Creating a success story

Jusna Begum, aged 14, was not looking forward to working with a professional writer in English lessons at Oaklands School in Tower Hamlets.

"We thought a writer would use long words," she explains. "That's a bad thing, because it's complicated. You have to get a dictionary and find out what they mean."

But when children's novelist Catherine Johnson arrived at Oaklands for the first of her five weekly sessions with a multi-racial, middle-ability group of Year 9 pupils, they found she was local, of mixed-race, and full of ideas.

For one starter activity she got them to write down the yuckiest thing they could imagine. For another, they had to describe the kind of animal they were.

For longer pieces she produced objects: keys, stones, sticks, a wallet, a passport, or sets of picture postcards or dramatic story endings, and encouraged the children to create narratives and scripts around them.

"She got you in the mood for writing," recalls Jorna Begum, also aged 14. "When you thought of something you had to write it down. You just had to get into it and come up with ideas. I'd never felt that before, not even in primary school."

"She made us imagine things more," adds Bablu Miah. "My stories weren't interesting before. Catherine would give you an object and then say what place did it come from? Where was it? What could you do with it? I hadn't thought about using imagining like that before."

All this was exactly what Oaklands English teacher Simon Graves wanted to achieve when he took up a suggestion by the school's local arts development agency, East Side Arts, to create a residency for Catherine in the school, and an offer by nearby American investment bank Lehman Brothers to pay around pound;1,000 to fund it.

Catherine had visited Oaklands before (she lives just around the corner) for the launch of her second novel Hero, which is a historical tale of a pugilistic and maltreated mixed-race Victorian girl. Her other books are Stella, which is also an historical novel, and In Black and White, both published by Oxford University Press.

A literature development worker herself in the past, she knew about writing in schools. Even so, Simon Graves still felt it necessary, and possible, to steer what she offered to do. "We wanted to boost the writing of the middle and lower-ability pupils. What they were writing when they were preparing for their SATs was too short. It wasn't detailed enough and it wasn't showing off their language skills.

"I specified to Catherine that there had to be a definite outcome from their work with her, like a collection or an anthology, not just lots of bits and pieces."

Catherine had some doubts: "It's very prescribed, the way children write in schools. They are being told 'I want you to produce a story plan; I want you to write like this'. You wouldn't say that to a group of adults. I think it's exciting for them to see that you don't always have to have a piece of finished work; that you can say 'Try this, try this, try this."

Nevertheless, one afternoon a week she took up the challenge in the school library, working consecutively with two Year 9 classes and a group of Year 7 pupils. She tended to split the pupils into small groups and work intensively with one group at a time. It was important to have the class teacher in the room as well, to motivate and control the others.

The activities she did, says Simon, could have been done by any English teacher. It was who she was that had the powerful effect on the pupils. "The main advantage of having her was that she was a published writer. They felt it was important she'd written these books - there they were on the library shelves. She isn't just another teacher, she's an expert.

"It had an excellent effect on their writing: the description; the styles. They're not afraid to try different forms now; to use new words and different tenses. These groups didn't perceive themselves as successful in writing in the way our fast-track (high-ability) group does. Now there's a lot of experimentation in their writing - she gave them the confidence to do that."

Two girls from Catherine's writing classes were invited to read their vividly gory stories on the platform beside professional writers at this year's Spitalfields Literary Festival. Other pupils perceive the difference in their own work: "I used to write one page, now I write four or five," says 13-year-old Garrie Vilka. "I used to be level five in English, but I've got up to level six now. More ideas come into my mind."

"You have to be confident to write well," says Catherine. "When I was working with these children I could see their confidence developing - they were willing to try stuff. Of course, it can make a difference to their SATs scores, but I would say that if it just makes them realise that they can enjoy writing, then that's good enough."

Finding a writer for your School

The following organisations are useful sources of information: National Association for Literature Development: National Association of Writers in Education: http: Artscape, an Arts Council-funded directory with details of 1,200 writers and work samples

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