Sat 1 November 2014

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Storyspinner - How it Works

NAWE’s Storyspinner project, which was developed in conjunction with Creative Partnerships, has been run in various schools over the past few months, including a number of those taking part in the Hamlyn-funded research programme. Lucy Banwell, acting as Storyspinner from her base in France, and Denise McCulloch, librarian at Amesbury School, describe here how text and image are combined in the project to special effect.

Denise McCulloch, Amesbury School:

Initially, I contacted NAWE as a pathway to gain access to details of up and coming authors/writers who may like to participate in our ‘in-house’ literary festival - BOOK IT! Whilst browsing their website for ideas I came across the ‘Storyspinner’ initiative, and I immediately began to visualize ways in which this could be implemented into our school curriculum and who would benefit most from its introduction.

After several chats with Paul Munden, NAWE’s Director, I started to plan and strategically coordinate the initiative to run parallel to our English teaching and BOOK IT! event.

Once the red-tape had been attended to, Storyspinner exploded onto the Amesbury Year 7 timetable and, from a child’s point of view, Thursday’s had never been so exciting. Our assigned writer-in-residence, Lucy Banwell, was many miles away but that did not detract from her presence in the classroom - indeed it felt as though we had an additional teacher for one session every week and the preparation and planning of the weekly sessions couldn’t have been simpler. Once Lucy had uploaded the weekly writing tasks, these were delivered and explained to the children, who then diligently went into their creative zones to meet her demand and deadline.

However, the pièce de résistance of the initiative had to be the movie style trailer which appeared on our computer as if by magic and regular as clockwork each week. This added teaching dimension appealed to the children greatly and this was reflected in the work that was produced for the editing and writing process for Lucy. Lucy never missed a beat - every child had some of their creative talent represented in the final story.

The weekly instalments allowed the children time and freedom to explore their own creativity and this was seized upon as everyone had something to offer. In fact Storyspinner has been cleverly designed to cultivate and foster a love of writing whilst stimulating and encouraging creative thinking - a clever concept indeed.

Though we have stayed in touch with Lucy, long after our Storyspinner adventure ended, our only regret is that we never got to meet her in person. Unknowingly she cajoled, enriched, excited, honed and opened minds - and for that our children are better equipped to face any creative writing challenge that comes their way.

Storyspinner allowed the children to flirt with their creativity; work outside the parameters of a normal timetable; and gain valuable experience in the process. Amesbury now has an explosive story-writing culture and the English staff are constantly on the look out for new modes of teaching. Was it worth it? A resounding yes.

Note: Pupils at Amesbury School followed up their Storyspinner project with a workshop with Michael Morpurgo, then entering a short story competition and winning both 1st and 2nd prizes.



Lucy Banwell:

I love being The Storyspinner. Over the years I’ve worked on many kinds of writing projects, but Storyspinner is something different.

The real action happens in the classroom, but I’m not there to see it. Each class teacher follows a simple formula to enable the class to devise raw material for our story. The work done in the class is uploaded to the Storyspinner web hub, where I can access it, and use it to devise the story. Even though the starting points for the classroom activities are always the same, the material is very different each time. I never know quite what to expect, and there have been many surprises along the way. This means that the process of spinning the stories is intense, but great fun, and certainly an interesting challenge.

The aim is not necessarily to write a complete story in just five episodes, but rather to lay out the bare bones of a story - including characterization, location, action and dialogue - so that the participants can fully experience the process of writing a story. However, as The Storyspinner, I’ve found that I do like to offer a narrative that approaches a complete story, but a narrative that also includes a lot of space, where the action can go off at a tangent, and new elements can be introduced. I am constantly surprised by how much the characters and the situations born in the classroom engage me, and how I always want to explore them fully in the storyspinning.   The original brief was to write fairly short episodes. I find that I often fail dismally to keep to that brief, in order to do the raw material justice.

Each project is spread out over six sessions. For the first session, I send the class an introductory video trailer, designed to whet appetites for the project, establish Storyspinner as something different from the normal school activity and set the basic premise: they are going to write about a group of strangers who have come together for an adventure. I also write the class a letter introducing myself (as my alter ego, The Storyspinner), and setting out what I’d like them to do during the first session. For each of the remaining five sessions I send the next episode of the story, a video trailer that ends on a cliffhanger, and a letter including some feedback on their writing.

The children are fascinated to see the weekly results, delighted to see their thoughts threaded in. It has been interesting to see how characterization and setting have led to storyline, rather than significant events or genre starting the process - it is a more creative way of working than starting with ‘structure’. They look forward to reading the letter from the writer, to getting professional feedback. It is good to see the mix that is possible, it shows that collaborative work is possible even in literacy.
(comments from a Storyspinner headteacher)

The first session is all about generating the cast and the setting for our story. The class take part in a set of activities that produces a series of characters, emotions and locations. Sometimes the class works in groups, and sometimes individually. The group work seems to generate the more interesting and multi-dimensional characters, presumably because some discussion takes place about each one. After the lesson, the characters are uploaded onto the Storyspinner web hub, and I use them to write the first episode.

Here’s a snippet of one of the character descriptions from the classroom work:

The character we have chosen is a clown called Clive. At the age of 12, he runs away from home and join the circus and becomes the main attraction. But his career is ruined when the fire-eater sets fire to the circus tent and melts his plastic mask to his face and he is kicked out but wants to get his revenge.   The emotions we have chosen are evil and crazy. This is how Clive feels when he gets kicked out of the circus. The item we have chosen is a car. When Clive gets kicked out, he steals the ringmaster’s VW Beetle. The two places we have chosen are a city and a warehouse. Clive lives in a warehouse after he loses his job, but spends most of his time in the city looting shops and creating havoc.

It’s both wonderful and strange that I have no conception of the individuals in the classroom. I haven’t been privy to the discussions that generated the characters, I don’t know whether it’s boys or girls writing, or anything about their personal or academic background. Quite often I barely know whereabouts the school is in the country, or the age of the students. I have only their writing to go on.   

Like most writers who work in schools I’m used to reacting to the faces looking back at me. I adapt and change tack when it feels that a different approach is needed. As The Storyspinner, I feel divorced from the classroom. This is incredibly liberating and just a little bit scary at the same time. Based on the collection of characters I must devise the tone and focus for the whole story. Sometimes I have a few dilemmas. For example, just because almost all of a class’s characters are murderers, drug dealers, and knife-toting thieves (as happened in one project), do I ignore the single voice that has written about a young child riding on a unicorn? Even though working out how to bring all these disparate characters together may cause a few sleepless nights, the variety of characters does, of course, bring a depth and richness to the narrative that wouldn’t be there otherwise.

My favourite character was Clive because he was scary, interesting and funny all at the same time. He lived in a hut in a forest, which makes him even more interesting. In most stories I’ve read, the evil character lives in a mansion or an underground secret base. But Clive doesn’t.
(letter from a participant)

When setting the tone, I always try to leave the possibility of change open. As the class continue to explore each character - putting them in new situations, and speculating about what might happen - they often discover something unexpected. Sometimes, the characters stand on the verge of being transported to a different world. Sometimes all the action takes place within the same world, but as the story progresses characters discover new worlds within themselves.

Our characters are explored in more depth during the second classroom session. Through a series of brief exercises using first and third person, we all find out a little more about the main characters featured in the first episode.

At times I have been genuinely uncomfortable with some aspects of the characters, and this has added an extra dimension to the narrative. For example when given a teenage assassin, setting out on his first assignment, I felt compelled to introduce the possibility that he might not want to go through with actually killing someone. Somewhat to my relief, the class responded to the suggestion immediately.

Dear Dad
I’m so scared about my first mission, I have to do this though to find out if I’m really meant to be an assassin. It may be dangerous it may be scary but I want to grow up just like you. Were you this scared when you did your first mission? Because my heart is just about to jump out of my chest.  My stomach feels like it has a nest of butterflies in it. Do you feel like this when you do your missions? I’ve discovered something about myself. Dad, I used to think I was not scared of anything but actually I’m scared about death, being found out and put in prison. I’m so so scared Dad so scared. I’m finding things out about myself, things that might make you not want to be my dad.
(postcard from a character, classroom work)

I often work on the video trailers before writing the story episode, and the images and text included in the trailers sometimes push the narrative in a new direction, or give a unexpected sequence of events. The trailers seem to have a profound effect in the classroom too. I was quite worried that the trailers wouldn’t be sophisticated enough to satisfy young people who are doubtless used to watching high-budget movies. But there seems to be something magical about watching a trailer - however simple - that includes words, characters and actions that the class recognize as their own inventions.

I couldn’t wait until I saw the video clips, I felt like I was living the adventure. I think all our ideas have been an exhilarating mission, just as it is in the story.
(letter from a participant)

By the end of Episode Two, the main characters are ready to embark on some kind of journey. During the third classroom session the class draw maps to show where the characters are heading, and how and where their paths might cross. While in many ways this exercise could be seen as the least important for the narrative, this process enables participants who might not be so confident with their writing skills to really get to grips with the project and have a vital input. In fact, the value of the maps was made painfully obvious to me during one project when they were posted, rather than emailed, and went astray. I was left floundering with the next episode, quite literally wondering in which direction to go. 

At other times, the maps present me with new and unexpected elements, as the class devise visual landmarks and features they might not have thought of otherwise. In one project, a backwards clock unexpectedly appeared on a map. This ended up being an ideal driver for the remainder of the story, giving a sense of urgency and danger to the plot. Suddenly, the protagonists’ lives were at stake.

Extract from a Storyspinner episode:

“Behold.” The goblin pointed. “Time is running away with you.”

They had stopped in a small clearing. Huge trees were all around them. The air smelled sweet and was very heavy and still. Insects called from the trees like a strange, melodious lullaby. At the edge of the clearing was the biggest tree the children had ever seen. On its trunk, there was a round shape gouged into the wood. The children stepped a little closer.   Now they could see that the round shape was a clock face.   And the hands were moving, silently, slowly, backwards.

“By the Griffin’s name the clock moves widdershins already and you do not have much time left,” the goblin said, sorrowfully. Then it seemed to gather itself, and used a new, deliberately bright voice. “But, fear not, brave Voyagers from the Land Without, all things are not what they seem, and Time does not always play true.”

By the fourth episode, the story is usually virtually writing itself, and a huge vista of possible directions is opening up. But this is also the very stage where I need to start to think about possible endings, otherwise the story is in danger of running away with itself. The source material from the class is usually so rich, and there are so many possibilities to draw upon, that I have to be really ruthless in choosing the focus for the remainder of the story. This means making some tough decisions.

Extract of a letter from The Storyspinner:

I thought that the idea that the children might see illusions, or visions, was particularly interesting: “Charlie and Stella were in front of the talking tree. Next to it was the pot of silver, gold and bronze. That was only an illusion, it’s what they wanted to see because they were in the magical forest.” Perhaps this idea is something we can explore more later.

And I especially loved this description of the butterfly: “They started to walk towards the shiny butterfly, then the butterfly flew off leaving a wing behind.” When I read that, it made me gasp out loud because it was such a beautiful, but sad, image.”

The fifth session in the classroom focuses on dialogue, so for the ending of Episode Four I usually try to end at a point where some of the main characters are about to meet for the first time, or a confrontation is about to take place.
Because dialogue can be so direct, this is also the point where I can resolve any conundrums that I’m not sure of. For example, in one project there was a character, George, who was an ex-detective. At an earlier stage in the project I had chosen to focus on the fact that he was a failed ex-detective, because this seemed to offer a more interesting storyline.

George Bobster is no longer an optimistic man. The last few months have been very hard on him. Most of the time, his hands shake. Since he lost his job it got so hard to meet his own eyes in the mirror every morning that he grew a beard, instead. Trimming his goatee gives him something to focus on.  Despite the mess that his life has become, George likes to focus.

However, a few members of the class had written George with some very heroic traits. And so now was the time when I wanted to find out what the class really thought about George.

Extract from a Storyspinner episode:

There was a time, not so very long ago, when George Bobster would not have been afraid of an assailant with a knife. Just a few short months ago George would have been confident that, with a couple of swift moves, he could knock the knife clean out of Rosemary Puffle’s hand, without even breaking a sweat. But can he still do it? George isn’t sure. Has he still got what it takes?

Sometimes I get real surprises when I read the dialogues written in the classroom. This seems to be the moment where the class can change direction completely, or make a discovery about a character that none of us saw coming. Situations like these make for some interesting and unexpected endings.

Snippet of dialogue from the classroom work:

“What are you talking about?” screamed Mojo, ”let me go! Whatever you mean, I don’t want to hear it, we’re not even related!”
I didn’t like the look of this. Clive smiled evilly.
“Sorry Mojo, but you got that wrong. We are related. Don’t you see the resemblance between us?” Without waiting for an answer he continued, “I am your father Mojo.”
I gasped. I felt a horrible knot in my stomach. Clive? Clive couldn’t be Mojo’s father. Mojo was as white as a sheet. “Y-y-you can’t be my father. My father died in a fire years ago!”
Clive’s smile broadened. “Wrong again my brave little boy. Or should I say son? I was in a fire, but I didn’t die.” And now we’ve found each other, we can all live together as one happy family. You, your mum and I.”
And without another word he ran back into his hut with Mojo and slammed the door.

I usually try to give the last episode a feeling of finality, but without writing an explicit ending. This gives the class something to add, and a chance to write their own, different endings, and take the story beyond the scope of the project, if that’s what they choose.

Extract from a Storyspinner final episode:

“There are marksmen surrounding this clearing.” Luke’s dad announces in a crisp clear voice. “Clive the clown, I need you to raise your hands above your head.”

“Certainly,” Clive answers. He holds his hands up above his head, gives a last, loud laugh, and the air around him blurs.   A moment later, where he was standing, there is just the faintest flutter of the fallen autumn leaves. Clive the clown has disappeared.

*

Much later, Mojo and his mother are tearfully reunited. Mojo’s mother clasps Eva in her arms as well. “I knew you would help us,” she whispers. “Thank you.”
As they all gather their things together and leave the clearing, the sun shines down on a small pile of leaves. The leaves rustle, faintly, although there is not the slightest hint of a breeze. The air stands still and holds its breath, as if waiting for something.

Snippet of a possible ending from the classroom work:

Clive was seen once again after he had vanished but saw how much he had hurt his family and left with nothing except the cluster of leaves which filled the empty space. Luke’s dad and Mojo’s mum get together and an empty place in her shaken heart gets filled with love.....

Being The Storyspinner has kept my writing on its toes.   I’ve had to be ready to change tack just at the moment when I thought I was sure of the direction we were taking. I’ve had to find ways to make the unlikeliest of characters come together and become - unexpectedly - friends or even relatives. Making the trailers has been a lot of fun. My work has often combined video, images and sound, but most of my work responds to place or communities. As The Storyspinner, I am responding to the imaginings of a classroom full of young people. Just sometimes, it feels like those imaginations have no limits. That’s a wonderful discovery for a writer who was beginning to feel a little jaded within the confines of the national curriculum.

At the start of the Storyspinner program I didn’t connect with the characters as I thought it was just another school thing but after we got our first feedback I discovered that there was a lot more depth in the process of writing than I previously ever believed could be possible. I have loved designing the characters and it was great fun designing the locations and the journey each character would take. It was amazing watching the trailers and reading all the stories. I will never forget the story we created.
(letter from a participant)