The art of telling tales

Write Away, The TES literary competition, is inspiring pupils to tell stories from their own lives. Mari Girling explains why she'll be getting her students to enter

I'm really looking forward to starting the January term with my Year 8 and 9 classes. Both groups will be using TES Write Away materials. The appeal of Write Away is the chance it gives us to tell stories, and the excellent stimulus material provided by The TES and National Association for the Teaching of English. Storytelling - especially our own stories - is irresistible (listen to Home Truths on a Saturday morning!). If young people are told that they are going to be writing autobiography, quite a number say nothing interesting has happened to them. But get them telling stories and they're off.

I usually begin by telling them a story of my own. This way they get the pleasure of thinking I've gone off topic (and will probably forget to set homework) and hearing a story too. Provided I pitch the story right for the group, it will trigger their own anecdotes. I have a "time I got found out" story about being carried past my stop on the bus; it's a favourite of mine because the subject matter is very simple and accessible, yet it contains two climaxes and a gentle twist. As soon as I've finished, their hands are in the air. It's brought out some wonderful tales of purloined makeup, redecorated kitchens and broken arms. And I do remember to set homework - come up with three ideas for a "getting found out" story. They may not all manage three ideas, but often their first idea is the best.

They try the ideas out aloud on each other, and then we move on and read some of the Write Away stories.

There are some fantastic new stories this year (downloadable from the TES website). I am intrigued by Meg Rosoff's quirky tale, "The Boy who was Always a Spy". We'll have a discussion about technique - how many characters, has she changed the names, does she really remember all that dialogue or is it OK to recreate it; did all that really happen exactly as she describes? How does she build up atmosphere? What sort of narrator is she? And that's just one story - there are several other new ones, including Michelle Paver's "The Day I met the Bear" which convincingly captures a moment of fear.

There are lots of other stories in the Write Away archive, all perfect lesson-shaped sizes. Not all of them are by established writers. "My Honey and Beeswax Grandfather" is by a previous competition winner (you should still be able to read all last year's winners online). We spend quite a bit of time on opening lines, trying variations and reading them out to the class (rejected openings often find their way into the story later on).

Only constructive criticism is allowed, and if the students think something is "good" they have to say why. Once we've written the stories (I get to write one too), we read bits of them to the whole class and discuss them together. Then we submit them anonymously to each other.

It is an entrancingly quiet couple of lessons - pens in hands, reading and scribbling comments and suggestions, swapping stories until everyone has read them all. It's not until the last lesson that I tell them that I'm entering the pieces for a competition and that they must give me a fair copy with a word limit. This causes a bit of a buzz, but although the competition provides them (and me) with a sharp final focus and external audience (they all get entered, not just the strongest); the real benefit they gain is a sense of finding their own voice to express their own experiences.

* Write Away is aimed at pupils in key stages 2 and 3. The deadline for entering this year's competition is January 31. The material is downloadable in booklet form from The TES website. Entries must be 300-600 words, word processed, in the first person, and students must have been aged between 7 and 14 on August 31, 2005.

Mari Girling is head of English at Oxford High School

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