The winning edge

1st October 2004 at 01:00
An early Writing Together project let a poet loose with a Year 8 group in an art gallery

he pounding, steaming horses thundering towards you seem to burst out of the crowded amphitheatre into the art gallery itself. As the writer, your job is to press the play button to set the story rolling along lines drawn by your imagination.

This is the task presented to gifted and talented Year 8 students at Walkden High School, Salford, as they stand before works of art in Manchester City Art Gallery, including Alexander Von Wagner's The Chariot Race (1882).

They are working with poet Mandy Coe in one of the first four Writing Together residencies, set up last autumn. In this Whole Day Writing residency, which ran for three days, three groups of 15 students took turns to spend a day in the gallery, looking at paintings with the theme of fiction and narrative in mind.

"A gallery is a perfect place for freeing the imagination and for allowing children to connect all their senses in their writing, to look hard, to create language about shape and colour," says Mandy. "When they press the play button, the narrative of the painting becomes theirs, so they begin to look with an intensity they would never have done before."

As well as The Chariot Race, a melodramatic Victorian epic, pupils in groups of four or five studied Martyn Wright's Firemen on a Roof (1941) and Piccadilly Gardens by L.S. Lowry (1954). They made word lists from the paintings, writing from various perspectives - as the horse, charioteer, or spectator in Von Wagner's painting - and editing each other's work. As one student, Hayley, said: "I learnt to look at paintings and bring them to life."

Robert Chisnell, Walkden's English gifted and talented co-ordinator, said he had benefited professionally from seeing how visual art could be used as a writing stimulus. "It was so refreshing connecting the different arts.

The project gave me ideas for using paintings in the future."

* See www.booktrust.org.ukwritingtogether for full details and evaluation of the Walkden High School project, which was funded by a pound;1,000 Writing Together bursary.

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