News from the front;Literacy

22nd October 1999 at 01:00
Letters telling the story of sweethearts separated by World War I can capture the imagination of a new generation. Alan Wilkinson reports.

My first worry was the bloodshed. The letters contained graphic descriptions of hand-to-hand fighting, with a liberal scattering of dead and dismembered bodies. The last thing I wanted was a bunch of 10-year-olds running for the door clutching tissues to their mouths. But the local authority adviser was unperturbed. "The bloodier the better," she said. "They'll love it. Especially the boys."

But what about the romance? All that nauseating lovey-dovey stuff. Sweetheart, Ducksey-Wucksey and so on? "Stick it in. It'll do them good to realise people fell in love in the old days too."

I'd gone into the Year 6 class at Parkside Junior, Goole, at the invitation of the East Riding of Yorkshire's literacy project co-ordinator Adrian Chrismas. Like many educationalists, he is concerned about the disparity between the attainments of girls and boys in reading and writing. He is also worried that most boys see writing as a bit of a "girlie thing".

Sending in me - a writer of non-fiction and a historian - was a strategy aimed at showing that writing skills were relevant to subjects other than English, that writing could be about practical matters, and that some writers were men.

Enter Macho Man, lugging five reams of scrap paper, a stack of hand-outs, a paperback book, and a rusty tin helmet. If that didn't get their attention, nothing would.

The topic was the Great War, but rather than trying to make sense of the appalling statistics - nine million soldiers killed, five million civilians - we were to concentrate on the experiences of one man in the trenches and one woman on the home front.

We started by reading a typical letter written by Lieutenant Cecil Slack, MC, to his friend and tennis-partner Dora Willatt, from the battle zone. The class was gripped. Accounts of hand-to-hand fighting, decomposing bodies, of men killed by their own artillery, were greeted with an awe-struck silence.

There was no doubt they were listening - and following. When the battle-weary lieutenant turned his attention from the carnage and cheerily asked his beloved, "Have you got a recipe for rissoles?" there was a ripple of relieved laughter - especially after we'd established what a rissole was.

A letter from Dora, expressing her shock after Cecil asked to marry her - she thought they were just good friends - fascinated the girls, but interested the boys too: "Did he marry her in the end?" "Did he get any other girlfriends?" "Why didn't she know he loved her?" Before we got down to work, we got a few queries out of the way. What's a Zeppelin? An early German air-ship used to conduct bombing raids on Britain. And a VAD? The Voluntary Aid Detachment was a volunteer nursing force for women. And then, how come Cecil was able to read Dora's letters if they were always "ripping"? The class enjoyed the quaint language, and incorporated it into their work wherever it would fit, along with such up-to-date jargon as "mint", cool", and "prime".

For the first exercise each member of the class adopted a role as Cecil or Dora, and compiled, on a question tree, a list of queries for his or her sweetheart. They then composed, with the help of a letter frame, replies to the letters they had received, raising the points they wanted clarifying. Some pupils were at ease; others seemed non-plussed.

By and large the girls expressed horror at what was happening at the front, and wondered how we their "sweethearts" were coping, whereas the boys tended to find Cecil's letters exciting. In some instances they wanted to invent their own battle-scenes. But by asking them to read the letters once more and imagine themselves in the trenches - or at home sheltering from Zeppelins - we were able to prompt them to write some interesting replies:

"Dear Dora, I cannot imagine how you survived that awful bombardment. A great shiver went through me when I read your letter."

"Dear Dora, Would you please send me some decent toilet paper. I am fed up with using old magazines."

Exercise two involved my box of scrap paper. Passing that round the class from hand to hand (with much grunting and groaning) was one of the day's highlights. The contents represented a rough equivalent of the hundreds of letters which I had edited into book form.

Question: "How did I get from that pile to this book?" (Waves 300-page paperback.) Answer: "You wrote a lot smaller!" And so we moved on to editing: deciding what was important in a letter or document, and underlining it; or crossing out the unimportant parts. The object: to reduce a one-page letter to half a page.

Some needed a bit of a nudge; others were overcome with zeal, and swiftly reduced a page of typescript to about three lines. One way or another, they'd got the hang of it.

The third exercise, based on readings of a second pair of letters, involved constructing a dialogue. The class had to imagine Dora and Cecil meeting on Waterloo Station after the war had ended. Each was given an A4 sheet on which were printed photographs of the couple and a series of empty speech bubbles.

The boys finally found a use here for all the romantic tosh they'd had to wade through: Dora: Hello, sweetheart, how ripping to see you again. Would you like to go for a burger?

Cecil: No, there's no time for that. Come here and let's have a quick snog!

It may seem frivolous, but it bore out the fact that the pupils could now see these historical figures as real people.

The pupils had had a diverting half-day, tackling a subject that would not have come up on the general curriculum - but one of which most had some awareness through general knowledge and individual family histories. They had had a chance to apply a number of literacy skills - reading and comprehension, analysis, creating dialogue - to non-fiction source material. And the editing exercise was new ground.

What's more, they had met a real live historian who, as a parting shot at those who say educational standards are on the skids, was able to hand out copies of a letter written to Lt. Slack by his little brother Harold (aged 10). This was a well-brought up boy from a professional family living in considerable comfort. Twenty-six lines; 14 spelling errors, and several ink-blots. They enjoyed that.

Note Cecil Slack returned from the war after three years in the trenches and six months in a German prisoner-of-war camp. He married Dora Willatt in 1919. Their children gave permission for their parents' letters to be published in 1998, and fully support their use for educational purposes.

'Thank God I'm Not a Boy' The Letters of Dora Willatt, Daughter, Sweetheart and Nurse, edited by Alan Wilkinson, is published by Lampada Press and the University of Hull Press, pound;10.99. TES Primary has free copies of the book for the first 50 readers who send a postcard to Book Offer, TES Primary, Admiral House, 66-68 East Smithfield, London, E1W 1BX.

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