It began with reading Dear Bear by Joanna Harrison. The story concerns Katie, a six-year-old girl, who writes letters to an imaginary bear in the cupboard under the stairs. The bear replies, and the letters are all printed in the book. Unfortunately the bear writes in capital letters, but you can't have everything.
We used the book as a literature text for years 1 and 2; we read, discussed, predicted, inferred and deduced. Our planning included the idea that we should pretend a bear lived in our large and deep store cupboard in the classroom, and the children should write letters to it The cupboard has recesses you can't even see into with the door open. One day when the children were working, I went to the cupboard casually, gave a loud growl, and recoiled in shock. The children asked what had happened and some heard the growl. Someone suggested it might be a bear, and there was general discussion as to whether or not this could be true. We decided to write and find out. Our first letter, composed as a class, went: "Dear Bear, are you there?" This began an exchange of letters. The children pushed theirs under the cupboard door and the Bear left his just outside the door. The Bear was able to thank children for good work, and explain that if children forgot to sign their letters then he wouldn't know who they were from.
Each of the Bear's letters ended with a question to prompt the children to write about something specific: "Can you draw a picture of yourself and tell me how old you are?" "I could smell something nice in the class today - were you cooking?" We even had an attempted break-in and the Bear said: "They didn't stay long or I would have come out and roared at them and scared them off. "
We collected the letters in a file. All the children became involved in writing and it was particularly effective for those children who had been reluctant to put pen to paper. Our Bear generated excitement and enthusiasm: a real purpose for writing and the knowledge that writing communicates meaning.
We went on with this for more than half a term. Shortly after Mothers' Day we had Bears' Day so we made cards; then it was the Bear's birthday. Coming up to the Easter holidays it was time for the Bear to go on holiday.When we (and he) returned, there were postcards for the children from Malta, Spain and Scarborough, courtesy of colleagues and relatives.
The children were impatient to have the Bear back, and kept asking when he would return. Well I didn't know, did I? Eventually we had a letter: "Monday night, The Cupboard. Dear children, I'm back! I had a lovely holiday. I went to Malta and Spain and Scarborough. Did you get my postcards? I have to go away again soon because there is a class in Scarborough who want me to live in their cupboard. Will you come to tea with me on Friday to say goodbye? I'll be ready at 1.15pm, love from Bear XXX" When we opened the cupboard at the appointed hour, a huge teddy bear was sitting, as in the illustration in the book, with a tea party set out.Some of the children are still not convinced that he has really gone.
Cathy Byrne is deputy head and Year 12 class teacher at Shaw Park primary school, Hull