An open book on the writing life

24th September 2004 at 01:00
Geraldine Brennan finds out how visiting authors can boost writing and reading

Helen Gray's English department office at Graveney School in the London borough of Wandsworth is a powerhouse of poetry: magazines, books, posters, competition entry forms. Poems regularly escape to other departments: for much of her 25 years at Graveney, Ms Gray has had responsibility for promoting poetry throughout the school. "What a wonderful job," she says, "like being put in charge of picking flowers."

An addiction to entering poetry competitions is one side effect. At one point, she says, Graveney students were winning so many poetry awards "that it was becoming embarrassing". At a prizegiving at the Royal Festival Hall, they met Poet Laureate Andrew Motion, who has since visited the school's creative writing group and corresponded with students.

Inviting published writers to give workshops has always been a priority for Ms Gray. "Any effort spent organising it is repaid a hundredfold; it does not seem like effort at all because it's so exciting to see what students gain."

Highlights of recent years include Valerie Bloom's long-term residency, a week-long workshop with Gerard Benson at the Ty Newydd writing centre in Wales and workshops for Years 7 to 13. "He was able to get across that writing is very hard work and that as a professional he struggles with it, but that it is completely within the students' grasp to do it well."

Work with writers is also central to the key stage 3 Celebrating Reading programme set up by English teacher Sam Mackenzie and librarian Stefany Brown. Last term, as part of an annual project on the Carnegie Medal, authors Marcus Sedgwick and Mal Peet, together with two authors on the Carnegie shortlist, Linda Newbery and Elizabeth Laird, met Year 78 pupils plus guests from Burntwood, Elliott and Chestnut Grove schools. The event had a flavour of literary speed-dating as the authors met groups of students in turn to answer questions. They had already seen Marcus Sedgwick's story map for The Book of Dead Days and heard how Elizabeth Laird met the boy at the heart of The Garbage King on the streets of Addis Ababa.

"Some of the students read the whole shortlist, six books in six weeks, for this event," said Ms Mackenzie. "Knowing that they were going to meet the authors was such a motivation."

At Torpoint Community School in Cornwall, work with Tim Bowler on his novel River Boy helped smooth the passage to secondary school for some 150 Year 6 pupils from the school's primary partners - Carbeile, Antony, Fourlanesend, St Nicholas Downderry and Millbrook. They spent a day with the author at Torpoint last summer term, joining last year's Year 7 in workshops and question-and-answer sessions with former Carnegie winner Tim Bowler, and, says Torpoint head of English Harry Webb, "developing their understanding of the ways in which writers may seek to connect with their audiences".

The day gave pupils material to take to their initial Year 7 English lessons at Torpoint this term before working again with Tim Bowler.

Torpoint's arts enrichment day for Year 6s from its partner primaries is a regular feature of the summer term and has involved storytellers, theatre groups, puppeteers, musicians, dancers and visual artists. Last year, English teacher Becky Lear worked with the primaries to devise transition units that could be integrated into the day. Year 6s spent 12 hours in the second half of the summer term reading River Boy and began reading journals and cross-curricular extension work to continue at Torpoint.

Last year's Writing Together Bristol conference encouraged plans to put a visit from Tim Bowler at the centre of the project. The conference supplied Pounds 150 towards the pound;1,000 cost, "plus moral support and ideas", said Harry Webb, adding: "The worth of this project in providing continuity between key stages, and enabling students to engage with the creative process first-hand, has been enormous. I would recommend this approach to transition work to any other school."

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