Write on, dude!

I am a writer.  I mean, I'm a teacher and, for the next academic year, I am also a student but, in my heart, I am a writer (you might question that proclamation having read this blog!).  I always have been.  I remember when I was seven (eight?), I bought a Ninja Turtles notebook and wrote a bunch of stories in which each turtle (and April and Splinter) got their own focus.  I even started one with the final line and told the story through a flashback.  Oh yeah, I was a total nerd.  I did fan-fiction before it was cool (is it cool yet?).  Anyway, my point is that because I have always enjoyed writing, and was quite willing to take risks, I find it hard to understand children who find it difficult.  I was told during my PGCE (post-graduate teacher training in the UK) that there is 'nothing so scary as an empty page.'  And I just couldn't connect with that.  For me, an empty page was a universe of opportunity.  Admittedly, I would want to know that there were plenty of other empty pages lest I take a wrong turn, but ultimately I loved that empty page.  I still do.  But too many children do not.

How to remedy this?

I learned very quickly that simply inviting children to write something, anything didn't always work.  As much as we try to turn these cherubs into risk-takers, there is always that little bit of resistance (it can go away but you need to have the kids for a l-o-n-g time.  I've taken classes from Year 5 through to Year 6 - that's grades 4 through 5 - and that helped); that reluctance to make a mistake.  Now, I don't think you can make a mistake in writing.  At least, not a creative mistake.  Alas, I have been told by many Headteachers that you certainly can.  I recall a time when my English lesson was being observed during the winter term.  We were going to write a heartwarming winter fairytale.  After agreeing on a snowy village for our setting, a child suggested that three cockroaches be our protagonists. So I wrote this down on the ideas board.  This was the point in the lesson that the observer left.  Skip to my feedback and I was cautioned about not challenging 'silly ideas.'  See, she didn't believe that three cockroaches could feature in a successful fairytale about the magic of Christmas.  My innocent response of 'why not?' was not met with the didactic thought-shower I was hoping for.  No, it was met with a mini-lecture on how, as a teacher, I should be teaching children that some ideas are not good ideas.  
To be fair, some ideas are not good.  My Google drive has a dedicated 'Ideas Graveyard' folder for things that just didn't work out... yet.  And that's my issue with this sort of thing.  Just because an idea hasn't worked this time; doesn't make it a bad idea.  But I can rant about that another time - I need to stay on topic.

You cannot make a creative mistake.

In the UK, we have a bit of a writing guru called Pie Corbett.  He pioneered a technique called Talk for Writing (T4W) and until I met him in person, I had no time for him at all.  T4W, in the school I was working, involved allowing literal weeks and weeks of having the children learn by heart entire stories with very fixed, non-challenging vocabulary, only to copy it out changing a couple of words here and there before altering the title and calling it original work.  It was boring.  It was painful.  It was as far from teaching creativity as I could possibly get.

Then I met the man.  I told him (very respectfully) what I thought of T4W and he was horrified.

"You're doing it wrong," he said.

He went on to explain that the idea was to get the children comfortable with certain story tropes and genres; to give them a bank of phrases and plotlines; to enable them to take a story they knew and make it their own.  He was very upset that the vocabulary had been restricted so much, especially when the children were suggesting perfectly acceptable alternatives.  He also said that, certainly with older children, the imitation stage - where they learn the story - needn't take very long at all.  In fact, they don't need to know the story; just be familiar enough with the plot that they can use it and manipulate it.  He even went on to say that from age 9 onwards, the three stages (imitate, innovate, create) could be reduced to just two since the innovation should be more creative by then anyway.
Needless to say, I suddenly realised the power of T4W and have been using it ever since.  By far the most powerful aspect of this technique is the talking.

Say what?

Before the children write anything, anything at all, they say it.  They tell the story; they interview the characters; they present 'expert' lectures on the plot... anything that involves verbalising what they will eventually write down.  In my classes, we recorded five-minute improvisations in character and discussed the vocabulary used.  We drew our own illustrations and added thought bubbles for every character.  We made dioramas of key scenes (our shoebox garages from Skellig were phenomenal).  We even Dr. Phil-ed the characters.  All of this preparation took time, up to a solid month sometimes, but resulted in the children being ready to write.  It also made for some nice display work.  So the children were champing at the bit; eagre to put pen to paper.  Now I had a new problem...

I love it when a plan comes together...

I had to get these children to plan their work.  This, they did not like.  I could not blame them; I didn't like planning either.  You may have guessed that I don't plan these blog posts (that's why they ramble).  I do edit, believe it or not, but I don't like to plan.  Unfortunately for the children and for me, they had to.  It was on the curriculum.  So I had to find a way to make planning useful and quick.

I read, far too late in my career, I read John Yorke's fantastic book: Into the Woods.  I cannot recommend it enough.  I had learned from my colleagues in Key Stage One (grades K-1) about 'story mountains' and kind of didn't like them very much because I found them too simplistic.  How wrong I was.  They're basic structure matches the monomyth mentioned in Yorke's book and my Year 6s and I had a great time mapping out stories we knew based on the 5 steps.  However, what was revolutionary for me was not so much the journey of the story but the interconnectivity of the stages.  Yorke explains in far more detail but the TL/DR of it is this:
The opening of your story needs to mirror the ending.  The flawed protagonist has to be whole by the end.  If they want something in the beginning; they must have it at the end.  Okay, so far so obvious.
He goes further.
It is a far better story if the character doesn't merely get what they want but instead end up with what they have been needing.  Even better still if they have to sacrifice what they wanted for they what they needed.  Then you have some proper storytelling.  And that's just the beginning and the end!   

The 'build-up' and the 'solution' also need to mirror each other.  The 'build-up' should take the character out of their comfort zone and into a brand new environment.  This call to arms (usually spurred on by a force other than the protagonist) naturally sets the protagonist and reader in pursuit of their want, and we are all introduced to new things at the same time.  So the 'solution' (I don't like these story mountain titles, by the way) should see our protagonist in possession of the want, heading back to their home through the world that was once scary and new and is now familiar.  Their world has grown.  They have grown.  Which brings us to the midpoint.

The story mountain calls this 'The Problem' but I don't like that; it's not always a problem.  And the conflict can be introduced in other places.  Yorke describes this mid-point as being the point of no return.  This is the point where the protagonist can see the thing they want but must make a sacrifice in order to get it.  It doesn't have to be a big sacrifice but it must change their life forever.  This is my favourite thing.  The protagonist must enter 'the problem' as one person and leave it as another (not literally, of course.  This sacrifice - a question; a decision; an actual sacrifice - must have changed the protagonist forever.  It is this change that can allow them to realise that what they need and what they want are two different things.  It is this sacrifice that can lead them to give up their own personal want for a greater need, either of themselves or of others.

An example of boxing up
Using this very simple structure, you can create some very powerful stories in a very short space of time.  Especially when the children are already familiar with the characters and archetypes from all the T4W they have been doing.  Using this approach, I have had children with very limited abilities create amazingly moving prequels to Skellig; eerily disturbing accounts of The Listeners; and even write a Victorian runaway story that we turned into the end-of-school musical.  It is that powerful.

Before I go...

Another useful tool I happened across was what I have come to call Sidebars.  I love them.  Once you have planned and 'boxed-up' (literally boxing your ideas into boxes that will form paragraphs) your plan for a piece of writing, you as the teacher copy them into thin columns, which take up a page or so.  These are then stuck into the margin of the children's workbooks as an aid-memoir.  These help them to stick to their plan and also to write a little more than they perhaps would have done without them.  They really don't take very long to make but have rescued so much writing over the years I have used them.  Some children have them stuck in and individualised; others have more generic copies and the option to stick them in or just refer to them.
A sidebar based on the 'boxed-up' plan
Phew, this one ran on a bit.  Visit my website (bit.ly/carlslearningplace) for examples of everything I've talked about, or just email me or leave a comment below for anything specific.  Speaking of the comments, please let me know if you have used any of these techniques yourself, or have any other ideas that work well.  We need to help each other out!

Thanks for reading this far, those of you that have!  Please share this blog with others - I'm working on something special for December - something I'll give you for free to raise money in your school's Christmas fair.  I've used it myself and it is a guaranteed earner, also, the kids love it.  So I want as many people as possible using it!  Please re-post and re-tweet!  Have w wonderful week and I leave you, look around.  Look at everything you've done.  You rock.  And what's more, you've made somebody smile this week.  You might never know about it, but they know and they thank you for it.  So do I.  You're awesome.

Carl Headley-Morris

@Mr_M_Musings        tragiclantern@gmail.com     bit.ly/carlslearningplace