Creative Writing with Young Children
by Mandy Coe
In June 2007 NAWE organized a training-day in Manchester for writers wishing to work with young children. The course was facilitated by Mandy Coe and examined planning, good practice, INSET, multi-media and ‘making & doing’.
Our venue was a large wooden-floored rehearsal space at the Contact Theatre, Manchester. Some of the attending writers lived in the North West while others had travelled further. Three were ex (or part-time) teachers and while a few had not worked with children at all, others visited Primary Schools regularly. Although it looked as if we could not completely avoid issues of ‘eggs’ and ‘sucking’, there was plenty of experience to be shared.
The course title mentions ‘young children’, but how is this group described in schools? In the UK, under-fives are pre-school or nursery and are taught by Early Years/Nursery Teachers. Children aged between 5 and 7 years are classified as Key Stage 1 (in Scotland, P1). Despite Early Years and KS1/P1 being one of the most enthusiastic and creative communities within the primary education system, they are often excluded from writers’ visits. Why are they so frequently left out?
Our first task was to identify writers’ perceptions of working with this age-group by drawing up a list of challenges and joys. (Bear with us... these lists take into account the practicalities of working with not with just one - but a class of wriggling, lively children).
not able to read or write, or words needs to be spelled out - limited attention span (class discipline) - teachers’ assumptions of children’s creative writing abilities - vocabulary - writers unfamiliar with suitable teaching methods - focus/going off on a tangent - appropriate content/language - writer maintaining engagement and pace
Interesting how many of these popped up in the ‘joys’ list below.
child’s ego - enthusiasm - ability to learn fast - creative - not bogged down by rules of language - unembarrassed - honestly honest - honestly dishonest - going off on a tangent - natural flow between artforms - laughter - love of rhythm and sounds - love of stories - willingness to share
We pinned up these lists as guides when considering the practicalities of visits and activities. They also hinted at why this age-group might be left out.
Exclude or Include – Habit or Choice?
During an author’s visit a school feels on public display. Hoping to present their guest with an audience of engaged pupils they know that the shorter attention span of young children can be problematic. After all, not every author writes for young children. So unless interactive participation of this age-group is consciously planned for they will usually be left out. For writers open to working with younger pupils, it’s worth knowing that:
• schools are thrilled if you offer to engage with younger pupils
• it is ok to explain that this is a new experience for you
• it is fine to test out mini-sessions
• experts will be present (teacher/s, teaching assistant/s)
• you can ask for smaller groups (plan this in advance so as to have cover for the rest of the class)
• you can ask for short sessions (10 minutes upwards)
• goals, based on your work with older students, will need to be adapted
Timing & Group-Size
As a rule of thumb: the younger the child, the shorter the session (and smaller the group). This writer-child ratio is crucial to quality interaction between writers and younger children. But if the day is dictated by the bell and group-sizes are defined by class-sizes, what can we do to encourage this kind of flexibility? Teachers and project co-ordinators can help by including costs of teaching-cover into funding bids, and writers can start by negotiating a schedule built on their needs, and the needs of the children. This can include arrival time (writers may be travelling some distance), preferred group sizes, session lengths and breaks. The writer knows what works best - after all, it is their expertise that the school is bringing in.
Activities: Doing & Being
Writers know that putting pen to paper is only one element of the craft, the rest: telling stories, being curious, using the senses, developing a voice are things that children do every day. But while children experience these things as involving both body and mind, adults have learned to drive their writing with ideas alone. Writers might come up with vivid workshop ideas or themes, but how can kinaesthetic learning (learning through doing) better engage children? As an exercise we compared thinking about bubbles with actually blowing bubbles. The difference was immediate - we were physically engaged.
We experimented with other props: smelling play-dough, touching pebbles, lighting candles (a purely adult-only activity) and used the physicality of these objects as the basis for writing/describing. Exploring sensations of touch, we then wrote a poem, rooted in the physical - the feel of hair or glass, which led into the abstract - touching stars and colours.
Mini-books also lend themselves to doing and making, and we looked at examples of origami and pop-up books. A useful resource for this is Paul Johnson’s books on paper-craft and making books in schools.
Acting out narrative or performing poems are just two ways for children to explore sounds and rhythms. But technology opens up a host of other ways in which children can engage with language and art. As an example of multi-media work we looked at a Barbican schools’ project undertaken earlier this year. The group watched a short animation film, and then reflected on how they might use it to stimulate writing. Suggestions included taking themes from the narrative; using the music, making mini-plays, and photocopying ‘stills’ from the animation to then be written on.
Following on from this, we discussed the use of music, photographs and postcards and looked at ways to source images/clips through organisations such as www.ltscotland.org.uk
that provide copyright-free material for use in education.
Writing on a flip-chart or whiteboard is a core activity with younger children. It is democratic and empowering. In addition, as group-text is less precious, it models a wide range of editing techniques. In the rough and tumble of group composition the teacher can help you include quieter children. Remember to recite the work aloud, and the use of repeated words and phrases helps children who can’t yet read and write become familiar with what’s written.
Don't let age-range restrict you when it comes to language. One of the poems created with a London school during the Barbican project included 'thank you' in 17 languages! Repeat a phrase, or question in another language with a response in English. If it’s a language no one speaks - you are all on an equal footing! You can even invent a language. Wordplay is adored by young children.
As one child is starting an activity – another will finish and want to know what to do next. Breaking activities into blocks allows you to make adjustments. You should have some additional tasks/development activities in case. If groups or individuals to are to read their work aloud you must factor this in. Teachers also appreciate you finishing in time to clear up and allow for routine end-of-class business.
Menu of a Session
We drew up a list of ingredients found in a typical school workshop. Using a selection of these, writers put together a 20 minute/half hour mini-session. This was then shared with a partner looking specifically for ways to shorten or clarify it.
connect with teaching staff - introductions - warm up - scribing - games/mini-activities (wake- ups, calm-downs or just for fun) - you reading aloud - Q & A - children sharing work - sharing your passions & process - a main doing/making (exercise) - goodbyes/well done
Early Years Experts
Teachers are invaluable as co-workers, not only are they expert in this age-group, but they are familiar with each child, classroom resources and etiquette. However, if they have not been involved in planning the visit, they may be unsure as to how to interact with you. Hierarchy is a big part of school culture and a teacher (believing they are handing the baton over to you) may feel there is little left for them to do but retreat. Don’t confuse this with indifference; invite them to work alongside you, select children, keep noise-levels down, write and give positive feedback on the children’s work. As a professional courtesy, offer resources - a list of recommended books, websites or workshop ideas.
In Service Training (and workshops) provide a way for writers to embed a residency by sharing ideas, resources and enthusiasm with teaching staff. Both aim to get teachers writing, but exercises modelled within INSET sessions are specifically designed for teachers to use with pupils.
These writer-led sessions traditionally include staff from a range of Key Stages and writers will offer tips on tailoring workshop ideas to suit each age-group. However, Nursery or KS1 teachers face the biggest challenge in adapting material for use with younger children. Again, this can lead to the exclusion of Early Years or KS1 staff.
What can Writers Bring to the Classroom?
New writers (or writers new to work in schools) often downplay the importance of their own work/writing life and present themselves primarily as a teacher/workshop facilitator.
With ex (and part-time) teachers present, we didn’t need to reiterate that teachers are creative and enthusiastic too, yet authors (even those who do not write for children) do bring something to the classroom that teachers can’t. Otherwise why would schools go to the effort and expense of booking them? Our group was asked to clarify what they thought writers brought to the classroom:
specialisation - different teaching methods - their writing - role model - fun - a sense of achievement - encouraging an ‘I can do this’ attitude - permission to try - modelling reading and writing - permission to fail (sharing realities of rejection slips) - modelling processes and passions of being a practising writer - enthusiasm
• An Enhanced Disclosure from the CRB is necessary for adults working with children. Find out more through NAWE.
• Children are often friendly and may want to climb on your lap or hold your hand. Teachers do not have prolonged physical contact with the children and neither should visitors. (Ex-teachers in the group reaffirmed a need for adults to be kind - but aware of boundaries).
• It is worth restating that teaching cover costs can be factored into funding applications, even more relevant with young children where you are likely to split a class.
• A teacher must be present at all times - for insurance reasons, child-safety and general good practice.
• Permission should be sought before using photographs, or publishing pupils’ names.
Arguments for work with Early Years and KS 1
Some of the most sophisticated in-school poems I have ever collaborated on have been written with Early Years. A sure combination of logic and fantasy gives this age-group phenomenal writing voice. But, in my experience, this is one of the hardest age-groups to work with in anything other than a small group. The need to simplify or clarify work with younger children is not driven by the children’s abilities; it is driven by working with a class rather than the child. Thankfully there are ways for teachers, writers and co-ordinators to get round this and hopefully we will see younger children more regularly included in writers-in-schools visits.
Mandy Coe (www.mandycoe.com
) writes poetry for children and adults and her work has appeared on BBC radio and television. Mandy has collaborated with arts organisations such as Liverpool Tate, the Royal Festival Hall and the Barbican, and her work with schools has been featured in the TES. With Jean Sprackland, she co-wrote Our thoughts are bees: Writers Working with Schools
(Wordplay Press). Her last collection was The Weight of Cows
(Shoestring Press 2004). She was awarded a Writers Fellowship at Hawthornden in 2005.