All-round readers

9th February 2001 at 00:00
Music, art, dance and drama are all brought into play in a new literacy resource. Victoria Neumark explains

What adjectives can you use to describe the rainbow serpent?" Sandra Horley smiles round at her class of Year 3 pupils at Valley primary school, Bromley, Kent. "You might like to use some of them on the board, or find your own." Hands wave eagerly in the air. Billy ponders a while and then pronounces that the serpent is "kind". Why? A pause, then "because..."

"We could use 'because', couldn't we Billy, to answer 'why?' and to join two parts of a sentence?" interpolates Mrs Horley as she writes the words on a board for this shared writing group.

"...because she wants to save the world!" finishes Billy triumphantly.

This is the literacy hour with a difference. Using lesson plans, texts and activities based on a rewritten Australian Aboriginal story about the creation of the world, Year 3 is piloting a vibrant new scheme to bring back creativity into the primary classroom.

Literacy Goes MADD (the initials stand for music, art, dance and drama) is the brainchild of ex-primary head Jay Mathews, currently adviser in dance and drama to the London borough of Bromley, and Bromley art adviser Pamela Smyth. Believing that over the past few years the constraints of the national curriculum, literacy hour and numeracy hour have imperilled the "broad and balanced curriculum" that is still required by statute and still wanted by teachers and parents, they aimed to help teachers infuse their lessons with creativity without overburdening them with yet more to do.

Using key texts as a basis for a complete scheme of work, Literacy Goes MADD meets QCA requirements in literacy, music, art, dance and drama. Each termly module offers lesson plans, learning outcomes, vocabulary, teacher assessment and review, extension exercises and resources so that the text can focus and springboard pupils into creative work. There is a CD, the chance to buy-in teacher-training, and visits by Jay Mathews' theatre group, Children in Tune. By summer this year, it will cover the entire primary age range, including detailed proposals for post-SATs projects. Yet each module is self-contained. Susan Head, headteacher of Valley says:

"It's a relief for budget managers that you do not have to decide the entire cost at one time." Most importantly, she adds, the packs are beautifully produced, to make the right impact on a generation of children reared on high-quality publishing and electronic media.

At Valley, Brian Burns is making picture frames with his Year 3 class. Starting from the same collection of Dreamtime stories as Mrs Horley's class, they are developing art techniques, using Aboriginal patterns to repeat and to learn that borders should not detract from the impact of a main image. Mr Burns finds the project's clear focus on activity and assessment helps keep the whole class confident. "They all know where they're going," he says. Andrea Moss, who co-ordinates the project at Valley, endorses his comment: "A whole range of activities can be restricted because of the literacy and numeracy hours. If you have a bit of art here, half an hour of music there, the children don't really link anything up. With this, we can join everyhing to the literacy hour."

Anita Cooper, class teacher in Year 1, which is also trialling Literacy Goes MADD, sees it as "taking the best of the old topic-based approach and of the new more formal literacy hour". In words which will ring bells for many dedicated primary teachers, she says: "In some schools they follow the literacy hour so strictly it can be frustrating. The teaching and learning can get stale. This is a way of bringing it all back to life." In Year 1, the Cat-Flap Cats, an original story created for the scheme, is not just a class literacy text but the key to discussions about pets, biology, dance and drama. Small children in bare feet hop, curl, purr and growl about the drama studio while Mrs Cooper urges them to "listen, think, what does the Tiger Cat do? Now find a space and be the tiger cat." In the sports hall, the pupils use Cat-Flap Cats to stretch, jump and run in a PE and dance class. Helen Clements uses the Literacy Goes MADD CD to organise activity and establish rhythms. She says: "Young children don't see the subjects separately, so it's easier to teach on from the Cat-Flap book."

Bonding creative subjects with English feels right, says Susan Head. "Once pupils are in the story, they can write about it better, so the drama is very important." Valley, a Beacon school whose Office for Standards in Education inspection two years ago found "no issues" to work on and excellent SATs can afford to be what Michael Barber, head of the Government's standards and effectiveness unit, calls "positively deviant", and experiment with its curriculum. But, says Jay Mathews, her project is also doing well in a special school and in less successful schools. Andrea Moss says: "Actually, it's even better for the less able. It can be far easier for them to access literacy through art, music, dance and drama. The creativity can make the literacy more practicable."

Meanwhile, back on the corner table in Mrs Horley's class, Ilana is writing sentence after flowing sentence: "The rainbow serpent is colourful using dots. She is extremely speckled." Next to her Aidan is gouging at words with his blunt pencil: "Some people think her peculiar because of her astounding ways." While some children spend most of 30 minutes listing yellow, spotty and patterned, with "slimy" especially relished by Danielle, Jessica writes: "The rainbow serpent is a dazzling sight. She can be selfish sometimes."

Ilana has something else to say. "My mum touched a snake once and it wasn't slimy, not at all. So some snakes aren't." She sits down, earnest and flushed. Mrs Horley smiles. "Did you hear that, Danielle?" Danielle pouts. "She said they needn't be slimy," she concedes, in an unconvinced kind of way. "Well then," says Mrs Horley, "we've learned something else today, haven't we?"

Afterwards, Sandra Horley views the children's work with satisfaction:

"What's so special is that this gets you going on all aspects of creativity. It's like a trigger, but it's very detailed. It's got all that differentiation and assessment but it's alive."

Literacy Goes MADD, 49 Lime tree Walk, West Wickham, Kent BR4 9EB. Tel: 020 8462 1320. Fax: 020 8462 3016E-mail: literacygoesmadd@aol.comFirst module pound;95, subsequent ones pound;170

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