Write ap­proach

Cre­ative writ­ing projects not only help to boost pupils’ imag­i­na­tion, but also their read­ing and writ­ing skills. Fran Nan­tongwe ex­plains why they can be a use­ful al­ter­na­tive to the en­dorsed KS3 test ma­te­ri­als

TES (Times Education Supplement) - - EDITORIAL -

How cre­ative writ­ing can fly at key stage 3, if done prop­erly

Over the past two years, many schools have been tempted by the glossy key stage 3 test ma­te­ri­als that have been pro­duced with the en­dorse­ment of GCSE ex­am­i­na­tion boards. These re­sources usu­ally track GCSE as­sess­ment ob­jec­tives back into Year 7. In English de­part­ments, we have of­ten wel­comed this ap­proach.

How­ever, my view is that we risk tak­ing KS3 in com­pletely the wrong di­rec­tion when we put the de­mands of a high-stakes ac­count­abil­ity sys­tem ahead of our pupils’ long-term ben­e­fit. As Amanda Spiel­man,

Her Majesty’s Chief In­spec­tor at Of­sted, re­cently lamented, such prac­tice will not

“set our chil­dren up for great fu­tures”.

My con­cern is that some as­sess­ment ob­jec­tives ap­pear to have be­come more equal than oth­ers and are dom­i­nat­ing our plan­ning.

Why, for ex­am­ple, is the re­quire­ment to “an­a­lyse how writ­ers use struc­ture” more wor­thy of fo­cus at KS3 than the re­quire­ment to “use spo­ken Stan­dard English ef­fec­tively in speeches and pre­sen­ta­tions”? Per­haps be­cause the lat­ter is much harder to teach and as­sess prop­erly.

And why is the re­quire­ment to “com­mu­ni­cate imag­i­na­tively” of­ten squeezed into the mar­gins of KS3 plan­ning? Is it enough to plonk a pic­ture in front of stu­dents and tell them to re­spond to it in 40 min­utes us­ing a check-list of gram­mat­i­cal struc­tures en route? Yes, they may end up do­ing that at the end of Year 11, but they do not need to do it at the be­gin­ning of Year 7 af­ter a year of test prepa­ra­tion in Year 6.

This des­ic­cated ap­proach to “writ­ing imag­i­na­tively” surely can­not be in our pupils’ best in­ter­ests. So what should we be do­ing in­stead?

In a re­cent work­shop, Annabel Wat­son, from the Univer­sity of Ex­eter Cen­tre for Re­search in Writ­ing, made the point that it is crit­i­cal to al­low young writ­ers the free­dom to ex­plore ideas; to test things out; and to write to find out what they want to say.

She also made the point that our pupils need time and space to plan and re­fine their ideas; time to pro­duce ex­ploratory free-writ­ing that will not be marked; time to share and re­vise their work as they write; and time to re-read the writ­ing at a later date be­fore pro­duc­ing a fi­nal ver­sion.

One ex­cel­lent way to make this hap­pen is by plan­ning ex­tended time in Year 7 for a writ­ing project. For this, you could adapt some­thing that is ready-made for your par­tic­u­lar co­hort of pupils. For ex­am­ple, Ex­eter Univer­sity’s Gram­mar for Writ­ing Project con­tains some fan­tas­tic KS3 re­sources that also help con­sol­i­date the lan­guage learn­ing that pupils bring from Year 6. (see bit.ly/ex­eter­gram­mar).

How­ever, if you would pre­fer to cre­ate your own re­sources, then I have some ex­pe­ri­ence.

All my projects are based on the same premise: the cen­tral char­ac­ter – the first per­son nar­ra­tor – is placed in a chal­leng­ing sce­nario and has to work through a se­ries of un­ex­pected plot de­vel­op­ments be­fore be­ing able to re­turn home.

Over the course of 4-6 weeks, pupils cre­ate a fan­tasy world and nav­i­gate their nar­ra­tor through that world in their own way. Most will start to make con­nec­tions through dis­cus­sion with their own in­ter­ests, prior knowl­edge and ex­pe­ri­ence. This in turn will im­pact on the qual­ity of their writ­ing.

Suc­cess is not, of course, guar­an­teed: writ­ing projects need care­ful plan­ning and close guid­ance. So here are five tips for cre­at­ing projects that work.

Set­ting choice is key Do not mark ev­ery­thing

The most suc­cess­ful set­tings tend to be re­mote lo­ca­tions in a dystopian fu­ture where the char­ac­ters have no ac­cess to smart­phones or the in­ter­net. This en­cour­ages pupils to en­gage in meth­ods of prob­lem-solv­ing that are of­ten un­fa­mil­iar, as their char­ac­ters are forced to in­ter­act with oth­ers.

Spec­ify the ba­sic plot

You will need to map out the skele­ton of the ‘plot’ for your­self so you can guide the pupils through the story, but do not re­lease any spoil­ers about the planned plot twists. The se­cret is to be gently pre­scrip­tive in terms of plot di­rec­tion while pro­vid­ing op­por­tu­ni­ties for choice based on their char­ac­ter’s pro­file. (Do not let them kill off their first per­son nar­ra­tor. You will be start­ing with the end in mind – they will not.)

To be­gin, cre­ate a brief back story that ex­plains how and why the char­ac­ter has ar­rived at the par­tic­u­lar lo­ca­tion.

Start with ex­ploratory tasks

De­vise some short ex­ploratory tasks to help pupils cre­ate their char­ac­ter (the nar­ra­tor) and set­ting – these tasks can also help con­sol­i­date lan­guage learn­ing from Year 6. For ex­am­ple, this could be a char­ac­ter pro­file (con­tain­ing ex­panded noun phrases); a sketch and brief de­scrip­tion of the set­ting (us­ing prepo­si­tional phrases); or rules and reg­u­la­tions for sur­vival in the new com­mu­nity (us­ing im­per­a­tives). There is no need for mark­ing marathons in the early stages. My ad­vice is that you use peer as­sess­ment, the school re­wards sys­tem and, if pos­si­ble, the lure of the lam­i­nated wall dis­play. Just en­sure that pupils are on task with ideas that will work as the project de­vel­ops and give the the class time and space to share ideas and read out work. Build in time for dis­cus­sion about the use of lan­guage and its ef­fects. For ex­am­ple, dis­cuss as a whole class the use of dif­fer­ent per­sua­sive de­vices in a speech which asks for a vol­un­teer to make a dan­ger­ous re­con­nais­sance mis­sion.

Use ques­tion prompts

Start pos­ing ques­tions that will re­sult in the nar­ra­tor mak­ing de­ci­sions. For ex­am­ple: You have just ar­rived on this planet, and the in­hab­i­tants took care of you when your space­ship crash-landed. Do you and your col­leagues have the right to take from the planet the min­er­als that your govern­ment has asked you to col­lect? Care­fully cho­sen ques­tions can stim­u­late high-qual­ity dis­cus­sion, and work par­tic­u­larly well if pupils have al­ready had op­por­tu­ni­ties to de­velop their for­mal oracy skills.

As pupils start to grap­ple with such is­sues, set writ­ing tasks that will build on the dis­cus­sions, and move the project for­ward. For ex­am­ple: scripts of ar­gu­ments be­tween char­ac­ters (draw at­ten­tion to the rel­a­tive mer­its of stan­dard and non-stan­dard English in di­a­logue); di­ary en­tries af­ter a stress­ful in­ci­dent (fo­cus on tenses as they switch be­tween re­count­ing events and de­scrib­ing thoughts and feel­ings); and let­ters home (us­ing emo­tive lan­guage or con­ceal­ing the truth to spare the feel­ings of those at home). Give pupils time to read/lis­ten to/dis­cuss other pupils’ work.

Only when the pupils are fully im­mersed in the story will they be ready to pro­duce a fi­nal piece of nar­ra­tive un­der con­trolled con­di­tions for as­sess­ment. I usu­ally go with “The Fi­nal En­counter” or “The Af­ter­math”, de­pend­ing on the set­ting. In my ex­pe­ri­ence, these fi­nal nar­ra­tives are of­ten very pow­er­ful pieces of writ­ing as the pupils have in­vested a lot in them. And apart from all the other pos­si­ble ben­e­fits – in­clud­ing those Wat­son out­lined along side a deeper un­der­stand­ing of their own view of the world – I truly be­lieve projects like this will make a dif­fer­ence to pupils’ writ­ing at KS4. Fran Nan­tongwe teaches English in Nor­folk

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