School of Writing

I’ve never skydived, but I imagine that in that moment before skydivers launch themselves from the plane, their stomachs give a little lurch, as they stare at the vast nothingness below them. That’s the way I felt when I stood in front of 25 lively children, about to deliver a creative writing workshops.

I’ve been running creative writing camps for children aged 8-12 for the past four years, but this was my first venture into a primary school. In a creative writing camp, you hope that children at least want to be there, that they love literature enough to write during their school holidays. In a school, you’re dealing with a bigger crowd, and some of those children will be about as interested in writing as they would be in pricking their eyeballs with matchsticks. But I had developed a structure and I had to trust that it would be my parachute, bringing me through the workshop without a scratch.

Relationship Building

The first 10 minutes of a children’s writing workshop are crucial. During that time, you need to build a rapport, so that, to be frank, they’ll be more likely to do what you ask. So I donned a silly hat, my most reliable prop. I wore it at ridiculous angles, because if you want to get children on your side, it really helps to look ridiculous.

The children got a chance to try on the hat, and they came up with words to describe it. Mouldy, hideous and wizard were top of the list. I just love the way children don’t hold back. They  then told a chain story about the life and times of the hat, with each child contributing a sentence.

Magical Storytelling Hat
My magical storytelling hat, picture taken by moi.

We also played a game called Animal Names, where each child said their name and the name of an animal whose name had the same first letter as their names, for example, Jake the Jaguar. I used the occasion to display my range of animal noises, which went down pretty well.

Ingredients of Story

After some more games to break down inhibitions, it was time to start putting the story together. Another good way to get children on side is to play to their interests. That way, even if they’re not much into writing, they’ll at least they’ll be interested in what they’re writing about. In a group of boys and girls, as this was, music is a good common denominator. So I structured a story called The Land of Music, about a land where the people are all gifted at music. Disaster strikes when a valuable instrument is stolen, and it must be returned so the people can continue playing their music.

We did three activities to help the children come up with a character, setting and plot for their story. They involved:

  • Creating a character profile of a seemingly geeky superhero, whose job it is to return the instrument
  • Drawing a map of the mythical musical land, the world the superhero lives in.
  • Some uncomfortable questioning of the Mayor of the capital city to establish how such a horror could have happened.

Everyone Can Write

Now the ingredients had been gathered, it was time to write the story. The children did a story spine to complete the story I explained to the children that your spine holds your body together, and this story spine would hold their story together. A story spine is a set of sentences with blanks that you fill in to complete a story. The children used the information from the three earlier activities to fill in the blanks, and all the pieces slotted into place.

In a primary school, the group you work with will have mixed abilities and some children will have low literacy levels, as was the case with this group. The beauty of a story spine is that you only have to write one or two words in each sentence, so everyone gets to come away with a completed story, regardless of their ability or inclination.

The children’s stories were funny, inventive, imaginative and sometimes quite dark. The more literary-oriented ones changed a lot of the details in the story spine and started exploring their own ideas. But the outstanding achievement I witnessed came from the child with low literacy. With the help of the teacher, she came up with ideas and filled in the blanks. Then she read the story to the class. It wasn’t easy for her, but she persevered. Nine months earlier, she had come to the school unable to read. Now she was the author of her own story.