Rising stars of the media
However much teachers sympathise with the aims of the National Literacy Strategy, many soon find that the recommended daily diet of word, sentence and text-level tutoring is frustrating their creativity and that of the children.
Two years ago, as much from desperation as inspiration, I joined forces with two journalist parents, Pam Beddard and Tony Coll. We had a notion to repackage some of the lessons taught in the classroom and offer them to children in a more stimulating "real-life" context. Hillcrest Primary's after-school writing and media club was born in autumn 2002.
We weren't too certain which direction the club would take to begin with.
The aim was to produce a fairly traditional school rag, using the limited time, money and paper available. We hoped that strategically placed copies of this publication in classrooms might induce pupils to produce their own poems, jokes, recipes and competitions. We would accept Harry Potter reviews or encourage reporters to interview non-teaching staff - anything to encourage them to put pen to paper.
A year, later the "rag" has emerged as the professionally produced glossy Magazine Xtreme. The writing club has attracted high levels of interest from the children, stimulated by input from Bristol's art and media community. Locally, it is seen as showing the school's commitment to the excellence and enjoyment primary strategy. More than 25 pupils from Years 4 to 6 have regularly attended the club since its first year, contributing ideas and stories.
Pam Beddard and Tony Coll have helped teach the basic skills necessary for journalistic writing. The children looked at news, features, reviews and recount writing: linked to this came a wealth of sympathetic advice from miniature agony aunts in the problem page, plus word puzzles, jokes and recipes. Feature articles included observations on the latest fashions in the UK and abroad. As Year 5 pupil Michael said of French style, "even their dogs dress fashionably".
Sports, books and film reviews peppered the pages along with an in-depth interview with the caretaker (a former pupil) about his own days in Hillcrest's classrooms. Magazine Xtreme became the children's mouthpiece for issues and interests, as well as inspiring copy for local journalists.
Holly and Lily from Year 5 set their peers' troubled minds to rest with advice - "give friends space to cool down" or "treat an annoying younger brother to some sweets" rather than complaining about him.
The spring term last year saw the advent of Xtreme FM. Its inaugural airing in early July included an interview that was featured on BBC Radio Bristol's Drive Time show. Through the expertise of club leader Tony Coll, and with some help from BBC Radio 4, lessons in radio journalism and advertisements, jingles, slogans and disc-jockeying were offered to the children. The finished product was put together in a professional editing suite and finally played through large speakers to an audience of hundreds of parents as they strolled among the stalls at the school's summer fete.
One Year 4 pupil said that the best part was seeing parents and teachers listening to and talking about the radio show that he and his friends had produced, especially their spoof adverts and comic jingles.
In the summer term, the club's attentions moved towards film-making - our most adventurous effort, resulting in the production of two short films.
The children rose to the challenge of creating realistic characters with a convincing plot and script for a school-based murder mystery. I found these sessions the most interesting of all, as they threw up highly revealing debates about hatred and jealousy, what causes them and why they have led to murder.
In September, most club members returned for more. Word had spread across KS2, and there is now a reserve list as long as my arm. This year, it is less labour-intensive for me as more seasoned members begin to forge their own agendas, and bring their own ideas and projects.
There is currently more interest in creative writing (novels and scripts).
One boy sat blankly staring into space for most of a session, then just before it ended he spurted out a synopsis for a story about a boy who stole night-time, locked it away and began to control time and people.
Undoubtedly, a key factor in Magazine Xtreme's success was the willingness of national and local media organisations to get involved. This not only generated publicity for the project and greatly encouraged the pupils; it also introduced us to the unexpectedly large numbers of local freelance script-writers, photographers, actors and authors upon whom we could call for help.
But the real talent comes from the children themselves. They have worked at home, worked with people they might never otherwise have met and created work to standards of which teachers dream. For many, this has been the first time that their school-based learning has had real meaning and cohesion. The National Literacy Strategy guidelines suggest teachers spend eight to 10 hours teaching one area, followed by five to eight hours teaching another. Consequently, children are being taught literacy skills in series, which they see in isolation.
The media and writing club has helped remedy this by allowing them to experiment with mixing and using skills from different genres in the same piece of work: persuasive writing could be presented as an explanatory piece; report writing could be based on a school sporting event where the journalist could photograph and interview players.
Work done in the class on knowledge and understanding of different audiences was tested by being read by an authentic audience of more than 200 children, parents, teachers and a host of other interested parties.
Whatever the current year brings for the club, I have no doubt that the children will rise to meet the challenge and add their own special mark to everything they produce. And who knows, maybe from these humble beginnings in south Bristol a future Kate Adie, Trevor McDonald or JK Rowling will emerge?
Stuart Boydell teaches at Hillcrest Primary School, Bristol