Writing the book of nature: How to stop the alien invasion

15th March 2016 at 16:29

Subject Genius, Dr Heather Martin, Writing the book of nature: How to stop the alien invasion

I've had enough of being zapped from all sides by aliens and other assorted creatures with random powers. But I'm even more weary of reading rambling 'stories' with an absence of narrative logic and a corresponding over-abundance of the linking word 'then'. 'Free writing' can all too easily descend into nightmare, irrespective of the language of composition.

Time to give them some rules. Writing is a variation on the language game, and however sentimental I may be about the concept of the childlike 'imagination', a free-for-all anything-goes approach just isn't likely to work. 

At the same time, I want my rules to have a light touch, not to weigh the children down. So I resolve to take my Year 4s outside. It's spring time after all, any excuse will do. Each child has paper and pencil, and has been instructed to note down whatever they see, whether in English or Spanish (according to their level of confidence), however banal it may be. We are going to write free verse or a prose poem in the style of Georges Perec and his inspirationally straightforward Tentative d'épuisement d'un lieu parisien (An Attempt at an Exhaustive Description of a Place in Paris), in which he spends three days sitting on the same bench in the Place St Sulpice jotting down everything that crosses his field of vision. To this end the children should include some adjectives too, whether the bus is blue or yellow or red, whether the beetle is big or small, whether the grass is wet or dry. The only taboo is against the imaginary. This is hard, empirical realism. Each new line would begin with the 1st-person preterite tense of the verb 'ver' ('to see'): 'Vi' ('I saw'). I toy with the idea of pinning each of them down to a fixed vantage point, or maybe three in rotation, following the example of Perec, but suspect it may be more trouble than it's worth. It would definitely be another, stricter way of playing the game though, perhaps with an older age-group.

As this project develops I realise that it hooks up naturally with learning about - and through - the senses (and in particular the relevant verbs), and am reminded of Federico García Lorca's practical advice that 'el poeta tiene que ser profesor en los cinco sentidos corporales' ('the poet must be a teacher of the five senses'). I particularly like work that branches out organically in this way, and in my experience, children do too. It means that within the parameters laid down there is room for instinctive differentiation, for individual exploration and personal response. Here, the emphasis for writing is on the dominant sense of sight, but by negotiation we agree that by way of a surprise twist at the end the final line might introduce 'Oí' or 'Olí' or 'Sentí' ('I heard' or 'I smelt' or 'I felt'). (I actively discouraged them from tasting anything.) 

I find a 5-senses song on the internet that in tacky cartoon form makes me cringe, but sounds disarmingly sweet sung tunefully by real children. And we learn 'Veo veo', the Spanish version of 'I spy', which will become a classroom staple for the remainder of the year. Familiarity with the alphabet is genuinely useful, but learning it beyond the infant years can be a sterile exercise, notwithstanding the proliferation of hip ABC raps on YouTube. The 'I spy' practice, reinforced by regular rounds of Hangman, does the trick very nicely.

Back in the classroom there are props and prompts to hand. Vocabulary cards, listing the nouns that stand for those everyday things they are most likely to have seen in or from the school playground, sorted by gender and possibly number. Grammar cards, reminding them of the various choices of definite and indefinite articles, as well as numbers and the indeterminate adjectives 'some' and 'many'. Their job is to select and match these items in line with their field notes, using paper or online dictionaries to supplement the basic information given and in particular, search for adjectives. There's plenty of scaffolding to get them going, but plenty to stretch and challenge them too.

Our creative enterprise unfolds slowly, in as leisurely a way as possible, over lessons, days, even weeks, ideally with some extended off-timetable time thrown in. Our aim is to produce something pleasurable to read and share. Once the writing has been drafted and corrected, if possible side-by-side with the author, it becomes a matter of thoughtful presentation. Depending on your priorities, this can be handwriting or typing practice, and you can decide whether to impose a house style, in the interests of publishing a class book, for example, or allow the greater freedom of purely personalised output.

Since this writing task has a strictly visual stimulus, it calls for an accompanying illustration. Observational drawing is the obvious way to go, striving to reproduce exactly what is seen - perhaps just one selected item - as faithfully and in as much detail as possible, adding colour with pencil, pastel or watercolour. But photography would be equally legitimate. 

There is a sense of real satisfaction to be derived from this disciplined collective endeavour. We have written something worth reading that is also a delight to contemplate. We have opened our eyes to our immediate environment and shown appreciation by taking the time to treat it with loving care and attention. We have produced work that is uniformly excellent while still uniquely differentiated and individual.

Amazing what marvels can be discovered by sticking to our own planet and keeping our feet on the ground. Plain old sticks and stones can be wonderful too.


Dr Heather Martin is a languages specialist and tweets @drheathermartin.