We all travel. Whether it is a school trip to a museum or a journey to an exotic foreign land, we respond to what we see and usually tell someone about the experience. In its basic form, travel writing is putting that experience down on paper, and children respond to the challenge of communicating their own adventures.
For my travel writing workshops, I do not focus on "correct" ways to write. The objective instead is to use the tools of travel writing to encourage the children to express themselves persuasively. Children take an active role from the beginning, and together we set out as travel writers on an assignment. I tell them we have a brief: a magazine has requested an article on a winter destination or a foreign city break. This brief is based on an article I have actually had published. The children will work on fulfilling the same requirements themselves.
I explain that the key elements are the destination, why this destination will be of particular interest to the readers of that magazine, and, most important, our objective - what response we want to elicit from the reader.
We discuss briefly how the title of the publication provides the clue about what interests the readers. For example, the title The Christian Herald tells us its readers are interested in Christianity, Christian events and news, historic Christian sites, etc.
I guide children to the idea that travel writing for magazines is persuasive and makes the reader want to go there. The children follow the idea, and the fun begins as we "travel", by viewing colourful, projected slides of an exciting place and imagine we are really there. Their enthusiasm increases as they help describe what we are looking at, and I add some history and a story to link the slides to our article. As the children realise how many different ways there are to describe something, inhibitions disappear. Hands pop up from all corners of the room as they eagerly produce graphic descriptions, and the workshop gains pace.
"Ice cream cones," is how one Year 4 child once described the fan-vaulted ceiling in Bath Abbey.
"It looks more like a sandcastle," and "Where are the windows?" said Year 6 pupils when comparing the Coptic monasteries in the Egyptian desert of Wadi-Natrun to their local churches.
"No cars!" gasped astonished Year 3 pupils at realising how different travel within Venice is to getting around London.
Once the "trip" is completed, I show the children the magazine with my article printed in it. They are wide-eyed with surprise at seeing the real thing. But they have not yet realised how they can use elements of travel writing themselves. To demonstrate this,I ask: "Tell me where you went on your last school trip." It is their turn to become the travel writers as they tell me about a location they all know. A school trip is ideal since it is a destination they visited together.
One by one, the children have a chance to say something about the trip, and I apply the tools of travel writing to what they are telling me. I remind them how they used imaginative description and observation with the slides: it was not enough simply to say somewhere was "nice". What, for example, makes the Tate Gallery nice? Does the entrance to the gallery look like the entrance to school? What makes it look different? How else is it different? What type of paintings did you see? What made you like or dislike a picture? What else did you see besides paintings? Gradually, distinguishing characteristics and details emerge. Their imaginations are triggered. Hands are raised. There is excitement as they recall what they saw and did, and they effortlessly begin to describe how they felt about it.
What about the writing? A few faces fall when I suggest writing a letter to persuade another class to visit the same location.
I tell them to let the key elements lead them: where, why and your objective. "You have the tools - observation, description, contrasts, recounting events. Start small, no headings, only an opening paragraph." They start to work in pairs, their heads hovering at first above blank pieces of paper. I come to each desk to offer help. I give the children a few hints: "The key to persuasive writing is never to lose sight of the person you are trying to persuade - your reader. Ask your reader if they have ever been to the location; invite them to come. Remember that you are writing to someone your own age. Tell them why you think they would like to visit this place and what you enjoyed about it." Providing suggestions inspires them into action. With only 10 minutes left for writing, there is no time to worry and the children dash off persuasive letters.
Reading aloud what they have written reveals new creative confidence. Strong openings, such as, "Have you ever seen a porpoise? If not, here is your chance", and "I not only advise you to come, I welcome you", have come from the Year 5 pupils, and descriptions ranging from "gorgeous golden sands" from a Year 5 author to "a sleepy village" from a travel writer in Year 2.
This is just the beginning. "Can these tools work to persuade our parents when we want something?" asks a Year 2 pupil as the workshop concludes. Yes: they have grasped it.
Adrienne Gillam is a travel writer based in London.Her travel writing workshops cost pound;65 per 90-minute session, with discounts for whole and half-day sessions Tel: 020 7622 4984. E-mail: firstname.lastname@example.org Fax 020 7652 4627