Your children could have a bigger audience than JK Rowling." That was the powerful message from author Antony Lishak, showcasing his website at the BETT show last month. And he showed teachers how the power of the Web can work magic in motivating youngsters to write.
Lishak is the author of more than 20 children's books, including classics such as Henry's Boots, a well-loved footballing tale. A former primary teacher in north London, he has toured 600 schools giving inspirational workshops on creative writing. "If you can tell a story, you can write a story," is his mantra. His website, www.creativewriting4kids.com, lets youngsters share their stories with the world.
Lishak first discovered the power of ICT in the late Eighties. Still a full-time teacher, he was writing in the evenings, hammering out stories on an early Amstrad machine and sending them off to publishers. None had yet been accepted, although technology was already proving a bonus: "Not everyone had a word processor, but if you did, publishers could actually read your work. Even if the story wasn't for them, they would get in touch and make constructive suggestions."
It was while he was explaining to his class how he went about creating a story that Lishak realised the Amstrad was doing more than simply making his work look neat. "I brought in my notebooks of scribbled ideas, and was showing how I transferred the ideas to the computer. I found myself explaining how this was more than just an exercise in copying words from paper to screen - I was re-thinking and redrafting as I typed. The word processor brings a degree of order and structure to the simplest of ideas, and you can use it as a tool to move the story on. That was the first time it struck home that I could use technology to turn children on to writing."
In 1988, when he received the letter accepting his first book, Coming Round, for publication, he shared his euphoria with his pupils. "Only when I got the letter did it dawn on me how many people might read my efforts,"Jhe explains. "I still say to children, 'You can work away for hours, inventing a world of your own. If you are a successful author, that world lives in the minds of many.'" Six years ago, when he left full-time teaching to devote more time to writing, Lishak determined to continue inspiring children through his workshops in schools. Every term he visits around 50 primaries, where he is greeted with enormous enthusiasm. "Authors are held in tremendous esteem by children," he says. "They treat me like a God."
Creativewriting4kids.com (also known as CW4K) picks up on this enthusiasm, encouraging children to emulate the authors they so admire. Lishak, an avid Arsenal supporter, became an early fan of the Internet when he discovered just how much information about the club could be gleaned from it. Realising that the Web could give young writers an enormous worldwide audience - and that same satisfaction he had felt with his first acceptance letter - he set about planning the website, which was launched last September.
Lishak was determined to keep it simple, making it easy for children to publish their work, and he spent ages finding Web designers who shared his vision. "I didn't want a singing, dancing, multi-million pound interactive experience," he says. "Today, all it takes is three clicks - a story is up in 30 seconds. That's very motivating and, goodness knows, teachers are looking for ways to motivate children to write."
He believes the literacy strategy does little to help achieve that aim. "Children have a great desire to write stories, but the dense, content-led literacy strategy discourages it - as a result, the provision for creative writing in schools is terrible. Being so prescriptive is killing creativity."
Schools pay pound;50 a year to subscribe to CW4K, and can publish any number of stories, with illustrations. It incorporates an online word processor, although Lishak still encourages youngsters to brainstorm their ideas first on paper. "To me, thinking on to paper feels natural. Besides, it's very liberating for a child to scribble, rip off a sheet and chuck it away."
Lishak is already hearing heartening stories about the site from schools. "The other day, a teacher told me about Darren, who usually rebels when he is asked to do something. Darren wrote a story on the site - and his grandmother in Melbourne read it and sent a congratulatory email. It may not change his life, but it certainly made his day."
Lishak has funded the whole venture himself, but now, with an ambitious expansion in mind, he is seeking investment.
His plans hark back to his teaching days, when one of the first things he showed his class was how to bind their year's work into a book. "I bet some of them still have their books," he says. "Nowadays children bring home scores of separate worksheets, and I don't think they treasure them in the same way. It's important that they take pride in their work.
"Today CW4K shows work as it would be displayed on the classroom wall. My vision is to create the bookmaking experience online - a site where children can easily publish whole books."
At BETT, the man who spent years trying to attract the attention of publishers had no such difficulty with his latest plans. "Two publishing houses were very positive about the prospect of investing," he says. "Like most educationalists, when they saw the site, they 'got it' in a big way."