Success story

9th June 2006 at 01:00
Heather Neill reveals how a teacher inspires award-winning work from students entering The TES Write Away competition

Avid fans of The TES Write Away competition will probably recognise Jonathan Brough's name. For five consecutive years he has appeared as the teacher of at least one - and sometimes two or three - of the 20 winners.

When he moved school two years ago his winning streak was uninterrupted. So what is his secret?

These days he is the head of The City of London School for Girls preparatory department, but he is still a teacher to the marrow. A teacher and - here's the first clue - a keen reader. A visit to his school will certainly include a glance at the library from which the Year 3 to 6 girls in his charge always have a couple of books on the go. He also talks enthusiastically about reading sessions during which pupils sit in groups, on the floor if they wish, sharing books.

Jonathan is an English specialist and will teach every one of the 98 students once a week. "Reading is fundamental to writing, but also to success generally," he says. This year, two pupils from his school are again in the list of Write Away finalists. Chloe Hequet, who is in Year 6, is taught by Jonathan, and Alyssa Dayan, a Year 5 pupil, is taught by Verity Tolhurst. The teachers kindly agreed to team-teach an extra 80-minute Year 6 lesson on autobiography for our benefit.

First, copies of an extract were handed out and a student was invited to read it aloud. The piece was from Roald Dahl's Boy. Some recognised it - about Dahl and friends being punished for an incident in a sweet shop involving a mouse in a gobstopper jar - but it was new to others. At the end of the first page, Jonathan stopped proceedings: "Before you turn over, predict what happens next. It's the writer's job to make you want to know."

By the time the extract was finished and Mrs Pratchett, the sweetshop owner, had enjoyed her revenge, there had been quite a bit of discussion about how Dahl conveys the immediacy of the moment and how he makes Mrs Pratchett amusing. Jonathan reminded the class that they should always show not tell; they had found Mrs Pratchett both hilarious and horrible, without Dahl applying any such labels. The author uses her dialogue and descriptions of her behaviour to gain the required effect and also introduces a surprise when the reader discovers at the same time as the boys that she is present at the caning.

With Verity's help, the class discussed the building of tension and the importance of introducing the reactions of the senses. She reminded them of this with an exaggerated sniff - "Smell", they chorused - and she wrote key words on a white board: sight, sound, smell, thoughts, feelings.

Jonathan gave out sheets entitled Thinking in Clouds: nine pink "clouds"

contain headlines such as Funniest time, Scariest time, Favourite place, Biggest row. The students had five minutes to note suggestions. They shared a few then put them aside for later.

Next, a PowerPoint presentation of Michelle Paver's piece (published in TES Teacher, September 30, 2005), "The Day I Met the Bear", appeared on screen.

The class suggested ways in which the writer builds tension using sentences of different lengths, such as the short (and technically ungrammatical) "Towards me.", as the bear approaches. Rules can be broken in a good cause.

They discussed Paver's detailing of physical reactions to convey her mounting fear, then noted that she deliberately slows the pace to allow for reflection. They noted the adverbs "purposefully" and "instantly"

("much more interesting than 'suddenly'", observed Verity).

Jonathan then read entries by two previous Write Away winners. He chose a piece by Anna Bucks, a 2002 winner, about her holiday from hell. This is a note-form diary. "There's no subject or verb here. Why doesn't it matter?"

Several responded that the style was informal. "I have never laughed so much in my life", writes Anna. "Does she mean it?" Sarcasm was identified, but also that a little of it goes a long way.

Henrietta Argent's "Grandma Pam" was a 2004 winner. She celebrated her much-loved grandmother's passion for mints and ended neatly with the witty hope that her memories would remain "in mint condition". Endings are certainly important, but it was time for the class to return to their "clouds" and, with impressive speed, several produced excellent beginnings.

Endings will be reached another day.

* This year's winners, pages 8-11

Lesson ideas

Encourage students to:

* begin strongly;

* choose interesting vocabulary;

* vary sentence length;

* include the responses of the senses;

* avoid repetition (except for effect).

* show, don't tell;

* end memorably;

* share reading and writing.

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