Alan Gibbons

Teaching the craft

by Alan Gibbons

I am one of those peculiar hybrid creatures, a teacher-author. Or should that be author-teacher ? I travel the country not just talking about writing but teaching it, and getting a high level of satisfaction from the experience. I spend three days a week as author-in-residence at two Merseyside schools, Prescot County Primary and Simonswood Primary. On the fourth I make one-off visits to other schools in Knowsley, leading four writing lessons during the day. I complete my week by going round the country working with both primary and secondary schools.

The whole idea of teaching writing can be controversial. For the architects of the National Literacy Strategy it is a matter of model texts, of knowledge and basic skills, and the tight scaffolding of the writing process. This approach has been taken to task by none other than Whitbread prize-winner Philip Pullman. He ripostes: 'If joy isn't nourishing the roots of the work, it's never going to show in the flower. That truly is basic.' When asked what he would do if asked to plan and write a story in an hour for the Key Stage Two SATs, Pullman famously answered 'Run away!' I suspect that most writers would be happily jogging along by his side.

But teachers and authors can help children with their writing. That is precisely what many practitioners have to do every day. One sign of such an accommodation is the NLS/Book Trust Writing Together conferences, which bring together writers and teachers to plan stimulating and worthwhile school visits.

I write because I am driven by a love of story-telling, because I am thrilled by the rhythms and the cadences of memorable, resonant language. I teach because I want to convey that to the young people with whom I work. Any teacher worth their salt remembers the Wow! factor when they read something particularly memorable in one of their pupils' books, and that writing is always remarkable not because it slavishly follows the rules but because it does something which creatively tweaks them or goes beyond them altogether. Little wonder then that I was excited by the prospect of my work as author-in-residence. Knowsley as an authority and the two schools mentioned are to be congratulated for making the long-term investment in writing. A sub-text to the author residences has been addressing the problem of boys' relative under-achievement in writing.

So I decided on my own personal battle-plan. I start my days with a forty-minute talk explaining why I write, how I came to do it and what it means to me. Then it is off to class, writing in a range of genres.

Poetry has included haiku and tankas, cinquains, lists, elegies, poems based on Yoruba animal poetry or Gareth Owen's My Granny is a Sumo Wrestler. Non-fiction has included : How to bake a Michael Owen cake, Vampire-slaying for beginners, How to build an IKEA teacher, a job advertisement for a trainee Santa, a newspaper interview with the Big Bad Wolf and so on. The aim was to lead pacy lessons in which the children had a firm structure on which to base their work, but also the freedom to experiment. Points of grammar and punctuation usually arise organically from the writing or are addressed in re-drafting. In many cases, recognising the need for time, teachers have continued the work over several lessons. The approach has proved particularly effective with those reluctant boys about whom the press are so concerned.

But my first love of course is narrative fiction. One lesson in particular illustrates my approach. I introduce the students to the opening paragraph of my BBC story Tunnel Vision, then show them how I use tension to develop a ghost story. I break the lesson into three sections, each focusing the children on a different stage of the story's exposition, looking at metaphor, simile, dialogue and resolution. Ideally, I only work with the students on their opening paragraph or two. The class teacher then pursues the work in a sequence of lessons. The introductory lesson ends with a showing of the TV dramatisation of the story. In other words I don't tell them how to write. I demonstrate one author's approach and the various narrative techniques he uses. My aim is to present the pupils with a repertoire of genres and writing skills. It is from this range that they can begin to forge their own personal style.

Throughout the year I have seen young people who were vibrantly enthusiastic about reading and writing. Boys who are on the special needs register have been reading their work to packed school assemblies.What's more, my PC has been inundated with e-mails from young writers. I always make it a policy to reply to and comment on their work. Honest, supportive criticism is so important to the emergent writer.

Finally there has been one unexpected, incidental and entirely pleasing outcome. Working with young writers has given me a lot of material for my own writing. Education, as I ought to have known, is a two-way process.

Alan Gibbons is a Blue Peter Book Award winner and has been shortlisted for the Carnegie Medal.


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