you haven’t – or you’ve only done some of it – I’m suggesting being massively wholehearted about it, using everyone’s capability and creativity in the whole school community – even if it’s only for a week.