Don't try this at home

Carolyn O'Grady visits schools where using felt-tips on the furniture is a spur to creativity. Photography by Neil Turner

"I used to be a scary chair, but look at me now. I am beautiful, soft and small, just right for you to sit on."

This was written in a flowing hand by Ayesha, a pupil from Lambeth, all over a chair at the Royal Festival Hall in London. As the gentle words of invitation might suggest, it wasn't an act of vandalism. The chair was part of an exhibition of children's work held at the concert and exhibition hall.

Called "The Book Lounge", the exhibition was the culmination of projects during which pupils in seven Lambeth schools worked with writers and artists for up to five days to give their own particular take on reading and writing. The schools were all part of a designated arts cluster in the Lambeth Education Action Zone.

One thing was obvious: writing didn't have to be in exercise books. It could be anywhere - Jthere was writing on postcards, crockery and lamps as well as furniture.

Children's voices could also be heard throughout. Sit down in one armchair and immediately you were treated to recordings of children reciting their stories, coming through speakers embedded in the upholstery. On television screens planted round the room, you could see children reviewing books or acting out stories.

Reading is often seen as a quiet, still, even lonely pursuit. But not by writer Malaika Rose Stanley. She and film-maker Anna Lucas introduced a Year 4 class at St Andrew's CE school to three approaches - walking, talking and chalking - none of which was quiet or still all of the time.

Every child had a turn in each of the groups to find out which approach they were most comfortable with. "Walkers" were children who found it difficult to sit still, and they were encouraged to walk round the garden or the hall, text in hand, and then perhaps act out the story in pairs.

In the "talkers" group, children were invited to discuss what they had read with a partner. If you wanted to share information and ideas about books, this was the group for you.

And "chalkers"? These were children who, after reading a text, liked to respond through drawing or painting.

The children discussed which group, or groups, they felt most comfortable in and why. Walking was obviously not a strategy they could employ every day in class, so Malaika gave them a tip. If they felt the need to move, but couldn't in the classroom, they could make a small movement, like rubbing their fingers together.

St Andrew's pupils were also presented with a book box at the end of term. With some guidance on what to look for, they chose two books to read during the holidays. On their return, their reviews were filmed. Some children interviewed each other in pairs; some just spoke to the camera; others showed and discussed pictures they had drawn.

Curtains of dreams

In a separate project, children wrote about dreams - on curtains, cushions and a sofa. It began with children being asked to lie on the floor and visualise a scene: a door through which they could enter an imaginary world which they described in their writings.

Teacher Kirsty Larsen has since commissioned the children to write poems for her own curtains and was thinking of writing them on T-shirts. "Children were very excited about it. It is very easy to get bogged down by the national curriculum. This project brought back the excitement, it made books come alive," she says.

Writing on objects was also a major theme of work at Christ Church CE primary school. Jacqueline de Souza's Year 6 class worked with Adisa, a performance poet and storyteller, to create writing on armchairs and tables, lamps and crockery.

After encouraging them to imagine themselves in various situations represented in poems, including that of a fish on a dish waiting to be eaten, they put themselves in the place of a rather neglected armchair. Imagine the armchair in a room, suggested Adisa. Where was it? What did it look like? Then go back in time to when it was new, and even to when it was a plank of wood or a tree blowing in the wind.

Later, with the help of artists, the words which emerged were painted on cheap furniture. On a chair, for example, written in felt-tip pen: "Sit here, never fear and have a lovely day-dream;" and: "Fall asleep, really, really deep; you won't have nightmares." Both were written in the form of spirals.

On a lampshade were words associated with "lighter" - including lightweight, instant flame, gift for dad - all in the centre of the circle of a sun. Paints were used for the crockery and tables, which were glazed or varnished afterwards.

All the results can now be seen in the school: the crockery on display in a cabinet; the table and chair in a book corner and the lamps hung in various places. Could Jacqueline de Souza imagine doing it on her own? Yes, she could. "You could use junk or secondhand furniture, or cheap crockery."

At Effra primary, Year 6 children worked with writer Malorie Blackman to produce a large coffee-table book of writings.

"Let's take a word for a walk," began Malorie. If imagination was a colour, what would it be? If it was a musical instrumentI ? If it were an animalI ? And so on.

Answers came fast: if imagination were a texture, what would it be? - silky and soft like a baby's skin or a cat's fur; velvet; smooth; cold like water; rough.

A colour? - rainbow; dark red; light blue; shine gold; white.

The children were then given phrases or sentences with which they could begin their own stories, such as: "Above the summer cloudsI" and "Behind the cracked mirror...". Or a scenario: "You are run over in the street and emerge from hospital as a robot..." Or: "In the back garden you suddenly become something other than what you are: a bird for example. Describe what happened. How did it feel to change shape?"

Before they tackled poetry, Malorie Blackman asked the children to write a list of all the things that would make them shiver or laugh. "Now, if I was doing a poem about autumn, for example, I would say: 'make a list of all the things you think about when you think of autumn'," said teacher Catherine Dwyer.

The teachers felt that working with artists had a powerful effect on the children's attitude and ultimately on their work. "The children were so excited by it," said Kirsty Larsen. "The artists became part of the school."

"It has made them much more confident. They are showing much more freedom in expressing themselves," said Jacqueline de Souza.

For more information on working with artists and writers contact your local arts board and ask for a list of artists, companies and organisations that work in schools

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