It's all in the head

1st October 2004 at 01:00
Wanjiku Nyachae can help overcome fear of the blank page because it's her fear too

Seven-year-old Na'sean is making some big decisions. "Two years ago I wanted to be an archaeologist, and then a lawyer but now it's a storyteller," he asserts. Wanjiku Nyachae, a writer and storyteller who has been working with Year 2s at Greenholm primary school has clearly captured Na'sean's imagination and that of his classmates.

Growing up in east Kenya, Wanjiku absorbed the oral tradition of her grandmother and the passion for literature of her Scottish stepfather, who lent her his library card when she was 13. She discovered Agatha Christie and George Orwell's Animal Farm. "My stepfather didn't censor, he led," she says. Her mission is leading children to unleash their imagination by tapping into the everyday passions of their lives, including TV and cartoons.

Last term Wanjiku worked with three Birmingham primaries (Greenholm, Leigh junior and infants and St Vincent's) on nonsense poems, raps and poems for Father's Day. "One of the ways I work is to tell children a story and get them to deconstruct it with mind maps - creating settings and characters, little pictures. That's how I create my own work," says Wanjiku. "And I tell them it's important to finish a piece."

Her recent master's degree in creative writing at Warwick University is only part of a multi-faceted career: published writer, broadcaster, producer of dance and new media projects, trained economist and urban planner, and curator of contemporary East African art. In the mid-1990s, she supported United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees staff in a camp for Somali refugees in northern Kenya.

Wanjiku believes that every sense can be engaged in the imagination. "It can whip up smells and textures," she says, but it can also be held back by fear. "Children might be afraid because they can't spell, or they can't write in a straight line. I explain that English isn't my first language (she speaks Kikuyu, Swahili and Kissi). I tell them if I can do it, then so can they." This means, says Year 2 teacher Sarah Clark, that children have felt comfortable with expressing concerns about writing. "One boy even used the word 'frustration'. He's so bright, but he just can't get it out on paper," she says. Meanwhile, "Those with special needs have also been able to find their place. The great thing is we didn't need to plan for different levels."

Sarah admits that she felt "nervous" when she joined the teachers' writing workshops. "It helps you understand how children must feel." A writer in the classroom need not be seen as a threat, she says. Instead, teachers could see it as broadening how they approach certain subjects: "This really helped me in teaching poetry."

The school's literacy manager and assistant head, Jo Morris, is delighted at how the project has addressed writing, speaking and listening in the school's improvement plan. "I'd tell any teacher to grab the chance to work with an author to put writing and books in a real-life context."

Who? Greenholm Primary School, Birmingham, with writerstoryteller Wanjiku Nyachae

What? Five half-day oral and written storytelling sessions to improve writing, speaking and listening with PHSE links. Children wrote poems, raps and short stories. Teacher attended teachers' writing workshops.

How much? pound;475 to LEA (project underwritten by Arts Council England)

How? Part of the Orange Birmingham Book Festival's Write On! project (see panel, right)

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