Whopper workshops

9th February 2001 at 00:00
Over 10 years in teaching I have developed strategies for encouraging creative writing in the classroom, informing my teaching with my own experiences as a writer. With help from "the kids" I have just had published a key stage 3 reader, Hocus Pocus Hullabaloo - entertaining short fiction and KS3 exercises, developed in the classroom, resulting in stories tidied up for professional publication.

One of the best ways to get writing going is an oral story telling session, with urban myths and ghost stories providing ideal material for this kick-start. It is usually good fun telling outright, outlandish friend-of-a-friend whoppers and passing them off as true (www.urbanmyths.com or The Fortean Times magazine are good sources of short, bizarre tales). A few babysitting horrors and ghosts-in-taxis tales spun out before a class of teenagers will really set them going. A bank of story skeletons can be established. The less adventurous can resort to simply fleshing these out, and the more innovative can use a bank of structures to suit their tastes.

Current fads and trends are often a hit for inspiring classroom story material. Within weeks of the first Furby toy appearing we had a wonderful crop of Year 9 stories under the general heading "Second Generation - Attack Of The Killer Furbys". Tumour-inducing mobile phones are an ideal urban myth to tackle. According to Emma in 9M, they are all implanted with a tiny nuclear explosive device, and any day now the JapaneseRussians CIA will set them off, deleting half the world's population at a stroke.

Before asking any class to "write a story" have them consider why writers write fiction. A set of clear reasons can be drawn up and manipulated into a neat set of whiteboard headings - Recognition - Achievement - Satisfaction - Reward.

Recognition

All writers crave this. Set a target audience or market for the stories - publication in a school magazine, a display beyond the classroom, a competition.

When I was working with pupils at Nab Wood School in Bradford, a set of urban myths were developed orally by a special needs workshop group then read and broadcast on local radio. The pupils were hearing their work, their ideas, on radio, with tens of thousands of other listeners. They were important, ad were buzzing for weeks.

Achievement

A sense of structured process at the outset helps focus creative writing. A clear time allocation for idea formulation, planning, drafting and final editing not only mimics the "real life" business process, but gives the pupils a definite sense of direction. Pupils could be made aware that a good story need not be long - a page of well-crafted, well-edited writing is always preferable to chapter after chapter of meandering, babbling scrawl. If the eventual target is a piece of extended writing it is useful to provide chapter-by-chapter frameworks at the outset, combining different types of writing. Illustrations can be used to break up the text and keep the pupil busy while resting from writing.

At Caedmon School I use extended chapter-by-chapter frameworks to great success with Year 7 and Year 8 pupils, their self-checked, redrafted and finished copy handed in their own special book or folder as the final piece of assessed work for the year. The best framework is a flexible one which can be deviated from by the more creative pupils, but clung to comfortably by those who are intimidated by the idea of writing a whole book.

Satisfaction

Positive criticism and encouragement from the teacher for the individual and for the group are essential. Good writers are often sensitive to even the smallest criticisms, and an off-the-cuff put-down can crush a pupil's momentum and enthusiasm. Usually, pupils who feel that they have created a good story are happy to read it out before the class, or, if they are shy, to have it read by a friend or the teacher. This creates an instant target audience and purpose for the writing.

Reward

Reward can come on several levels, the most basic being the teacher's written comment and grade on the work, the more complex being a combination of elements under the headings above. Often the class knows who the good story writers are, and pupils are happy to listen to them. This not only gives the writer a sense of satisfaction, but instantly rewards them with the hard and meaningful currency - respect: "Yeah, you're cool. You're a good story writer."

Chris Firth teaches English at Caedmon School, Whitby. 'Hocus Pocus Hullabaloo' is published by Solomon Press


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