"pssst! wanna buy an alligator?"
The opening lines of my book Alligator are based on a news item about someone trying to sell an alligator at a car boot sale. The book is one of those short snappy stories published by Barrington Stoke to encourage reading in pupils. It's been a huge success, and, as teachers are actively seeking drama pieces for class, it was decided to adapt it into a play.
I teamed up with Julie Gormley, an experienced principal teacher of English, who wrote the first draft. Julie's view is that "while reading the play for enjoyment, pupils learn about stage directions, dramatic irony, sound effects, suspense, dialogue, structure, asides, etc. Teachers can teach in context, pointing out elements of scriptwriting and literary terminology in an entertaining way."
Not being a teacher, I hadn't a clue about learning outcomes as we began to work with Caroline Harper's class in St Ninian's High, Kirkintilloch, but it wasn't long before I realised that there was a learning experience taking place - and it was me that was learning.
In my author talks about creative writing, showing process enables the listeners to pursue it on their own. What took place in the sessions at St Ninian's raised this to another level. Enablement became empowerment.
Caroline had prepared the class by reading the book with them. We all talked together about the kind of person who might buy an alligator at a car boot sale and I described how I came up with the main character of Jono: hapless, naive, a nice, trusting lad.
At the beginning of the story, Crusher is trying to sell Jono, our main character, an alligator, saying he'll let him have it for only a fiver.
"A fiver!" Jono laughs. "You must be joking. For me to take that alligator off your hands, you would need to give me the fiver!"
"Done!" says Crusher. He slaps a fiver into Jono's hand, kicks the box containing the alligator over to him, jumps in his car and drives away.
One of the pupils, Shaun, said: "As I read the play, I could relate to Jono. Sometimes things just happen, you know. You get into trouble even when you don't mean to."
Julie and I noted that on first read-through the pupils instinctively changed the dialogue. One instance involved a particular preposition I had sweated over. Alone in my writing room at home, I had read the sentence aloud several times to ensure I had achieved just the right note. In the first read, the students dropped it altogether!
They jostled for certain parts. Surprisingly, a popular part was the arresting policeman who gets to say the line: "You're nicked, pal!"
We noticed the pupils' body language changing, they started to indicate what they thought should happen, making suggestions which appear in the final version. They took ownership of the piece and I suddenly realised that they had assumed ownership of the language. They inserted nuances, they placed the emphasis, and in some cases moved the position, of the words in the sentence. Ciaran said he'd enjoyed doing it because "you got to show what you felt about it".
Caroline commented that the "pupils absorbed the cadence and idiom of how people actually speak. It got them really thinking about how the dialogue of the play is not the same as the written language in the book."
I can honestly say I have never had so much fun while working so hard with a class. The conversations were lively and interesting. They argued about how a character might act and react. They amplified the sound effects of the alligator's thrashing tail, snapping teeth, the screams of .
But I won't spoil the story for you.
Alligator and Alligator - The Play are published by Barrington Stoke. The latter forms part of the gr8read series specially adapted into plays for teens with a reading age of seven. Teaching support material available.