Give A Class ‘One’ Book To Write Through And You’ve Taught Them For A Day. Teach Them How To Use ‘Any’ Book And You’ve Taught Them For A Lifetime.

 

This article is written with the intention to inform and provide reflection. With the Book Trust’s ‘The Write Book‘ research summary coming out in March – we were excited to see what it concluded.

We have entitled our article after the saying that: you give a man a fish and he’ll eat for a day – teach a man to fish and he will eat for a lifetime. That is what we have tried to achieve through our own approach to the idea of traditional ‘Book Planning’ or ‘Novel Study’.

Ever since reading The Reader In The Writer, we have always advocated for children using books of their choice to inform their writing. There is no greater joy than showing children that through literature we can take signs from life within us – that this is exactly what our favourite books draw on and what we, as the reader, may be able to bring to them too. Perhaps, what we as teachers cannot and shouldn’t do is do this important work on behalf of our pupils. To feel those kind of relationships with books means to be deeply and personally involved in a text you have struck a connection with. This is different from being asked to recognise them at a cool distance away; about a text your teacher has decided they have a connection with. This year we have taught all the children in our class how a writer goes about generating an original idea; this has included teaching them how real authors (themselves included) use their favourite texts to produce something new for their own short-stories and flash-fictions. This is opposed to the use of a single book on which all children must hang their writing.

We accept that this is slightly different to the traditional way of teaching children to write through a ‘class text’ also known as ‘novel study,’ which is often chosen by either the teacher or by some kind of working majority amongst the children.

The benefit of our approach, we believe, is that it is enabling – it takes children off what Donald Graves articulates perfectly as ‘writers’ welfare.‘ They, for once (in a long time), have been shown and then encouraged to develop their own writing voice on a book or theme of their own choosing (the benefits of which can be seen in the research references below) and is a strategy they can use forever.

Remember too that when children are younger they are actively encouraged to write/mark make about any book that may have inspired them – however once they enter infant and primary school this privilege is largely taken away.

In the research project ‘Teachers As Readers: Building Communities Of Readers,’ it talks about teachers who undertake ‘novel study’ literacy units with their classes. It talks about how read aloud sessions are usually followed by literacy work focused on developing word, sentence or text level skills linked to the reading. It states that this type of teaching of writing has serious potential consequences. The children in the study explain that whilst their teacher read aloud – often they didn’t like it. This is because it, in part, it involved subsequent written work. Teachers are inadvertently tethering writing tasks onto reading aloud and children don’t like it.

‘This process of novel-study can sap central enjoyment and satisfaction away from the act of reading and responding. There is widespread and self-defeating refusal to see that literature cannot be taught by a direct approach, and that the teacher who weighs in with talk or lecture [on a text of their choice] is more likely to kill a personal response then to support and develop it. We are all tempted into doing so, of course.’ (Dixon, 1967) But then it becomes all too easy for children to feel that their own responses to the book they would have chosen as study to be unacceptable and instead learn to only profess the opinions of the respected critic (their teacher). Research is clear. If children don’t like the act of writing, they won’t progress nearly as well as children that do. Again, see references below for more details.

Some may of course recognise this as sounding incredibly similar to the failed Literacy Strategy and the dreaded ‘Literacy Hour’. Something that was never able to achieve the longevity and respect of its Numeracy counterpart. The dryness of schematic and systematic analysis of imagery, symbols, linguistic and grammatical features as well as structural relations. There it is likely that this should be avoided passionately at school. It is literature, not literacy criticism which we should be looking to promote in writing lessons. However, it is vividly plain that it is much easier to teach literary criticism than to teach literature, just as it is much easier to teach children to write according to writing-tasks than it is to teach them to use their own voice (Dixon, 1967).

Of course you also have the additional consideration that this is yet another way in which reading instruction can bleed into writing lessons and writing time. This often happens because, as Cremin (2014) points out, the vast majority of teachers come to teaching with a love for reading not writing and this of course must have significant epistemological effects on their writing pedagogies. This is something perhaps to reflect on. You can read more about it here.

Incidentally, we too have spoken on the subject of the over use of writing-stimuli having negative effects on children’s writing potentials here and how it is dangerous to believe children are too ‘culturally deprived’ to choose an appropriate book topic of their own here.

Bodies of knowledge – about life, about books, about words – are among the products of their work. It is possible to regard these bodies of knowledge as the ‘content’ for a writing lesson – though not everyone would be happy with this view (John Dixon, p.74)

Incidentally, you may find the following, taken from our article here, interesting:

Book Planning / Novel Study

This approach is some people’s response to the skills approach. It looks to fill the vacuum left by the skills model. The concept is that teachers can be the gate-keepers of what is best in terms of literature and hand this down to a generation. In a happy way, they see it that the great writers can offer a variety of models on which pupils’ writing could be hung. However, this turns language into a one-way process: pupils are readers, receivers of the master’s voice. How does activity like novel study relate to the stream of public interaction through writing in which we are all involved every day? Can we agree then that this has in the past (and present) misled many teachers into focusing on the teaching of ‘the body of knowledge’ (the stimuli itself) at the expense of teaching the actual generalities of writing? This misconception has had very far-reaching consequences. By concentrating on the stimuli (the book), the teacher can either assume the relevance of what they are handing over – or more honestly, the question of relevance (for the children) never enters their head. Instead the tradition is accepted.

Limitations Of Such An Approach

  • The main limitation of course concerns ‘culture’. This model stresses culture as a given and one that is chosen by the teacher(s). Therefore, there is the constant and systematic ignoring of ‘culture’ as the pupils in the class may know it. A network of attitudes, experiences and personal reflections that children bring to the classroom are therefore largely ignored.
  • It perpetuates the concept that literature itself is a given, a ready made structure which children are simply asked to imitate and a content chosen as noble and rich enough by the teacher as being worthy of attention. Writing is a product handed over by the teacher.
  • This approach denies children exposure to compositional processes which are used throughout life. For example: generating and publishing original thoughts, ideas and concepts, reflecting on lived experiences, reactions to one’s own reading material, wanting to share something we know a lot about and wanting to make changes to the world. In other words, strategies which could show children how writing can and will relate to their own life and experiences are largely underdeveloped.
  • It therefore neglects the most fundamental aim of writing teaching – to promote interaction with one’s self (through reflection) or between people.
  • As a result, writing has been interpreted as the study of texts and ‘imitating’ them out. It deals largely in pre-formatted activities and writing-tasks.

This year, we have taught the children in our class how they can successfully use any book in their writing that has had an impact on them. We have done this in a number of ways:

  • Provided the children with a class library full of high-quality texts including poetry.
  • Shown them how they can write ‘inspired by poems‘ and created regular time for them to engage in that kind of writing.
  • Shown them how to appreciate certain character development, setting descriptions or beautifully crafted sentences in their reading, how to make a note of it in their ‘Writing Tricks Books’ and then use those jottings to inform their own story, flash-fiction or poetry writing.
  • Shown them how to ‘hybrid’ two or more of their favourite books to look for themes that they could exploit for their own writing.
  • Shown them how to ‘hybrid’ genres in new and unexpected ways using themes from their reading.
  • Shared many exemplar texts written by children and ourselves that model how this has been done successfully and made these available to read in the class library.
  • Shown how to write ‘fan-fiction’.
  • Having a book that is read as a ‘class-read’ for which the children can be inspired by and write around but are also not obligated to do so.

We have done this because the research on effective writing teaching points this way. Create a class of producers instead of consumers (or at best imitators) and writing outcomes and attitudes will improve dramatically. We are in the fortunate position that we can see the research and theory come together in practice and succeed.
‘When published authors give advice about becoming writers they invariably tell their audience to read as much as possible. Ofsted’s survey of 12 outstanding schools revealed that visits to libraries, plentiful reading aloud by teachers and the provision of good-quality up-to-date texts stimulated pupils to read more and inspired them with ideas for their own writing (Ofsted, 2011). Children who read more write more and write better. Since the 1980s, research evidence has shown that reading and being read to help children to develop models for writing: children who read particular genres, such as stories using metafictive devices, can be inspired to create something of their own in that genre, in which, for example, the narrator directly addresses the reader (Pantaleo, 2007b). Stories they have read may also suggest events or predicaments for children to include in their own texts. Indeed for children as well as adults, all writing is intertextual.’  (Dombey/UKLA 2013, p.23)

Each new text written reflects, in some measure, the shadows of
texts experienced in the past. (Cairney, 1990, p.484)

The goal of education in general, and any writing program in particular, is to help students gain independence. (Ted DeMille, p.145)

Guy Pinnell (1989) reports on a successful program with ‘at risk’ children. It showed how children were encouraged to make connections between their reading and writing as a means of boosting their academic standing. The tasks were not a matter of imitating a book extract or to complete a writing task – but instead the children were immersed in rich texts. As a result, they wrote with an eye on what they read, speaking about it, being admiration of it, in response to having read something great, they had an eye on how they could write and learnt how to write better.

Imitating the masters is universal in all art and is often the first stage in any creative process. This is why our Genre-Booklets are proving to be so popular. They share with children: the patterns, the approach writers take and the linguistic features that can be deployed in story writing. Some people have recently asked, how do you get children to write their own unique stories without using a whole-class mentor text or any other kind of writing stimulus? We’ll look to explain how below.

No one should be in any doubt that it’s important to show children how other accomplished authors do what they do. It’s also important that children have time to enjoy, appreciate, discuss, understand and try imitating aspects of the books they are reading. And most importantly – we need to show children how they can do this for themselves.

Our Flash-Fiction Genre-Booklet is essentially a writing unit designed to help children identify story patterns, use ‘author voice’ and create stories independently. The stories that are exemplars within the Genre-Booklet are deliberately short and show children that this type of writing is well within their grasp.

The exemplar texts showcase how a short-story can be constructed using only 250/300 words. We try to keep this limit in the children’s minds as they write too, so as to avoid the inevitable ‘and then…‘ syndrome. Educator Nancie Atwell makes the point that even the children in her middle-school (12+) can find anything longer than 300 words difficult to handle and in our experience, working with children from 5-11, this can often be said about them too.

Our exemplar texts are not there for the children to imitate – not even the ideas. They are there to showcase how the linguistic features of story telling can be used effectively. These include:

  • Length,
  • How they can use typical themes of literature,
  • A clear and memorable telling of an event (including different types of openings and endings),
  • Using inviting language,
  • Thought provoking descriptions of character or setting.

Once these features have been made explicit to the children, we encourage them to generate their very own writing ideas. This includes strategies like:

  • Using the books they have read during DEAR time.

At this point, we should say that for this approach to story-writing to most effective in your class, you would have to adopt an approach to reading very similar to ours. To read about how our children are reading during DEAR time, follow this link. Essentially though, you need to be reading high-quality literature aloud, encouraging children read independently and giving them plenty of time to do so.

  • Using their ‘linguistic collections’ from their Writing-Tricks Books.

Again, these collections come from the children’s reading during DEAR time. To read about ‘Writing-Tricks Books’ click here. Essentially though, this is a book, which lives in their trays, encourages children to write down things they notice their favourite authors doing and the sentences and themes they like the most. Children are encouraged to then dip into these collections when they are generating ideas for a flash-fiction.

  • Our 10 strategies for idea-generating, which can be found here.

These are strategies that encourage children to write stories from personal interests, recounts, loves, hates, idiosyncrasies, hobbies and obsessions. These 10 strategies unearth a whole beach full of potential topics for stories.

If a child is using a book or a ‘linguistic collection’ as a means for a story idea – we ask them to try and integrate into that a real experience. We do this is because children often find the writing experience easier as a result. In our class, we call these types of stories ‘Inspired by…‘ stories, after the poem ‘My Yellow Dog’. We’ve noticed that what begins as imitation or impersonation soon moves beyond that by the time the children have finished their writing.

Each student creates a final draft in the voice of an author and their own in usually two or three days. Soon after, the children revise these texts and edit them for punctuation and spelling. They are then published into the class book stock for everyone to read or entered into local or national writing competitions.

And so we were pleased to read in the Book Trust’s ‘The Write Book‘ research summary that we are indeed on the right lines:

  • Children enjoy writing more, and write better, when they’re inspired by a high quality book they’ve loved.
  • Book choice is key in encouraging children’s creative response. (and who better to choose than the child themselves).
  • Using high quality books to inspire and emulate writing encourages children to think of themselves as writers (even more so if you have taught them an idea generating strategy that is genuinely used by published authors).
  •  Improved the technical elements of their writing such as vocabulary, descriptive writing skills and sentence structure.
  • Developed more interest in and enthusiasm for books and writing.
  • Wrote voluntarily at home and in free time at school, often when they had never done so before.

And so, in many ways, we are inviting you to combine the best of educational research. Use what ‘The Write Book,’ The Reader & The Writer and what the meta-analysis (here) says to create a truly effective, memorable and life-long writing curriculum.

If you’d like to read more about how the children writing independently in our class, you can go here.

If you would like to receive updates from our blog, you can click the follow button in the top right-hand-corner of the page. Alternatively, you can follow us on twitter at @lit4pleasure

**Please note that the views expressed on this blog are informed by educational research but may not represent our employer.**

Research References

  • Barrs, M., and V. Cork. (2001) The reader in the writer: The links between the study of literature and writing development at Key Stage 2. London: CLPE
  • BookTrust (2015) The Write Book [Available Online: http://www.booktrust.org.uk/programmes/primary/the-write-book/] London: BookTrust
  • Cremin, T., (2014) Building Communities Of Engaged Readers: Reading For Pleasure London: Routledge
  • Dixon, J., (1967) Growth In English Oxford University Press: London
  • Dombey/UKLA, (2013) Teaching Writing: What the evidence says UKLA argues for an evidence-informed approach to teaching and testing young children’s writing UKLA: London
  • Pinnell, S., (1989) Success of at-risk children in a program that combines writing and reading In Reading and writing connections Boston: Allyn & Bacon

Writing Identify

    • Ball, S., (2013) Foucault, Power & Education London: Routledge
    • Bearne, E., Marsh, J., (2007) Literacy & Social Inclusion London: Trentham Books
    • Bernstein, B. (1996) Pedagogy, Symbolic Control and Identity, London, Taylor and Francis.
    • Canagarajah, S. (2004) ‘Subversive identities, pedagogical safe houses and critical learning’ in Norton, B. and Toohey, K. (eds) Critical Pedagogies and Language Learning, Cambridge, Cambridge University Press.
    • Cremin, T., (2011) Writing Voices: Creating Communities Of Writers London: Routledge
    • Cummins, J. (2011). Identity matters: From evidence-free to evidence-based policies for promoting achievement among students from marginalized social groups.In Writing & Pedagogy 3(2): 189–216. http://dx.doi.org/10.1558/wap. v3i2.189.
    • Dockrell, J., Marshell, C., Wyse, D., (2015) Teacher’reported practices for teaching writing in England In Read Write 29:409-434
    • Edelsky, C. (2006) With Literacy and Justice for All: Rethinking the Social in Language and Education (3rd edition). Mahwah, New Jersey: Lawrence Erlbaum.
    • Feiler, L., et al (2007) Improving Primary Literacy: Linking Home & School London: Routledge
    • Fisher, T., (2006) Whose writing is it anyway? Issues of control in the teaching of writing. Cambridge Journal Of Education 36(2):193-206
    • Flint, A. S., Fisher, T., (2014) Writing Their Worlds: Young English Language Learners Navigate Writing Workshop In Writing & Pedagogy 1756-5839
    • Flint, A. S., & Laman, T. T. (2012). Where Poems Hide: Finding Reflective, Critical Spaces Inside Writing Workshop In Theory Into Practice, 51(1), 12-19.
    • Garrett, L., & Moltzen, R., (2011) Writing because I want to, not because I have to: Young gifted writers’ perspectives on the factors that “matter” in developing expertise In English Teaching: Practice and Critique Vol.10(1) p.165-180
    • Gonzalez, N., Moll, L. & Amanti, C. (eds) (2005) Funds of Knowledge: Theorizing Practices in Households, Communities, and Classroom, Mahwah, NJ: Lawrence Erlbaum
    • Graham, L., Johnson, A., (2012) Children’s Writing Journals London: UKLA
    • Graham, S., Berninger, V., & Fan, W. (2007). The structural relationship between writing attitude and writing achievement in first and third grade students In Contemporary Educational Psychology, 32(3), 516-536
    • Grainger, T., Goouch, K., Lambirth, A., (2003) Playing the game called writing: children’s views and voices. English In Education, 37(2):4-15
    • Grainger, T., Goouch, K., Lambirth, A., (2005) Creativity and Writing: developing voice and verse in the classroom London: Routledge.
    • Gregory, E., Arju, T., Jessel, J., Kenner, C. and Ruby, M. (2007) ‘Snow White in different guises: interlingual and intercultural exchanges between grandparents and young children at home in East London’, Journal of Early Childhood Literacy, vol. 7, no. 5, pp. 5–25.
    • Guerra, J. C. (2008). Cultivating transcultural citizenship: A writing across communities model In Language Arts, 85(4), 296–304.
    • Gutiérrez, K. (2008) ‘Developing a sociocritical literacy in the Third Space’, Reading Research Quarterly, vol. 43, no. 2, pp. 148–64.
    • Kress, G., (1997) Before Writing: Rethinking the Paths to Literacy London: Routledge
    • Labov, W., (1971) Variation in language in The learning of language Appleton-Century-Crofts
    • Labov, W., (1972) The logic of nonstandard english in Language and social context Penguin
    • Lave, J. and Wenger, E. (1991) Situated Learning: Legitimate Peripheral Participation, Cambridge, Cambridge University Press.
    • Leung, C., Hicks, J., (2014) Writer Identity and Writing Workshop A Future Teacher and Teacher Educator Critically Reflect In Writing & Pedagogy Vol. 6 583-605
    • Maybin. J. (2006) Children’s Voices: Talk, Knowledge & Identity London: Palgrave
    • Myhill, D., (2005) Testing times: the impact of prior knowledge on written genres produced in examination settings In Assessment in Education Vol. 12, No. 3, November 2005, pp. 289–300
    • Morpurgo, M., (2016) Such Stuff: A Story-Makers Inspiration London: Walker
    • Myhill D., (2005) Writing Creatively In A. Wilson (ed), Creativity in Primary Education: 58-69 Exeter: Learning Matters.
    • Rosen, H., (1972) Language & Class: A Critical Look At The Theories Of Basil Bernstein London: Falling Wall Press
    • Rosen, M., (2016) What is poetry? The essential guide to reading and writing poetry. London: Walker Books
    • Smith, Clint. (2016) The danger of silence Available Online: [http://www.ted.com/talks/clint_smith_the_danger_of_silence#t-242155]
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The Sea Of Writing Ideas: 10 Ways We Got Children Choosing Their Own Topics.

The Sea Of Writing Ideas

Writing ideas.

When you write, ideas crazily spill from your head, tumble down your arm, into your pen and out along the crisp, white page. To us, the only way to see ideas is scribbling them down – but ideas are more than just words on a page.They are colourful, squirming, squiggly things that slide and slip through the nooks and crannies of your brain. Some of them crash against the walls of your head in roaring waves. Others come more slowly – each droplet of water a letter. 

Once you gain control of the sea – the droplets make out your idea.

– Year 5 Child.

Research clearly shows that if children get to choose their topics, this strongly influences their enjoyment of writing and therefore the progress they make. Children may need initially to generate a whole raft of topics and ideas that they feel they could write about.

So, as part of our writing pedagogy Real-World Literacy, at the beginning of the year, we have children filling in an ‘Ideas Heart’. It is also advantageous for a teacher to write down what topics children consider themselves to be an expert in. Get children to collect on paper the people, places, games, hobbies and interests they know well as well as the things they love and care about in their lives.

We believe in this concept because when children write about what they already know, they already have the information at their fingertips. This allows them to think about how to write it instead of having to concentrate on what it is they are being asked to write.

It is often the case that a teacher will use a book studied by the whole class as a stimulus for writing. We believe that such an approach can be restricting, especially if children are not motivated by the content of the book. In our view, surely, it is more logical that children be allowed to draw on their own reading of: picture books, novels and poetry from the class/school library or from home. Always bear in mind that:

what children write reflects the nature and quality of their reading,’ (CLPE, 2012) p.35.

You as teacher-writer should share your own Ideas Heart with the class. How you approach idea-generation should also be discussed during Writing Study sessions. This is discussed in a lot more detail in our Real-World Literacy document. To view this document, please go here.

If you’ve been providing your children with writing stimuli each day, then they are likely to have difficult with choice at first. This is because choosing topics is a writing skills (and all the more reason to teach it). In other words, the more you do it, the better at it the children will become. Throughout the year, we have provided Writing-Study lessons that give students new strategies for finding topics. Does that mean that the children never feel stymied when it comes to finding an idea? No. Writers do experience writers block and often this just simply requires some thinking time. Thinking and time. That’s something that we have difficultly allowing for in classrooms. However, generating an idea is still faster than having to ‘teach’ the content of a stimulus you want the children to regurgitate (Jacobson, 2010, p.32).

We must stress at this point that we are in no way advocating the withdrawal of the teacher’s assistance when children are choosing a theme. There are many ways of supporting children to generate their own ideas, in the form of:

  1. Creating an Ideas Heart and allow children to add to it throughout the year.
  2. Asking themselves ‘What if..?’ questions
    • Roald Dahl famously came up with the idea for Charlie And The Chocolate Factory by simply writing this what if… question ‘What if a crazy man ran a chocolate factory?
  3. Generating ‘When I was little…’ or Imagine a day when…’ statements
  4. What makes me happy, angry, scared or upsetlists
  5. Donald Murray said ‘problems make good subjects.’ What itch needs scratching list – a list of issues that need solving, correcting, explaining or exploring. Topics that make you curious, furious or confused.
  6. Questions for memoirists – Children answer questions to jog their memories for potential memoir ideas (see our article about memoir writing).
  7. Using the ‘Michael Rosen’ effect. This is where children can take an otherwise ordinary moment and make it extraordinary. This can be an alternative to memoir writing for children who would much rather not write about anything overly heartfelt or emotive – which we can occasionally come across.
  8. Create a ‘Where Poetry Hides’ list. This is where children run around their house looking for objects they could write about. (see our Poetry genre-booklet).
  9. Deciding to use ideas from the books they have chosen and read. To aid them we teach them to note the theme, setting and characters from two different books they have enjoyed, and look to create something new from that.
    • Writing fan fiction using something from the book they are reading/have read.
    • Writing inspired by poems – taking a poem they like from the class-book-stock and using it to write their own poem.
  10. Deciding for themselves to use the topics from our foundation subjects in any way they wish including creating genre-hybrids.

We would also add that you can read aloud books and poems about everyday and universal experiences and that this will often spark in children their own idea for writing. We call this ‘universal theme to specific topic’.

Use of these strategies facilitates children’s choice of writing topic. No longer do you have to fear that some children will have nothing to write about.

If you would like to receive updates from our blog, you can click the follow button in the top right-hand-corner of the page. Alternatively, you can follow us on twitter at @lit4pleasure

If you like the sound of this type of teaching, you can read our document Real-World Literacy by click here. 

**Please note that the views expressed on this blog are our own and may not represent our employer.**

For research conducted on the theme of ‘topic choice’, please see the references below:

    • Bearne, E., Marsh, J., (2007) Literacy & Social Inclusion London: Trentham Books
    • Bernstein, B. (1996) Pedagogy, Symbolic Control and Identity, London, Taylor and Francis.
    • Canagarajah, S. (2004) ‘Subversive identities, pedagogical safe houses and critical learning’ in Norton, B. and Toohey, K. (eds) Critical Pedagogies and Language Learning, Cambridge, Cambridge University Press.
    • Cremin, T., (2011) Writing Voices: Creating Communities Of Writers London: Routledge
    • Feiler, L., et al (2007) Improving Primary Literacy: Linking Home & School London: Routledge
    • Flint, A. S., & Laman, T. T. (2012). Where Poems Hide: Finding Reflective, Critical Spaces Inside Writing Workshop In Theory Into Practice, 51(1), 12-19.
    • Gonzalez, N., Moll, L. & Amanti, C. (eds) (2005) Funds of Knowledge: Theorizing Practices in Households, Communities, and Classroom, Mahwah, NJ: Lawrence Erlbaum
    • Graham, L., Johnson, A., (2012) Children’s Writing Journals London: UKLA
    • Graham, S., Berninger, V., & Fan, W. (2007). The structural relationship between writing attitude and writing achievement in first and third grade students In Contemporary Educational Psychology, 32(3), 516-536
    • Gregory, E., Arju, T., Jessel, J., Kenner, C. and Ruby, M. (2007) ‘Snow White in different guises: interlingual and intercultural exchanges between grandparents and young children at home in East London’, Journal of Early Childhood Literacy, vol. 7, no. 5, pp. 5–25.
    • Guerra, J. C. (2008). Cultivating transcultural citizenship: A writing across communities model In Language Arts, 85(4), 296–304.
    • Gutiérrez, K. (2008) ‘Developing a sociocritical literacy in the Third Space’, Reading Research Quarterly, vol. 43, no. 2, pp. 148–64.
    • Lave, J. and Wenger, E. (1991) Situated Learning: Legitimate Peripheral Participation, Cambridge, Cambridge University Press.
    • Maybin. J. (2006) Children’s Voices: Talk, Knowledge & Identity London: Palgrave
    • Morpurgo, M., (2016) Such Stuff: A Story-Makers Inspiration London: Walker
    • Rosen, M., (2016) What is poetry? The essential guide to reading and writing poetry. London: Walker Books
    • Smith, Clint. (2016) The danger of silence Available Online: [http://www.ted.com/talks/clint_smith_the_danger_of_silence#t-242155]

Trials & Triumphs: Teaching Memoir Writing.

Trials & Triumphs: Teaching Memoir Writing.

Week One

This half term we are focusing on teaching memoir. Memoir differs from what is commonly referred to as recount in a number of profound ways. Recount’s major role is often to ensure that chronological events are described within a conventional time order. However, memoir is very much in the business of storytelling.  A good memoir will have a topic which has meaning not only for you as the writer but also for your reader. This means children finding a subject which rouses emotions in them and which reaches out to their readers, creating the possibility of reflection and empathy. Memoir also affords young writers the opportunity to explore the literary qualities of stories they read through their writing about a personal experience. Memoir is a hugely rewarding genre to teach. It provides the best platform for children to feel they are experts in their topic before they begin writing, and gives them enough scope as a genre to be playful and try out many of the things they like writing best.

We had two objectives for our first week: for children to understand what the genre memoir is and what is required to create a great one, and to give children the resources and opportunity to generate their own memoir idea.  

Day 1

The children, in pairs read and discussed the first page of our Genre-Booklet memoir. I then shared with the class my own attempt at producing a memoir. We gathered in a circle, reading quietly together in pairs. Different children then read a paragraph each aloud,and I did a final reading myself.

No One’s Day But Ours.

chattri3

We’ll explain it and deal with the consequences after,  I thought.

Looking out the window and watching the bright sunshine reflect off my dad’s car and into my eyes, I felt a warm glow. Waving goodbye, I knew today was going to be just perfect. It was no coincidence perhaps that I could see the Chattri from that very same window. The promised land almost teasing me.  

I grabbed my backpack and met my friends by the post-box, just as we had planned. “Have you got the goodies?” I asked Joe excitedly. He assured me he had and from the rustle I could hear as we walked, I believed him with all my heart. Joe always had a way of making you feel reassured. Perhaps it was his height and frame. Joe was taller than the rest of us. He had sharp, almost white messy hair, which made him endearing and trustworthy to parents.

Looking back now, our impatience to get to the Chattri caused our ‘short-cut’ not to be so short at all. Negotiating all the fences and the barbed wire which came with them was trying. The barbed wire seemed, at times, to be like fighting against the ocean’s tide. “Maybe we should have just used the paths?” Dan suggested, sarcastically. Dan was the shortest in the group and at our age that meant something. He was also incredibly skinny and had comically thin, hairless legs. Legs that seemed to protrude from out of his shorts like twigs.

“Where would the adventure be in that?” I said in such a way that I didn’t even believe myself. We still had a way to go and it was cold and lonely in the shade of the valley. The warmth and the light shone on the Chattri – right at the top of the hill – but not on us.

When we finally got there, Joe opened his rucksack to reveal what we had all been waiting for. It was a feast to the eyes for any 11 year old boy. It was all the treasures a boy of that age could dream of: chewy strawberries and snakes by the bundle, the largest cola bottles you could get – and full sugar too! Not to mention what felt like endless packets of Haribos. We held them in our hands and raised them up to the clear blue skies – like savages – like a sacrifice – like a victory cry.

This was it. This was freedom. We were free, free to do what we wanted to do, and what we wanted was to be together and be alone. Alone to scream and shout, to holler and play highjinks and silly-fools. We played together that day like the clock had stopped. Today was our day.

My lasting impression will always be standing at the top of that hill, ripping at a chewy-snake, stretching it away from my back teeth, eyes shut, head back, hearing my friends rolling down the hill into the thick and welcoming grass and feeling king. King of my world, with my comrades there to support me. Soaking up the day, we didn’t need or want for anyone or anything – least of all our parents.

“We’ll explain it and deal with the consequences after,” I whispered into the silk of that afternoon breeze. I wonder where that afternoon breeze is now?

By LiteracyForPleasure


What followed was quite a lengthy and full discussion which included talking about the opening, the quality of the description, linking the characters of Joe and Dan to their physical descriptions (Joe’s hair almost a metaphor or a metonym). Children agreed that it was not a remarkable topic in itself that I had chosen, but that I had made it special and significant through description and feeling, and through making it like a story.
We have emphasised this point every day, and referred to how Michael Rosen does it in his prose poems which we regularly enjoy.

Children found instances of time references, simile and metaphor, repetition, poetic language, exaggeration. We reminded them constantly that they could use all these devices (‘tricks’) in their writing. We also emphasised the need to have one pebble to focus on. The concept of having one pebble is that children will often choose general topics when generating writing ideas, such as When I went to the football, When I went to Spain on holiday, or Our school trip to PGL. What we have had to teach children is that these topics contain almost a beach full of pebbles which they could write about. Each pebble is an idea for a piece of writing. They need to find one pebble – or one idea – from their topic ‘beach’. This has not always been easy but by the end of the week it was a hugely rewarding pursuit.

 

Day 2

I read the long version of Roald Dahl’s memoir – The Great Mouse Plot. Children discussed the description of Mrs Pratchett, found the simile, and the ‘pebble’ in this description i.e. her fingernails. I reminded them that Roald Dahl probably wrote this 30 years after the event, so how did he remember what everyone said? We told children that they can make up speech when they write, and that they can depart from the exact truth of the events, that it can be quite enjoyable to use hyperbole(exaggeration) in your memories and that in fact we do this all the time!

We then moved on to Anne Frank’s diary entry. This was probably the least successful of the memoir examples. I felt it was necessary to talk about the context in order for children to fully appreciate the writing. We looked at how she conveys anxiety, and located the parts that made us feel sad. (It is written in quite, a literary way, which isn’t always the case with diaries. I’ve later discovered that she had revised much of it, with a view to publication.)

 

Day 3

As part of our Genre-Book we included a bad memoir example. Children immediately spotted the lack of description, character development, pebble, story, as well as unexplained references. This confirmed that they have really internalised the essential ingredients of a good memoir. It was an enjoyable lesson to hear them be so critically engaged on a text.  

Some children even began to revise it themselves, writing on the typed copy; all chose to add description. Maybe in the future we could find a way of letting them revise the whole thing, to include events in time order, elements of a story, and a pebble…

After this we checked in with some on their own memoir ideas, and we worried that several had not yet thought of anything, or were coming up with ideas which had no depth at all, or were too general. We decided to put them on the spot the next day, and have everyone share their ideas with the whole class.

 

Day 4

Right at the start of the lesson, children were asked to focus on something with a strong feeling e.g. the happiest or saddest moments of their lives. Hearing other people’s ideas acted as a spark for some. Some changed their topic for a stronger one. Sometimes the class voted if one child couldn’t decide between two ideas. We rejected some ideas. Children had to identify the pebble for their writing. Once I modelled how I went from a general idea to having a one pebble moment it all of a sudden clicked. I discussed how in my writing notebook I had written that I want to write about my childhood holiday with my grandad in Spain, and that the pebble moment I will ‘zoom in on’ will be my grandfather teaching me how to float in the pool on my back, us looking like a couple of otters floating in the pool. I then explained that instead of writing about the PGL trip I could write about how myself and Mr. Green had a secret midnight snack. We ended up feeling far more confident about their topic choice, and so did they. This discussion seemed to turn things around significantly. We asked children to straightaway jot down the revised idea and what the pebble was going to be. There was a real buzz in the classroom and many children wanted the opportunity to use their free-writing time to write about other memoir ideas they were having.

 

In Conclusion

At the end of a week children know that to write a quality memoir they need to:

choose a topic which may be ‘everyday’ or unremarkable in itself, but which can be made memorable both for themselves and the reader by a genuine emotional investment in it; focus on one pebble, and use description, poetic language, feelings, good openings and endings, devices like repetition and a little exaggeration. They are now using literary terminology naturally in their discussions, and are reading the memoir examples like writers.
The memoir examples have been successful. Our own memoir examples were the best, because we conveyed them with enthusiasm and enjoyment well, and because we were able to talk to the children about the topic, how we came to write it, and our writing process. Children were really engaged to know and learn from this. We have the idea of collecting the best memoirs written by the children in our class, and using them as examples next year.

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This is part of our Real-Word Literacy approach to writing. If you’d like to find out more about how this approach works, you can follow the link here.

If you are interested in knowing more about our Genre-Booklets you can follow the link here.

**Please note that the views expressed on this blog are our own and may not represent our employer.**