Thursday 3 May 2012

A teacher-led project - Story-writing

[I was sent this earlier today]

From Little Hazels……                                            Story Writing in Glyncollen

“The washing machine goes around and around. It is full of soap and water. The washing machine takes all Daddy’s clothes and takes the spots off them. The washing machine is naughty and hides everything at the back. It hides spots, tissues and wipes, all at the back. We need to buy a new one I think!”

I love this story! It was written by a three year old boy, dictated and scribed.  It is one example of the myriad of amazing stories the children in my school have produced this year as a result of a story-telling project.  Let me tell you my story.

I’ve been the Head Teacher of a primary school with 248 children for just over a year.  In September, as part of a drive to improve the quality of writing and oracy in the school, I introduced a story-telling project.  I am not one for laying down the law with teachers, especially when it comes to experimenting. I want them to have the courage to take a risk and see results for themselves.  I know what I believe about literacy and having completed research into narrative understanding and children’s writing with my own classes, I invited my long-time friend Sue to introduce a story-telling project to the staff. Sue had original been my Masters tutor and had inspired me to want to inspire. That’s why I took the bold step out of the classroom and into Headship. Making the difference is what counts.

In one two-hour training session, Sue introduced the theory that narrative understanding is the  primary meaning making tool and that we must capitalise on this with our children.  Secondly, following Kieran Egan’s work, she explained that children from 3-7 are highly imaginative and that we must encourage and give opportunities for them to use their imaginations through role-play, drama and story-telling.  Sue also introduced the work of Vivian Paley, the award-winning, retired kindergarten teacher. Vivian encouraged her children to tell their stories and made sure an adult was available to scribe them. The children’s stories then became part of the class reading and drama as either the teacher or children read their stories to the class and other children acted them out.  Finally Sue asked teachers to ensure the children were immersed in stories – each day they should hear traditional fairy tales, picture books, oral stories and stories the children have written themselves. 

In the year two classroom, excited about the project, and free of the pressures of CDAP, the teacher embraced the ideas and couldn’t wait to start.  That week she told the children about the project and asked the children to help her set up a writing table in the class.  The children were told that if they wanted to tell a story they could go to the story table and someone would scribe it for them. 

Sian had my full support. Everyone tells stories and everyone has a story to tell. We just need someone to listen. Children are no different. They just need the opportunity, the time and the encouragement and will do it naturally.  If we truly want children to be authors, we must treat them as such, through motivation not force; through purposeful creativity not pointless tasks.

I was challenging the entrenched views that children can’t write unless we teach them the skills first; that these should be taught step-by-step in a sequence and that all the class should learn together in a series of tick-box lessons. They might tick our boxes but certainly not theirs. Years of SATs have been engrained on literacy mentality – So many teachers today might feel lost without the lists of things to cover. The concept of giving children an opportunity to write whenever and whatever they want, acquiring the skills they recognise they need, as and when they need them, is a big ask in a data driven world.

I reinforced Sue’s message to the staff – that in order to tell stories children need imagination, to see story telling as an opportunity to intrigue, excite, emote;  I want to feel the emotion in children as they tell their stories, not see them glazed over because they don’t get their capital letters and full stops right!

By asking the teachers to give the children an oral platform to tell their stories; to feed their imaginations by providing a literature rich environment in which to work I knew I was taking a risk – we weren’t entirely sure where it was going to go. They asked questions: at what point, if any, did we ask the children to put their stories on paper?  We decided to ‘stick with it, see where it goes’, wait and see if children ask if they can write them down.  Don’t force them to write before they are ready. We needn’t have worried.

It is almost a year now and wonderful things have happened.  In Sian’s class, during the first week of introducing the project only four children asked to dictate a story.  By week two when Sue came back to see how things were going she was presented with a book of stories the children had dictated that had been transcribed and punctuated by a variety of adult volunteers,  a book of stories some children had scribed themselves and a book they had spontaneously dictated at home.  The first thing we noticed was that all the stories had character, setting, plot, rift and resolution.  Sian hadn’t taught this – the children just knew it.  The second thing we noticed was the influence of the literature-rich environment – inter-textual referencing, playing with genres, using rhetorical devices for effect, repetition of character, twists and humour.

Responding to the stories was important.  Sian held her daily story-telling and sharing and children had the chance to either read or have their stories read.  Peer assessment was encouraged – what do we like about this story?  What would make it better?  What would you like more of?  What’s missing from this story?  Sian would share the written stories with each child; as they read back or heard their own stories they could see the purpose of punctuation for themselves. Children’s progress was monitored on an individual basis as they went along.

Other things happened as a result of the project. It became apparent that parents scribing for their children created a bond between them and gave them a ne awareness of their child’s ability and an insight into their world – significantly Dads from all backgrounds became really involved in the project.  Parents in homes where books are thin on the ground became absorbed as they saw the children able to write amazing stories.  We held a literacy experience evening when the parents came to see what was done and they saw how brilliant their children are – how creative.

Within a term the majority of the children had started to write for themselves and became even more absorbed in it.  Through reading their stories to each other they were able to learn about authorial techniques.  The best writers in the class are now writing a standards close to Level 4! Both oracy and reading have also been positively affected.

Now, when children, boys in particular, and those prone to mischief, when given the chance to choose an activity as a reward, will choose to cosy up in the book corner with a good book.  They are having so much time to read, be read to, to hear each other read, and they love to do it. Really proficient readers read with feeling, correct intonation, expression, excitement, pause for effect, and provide a marvellous peer role model for the class. 

The class as a whole is a very mixed bag; some are confident, some not so confident, some are receiving support for a variety of reasons, but they have become a learning focused class – and they are so absorbed in what they are doing there are far fewer behaviour issues.

It’s not just in Year 2 that change has occurred. Sue came back for another session focused on Key Stage two and we shifted our curriculum to a thematic approach incorporating drama, Mantle of the Expert and other approaches.  It’s really working here too – the children are enthused about writing and we have story books of evidence from nursery to Year 6 – but this would be the subject of a whole other blog!

We’re not a year down the line yet, and standards have risen for sure. But it’s more than that - it’s about instilling that love of lifelong learning. The children are writing because they want to write.  The teacher is the facilitator, not the font of all knowledge, nor the ticker of boxes. The children choose how, where, when and what to write – there are no constraints.  Now they go to year 3 with a love of story-telling and writing and a whole load of skills to boot.  It’s been a great year. 

Anna Bolt, Sue Lyle and Sian Davies