Where did Shakespeare get his ideas? Shedding light on the Bard's sources is just one of the challenges for young writers at Whitehill Junior School in Hitchin. They have embarked on an ambitious project to produce a CD-Rom on Shakespeare's life and times for future generations of children. And the source of their inspiration is author Helen Orme, who is collaborating with the pupils via the internet. She is employing ICT not only to help the pupils develop their writing, but also to help them experience the thrills of working as a professional author.
The Shakespeare Project was conceived by Anna Beresford, Year 56 teacher and literacy co-ordinator at Whitehill. She says: "The project is for nine to 11-year-olds, and the aim is to raise enthusiasm for writing non-fiction. We do a lot to promote fiction, and we want to increase children's understanding of how to produce an exciting non-fiction text."
She enlisted the help of Helen Orme, a non-fiction specialist and former teacher who works with schools to run writing projects that make the most of ICT. Having given many workshops in schools, she and her husband, David, came up with the idea of acting as virtual authors-in-residence with the help of the internet. Rather than trying to wrap up everything during a one-day visit, they now continue to collaborate on a project with pupils via email and the web. Towards the end of the project, the pupils will be working to deadlines to ensure they produce work that is ready to showcase.
The Shakespearean period is familiar territory for pupils at Whitehill, where studies of Tudor England extend far beyond history lessons. Anna says: "The Tudors can be quite a dry topic, so we do a lot of cross-curricular activities to bring it to life. We have visited the Globe Theatre, and followed up by building a model of the Globe from bamboo canes. We looked at portraits as pieces of historical evidence and the children created their own Tudor-style portraits. A visiting actor staged a one-man performance of Macbeth, introducing pupils to dramatic techniques and helping us study some of Shakespeare's language during literacy hour.
We are also planning our own open-air production of Macbeth, with our after-school dance and drama groups taking on the role of travelling players, mingling with the audience. Because the children already have good background knowledge and understanding of the period, they can be more focused in their research for this project, rather than having to start from scratch."
Helen made her first visit to the school in early March. After an hour spent introducing Years 3 and 4 to non-fiction, she settled down to work with the upper school - 99 pupils from Whitehill's three Year 56 classes.
She talked them through the vital tasks in producing non-fiction, summarising the work under four headings: plan, research, organise, write.
"We teach a similar process under library skills," says Anna. "But we felt children needed extra support, and having a simple mantra helps them remember to go through all the stages."
The rest of the morning was spent discussing what goes into the making of a good piece of non-fiction, with Helen sharing some of the secrets behind her own books.
Anna says: "She showed them a book about sea creatures, which is aimed at eight-year-olds. She then closed it and said: I am now going to give you the uncensored version - the bits that I wasn't allowed to include. She shared some fascinating facts and that helped the children understand the need to select information to suit a particular audience."
Helen explained the aims of the Shakespeare project, and discussed how pupils could apply the plan-research-organise-write routine to produce an illustrated spread on the Globe Theatre. The children then split into small groups in their classrooms to make a start on a spread of their own. Some worked on computers, some on paper, and Helen offered advice. Anna says:
"By the end of the day most had managed to organise their ideas, and they were quite amazed by how much they already knew."
Helen then acted as editor, commissioning articles and spreads from the children via email. The pupils worked in the four groups they adopted for literacy hour, and their commissions tied in with the term's national literacy strategy objectives.
Anna says: "If Year 5 pupils had to write a balanced argument, Helen might ask for a piece exploring whether it was more fun to go to the theatre in Shakespeare's time than it is today. All the work was integrated into what we teach in literacy hour."
Helen published a fund of raw material at the Virtual Residency website (www.virtualwriter.co.uk) to save pupils time, but she says there were no other concessions. "I edited the work - and I mean really edited it - and it was emailed back to the writers, just as it would be in real life."
Helen then focused on the publishing, helping pupils think about how they could best present their material on CD-Rom as a resource for pupils of their own age. Whitehill is a beacon school, and the disc will be shared with partner schools. Some work will be published on the Virtual Residency website and there are also plans to produce a book.
"The project was far bigger than any of us originally anticipated. It has been very challenging, but also tremendously rewarding. The sheer quantity of work produced by the children far exceeded our expectations.
"It was out of the question to crush the children's enthusiasm, so we have had to tailor other aspects of the the project to meet the tough demands of timing and finances. We will continue the project beyond half term as a gifted and talented working group," Helen adds.
Anna Beresford found Helen Orme through the National Association of Writers in Education (NAWE), which provides an online directory of authors who work with schools.
Anna says: "Helen has just produced a CD-Rom on Macbeth, and Shakespeare is one of her specialities. A lot of this work is going to be quite stretching, so it was important to have someone who had worked with KS3 as well as KS2 children."
Helen and David Orme: www magic-nation.com
Whitehill Junior School funded the virtual residency with a pound;750 innovation grant from the Writing Together Challenge organised by Booktrust: www.booktrust.org.ukwritingtogether RESOURCES
Whitehill pupils will produce their material using Publisher, Microsoft's publishing software. Helen Orme says: "The school already has the software, so the children can concentrate on their writing skills rather than having to learn to use something new. With Publisher you can make links between spreads or topics, and create different pathways through information.
Future sessions will look at how we can make the students' material interactive. We can't make it all-singing and all-dancing, but we can enable users to pursue their interests at their own level and their own speed."