Writing Together's new Schools Challenge will encourage cross-curricular projects. Victoria Neumark joins boys exploring brave new worlds in science BYLINE:ow there's a requirement for literacy across the curriculum," says Judith Fouldes. "As literacy co-ordinator as well as head of English, I could find that a burden. Other departments are not that focused on the literacy aspects: they are busy teaching their own subjects. So this day with the visiting writer is an attempt to kick-start a feeling for literacy across other subject areas."
It is nearly the end of term, but Judith's intermediate Year 7 English set at Ernest Bevin College are beaming with interest as Mario Petrucci, poet, critic and physicist (with a Cambridge PhD), leads them in activities linking science and scientific discussion with creative writing. The morning is spent looking at science and maths topics from a new angle, trying to use words to see underlying concepts afresh and communicate them outside scientific discourse.
The group's form tutor, Anne Droni, is also the school's head of maths, and she had helped with activities derived from the Fibonacci sequence, which can be used to trace patterns in nature. It is a short step to discussing chaos theory and whether language itself is also random. Writing words on pieces of paper and shuffling them to make cut-up sentences provokes laughter and interesting ideas: "God is a tree", "Nelson Mandela is an arrowhead."
For the more physical learners, acting out the solar system, with the boy holding Pluto sent briefly out into the street, brings the lesson back to talk of hard ratios, and size and distance. "They get restless," says Judith, "so you need to make sure that all the little steps you take during the day add up to a finished article." Mario adds: "The danger is gimmickry, where it is just games."
It is a blindfold game next, identifying an object (a hot-water bottle, a ribbon, a puppet's shoe) and considering what kind of planet might have produced it. The boys think aloud while their partners write: "It is plaster, it is rough, heavy, cold." Judith believes the first step in moving literacy across the curriculum is to get pupils thinking thematically.
After lunch, boys work avidly on their own projects in the library and ICT rooms: shopping lists from aliens or descriptions of earthly pursuits from an alien's perspective. They are keen to design their work with suitable typefaces and backgrounds, and to defend "creative spelling" as alien phonetics: "If I'm an alien I don't know how to spell," says Protim, listing a glossary. Sharp phrases, such as "sky full of blood", keen imaginations that suggest how strange eating might be to beings that survive by absorbing moon rays and how peculiar birthday candles might seem, fill the pages as the boys type away. "How do we find new and interesting words?" asks Judith, handing round thesauruses.
Although many touches, such as their use of format, dates, PS and sign-offs, derive from work on letter-writing, others reveal attempts to describe anew: "A round thing with a green layer and a yellow layer, and also a brown layer" by Yoga (hamburger); "They started to turn and twist in a peculiar way" by Marlow (playing football); "It has colours (whatever they might be!!!)" by Protim; "Kicking this planet-shape thing" by Yoga (football). These efforts clearly show boys trying to revisualise what they are talking about, and touches of wit, such as Arjun adding "by the way, these humans call me funny because of my face", indicate how deeply involved they have become.
At 3.30pm there are groans of "But I haven't finished!" and "I had more!"
As Judith says, "They say boys are less articulate, but when they do take on something their enthusiasm is infectious." Although Ernest Bevin is a specialist sports college, its 1,000 boys aged 11 to 19 include an A-level English set (girls attend the sixth form) and a vigorous performing arts department which recently staged Of Mice and Men.
So will visiting writers become a regular feature? "I certainly hope so," says Judith. "I need to think about what we did today and where it needs to lead. But it's been a really good way to get them writing."
Who? Ernest Bevin College, London borough of Wandsworth, with poet and physicist Mario Petrucci
What? Day residency focusing on literacy across the curriculum, exploring scientific ideas through discussion and literary games in groups, individual creative writing and ICT
How? Organised by head of English Judith Fouldes, who attended a Writing Together conference last year. She found Mario Petrucci through the National Association of Writers in Education
How much? pound;450, partly funded by a Writing Together bursary. Contacts: www.nawe.co.uk; http:mariopetrucci.port5.com