Over the years I’ve visited lots of schools – first in Scotland, through the Schools Library Service and Scottish Book Trust’s Book Bus, and more recently in Wakefield and Leeds. I’ve had some lovely feedback, but I sometimes wonder if I’m actually using my skills and expertise in the best possible way. So I’ve decided to devote some time to developing and refining my teaching resources, and I’ll share them on this page.
A bit of background
My agenda, when visiting a school, is to:
1. help children become more conscious of the power of their own imaginations
2. demystify how stories are put together.
The reason I focus on imagination and story-structure is because I’m trying to make up for the deficiencies in my own early education. Looking back at my primary-school self, I’m very aware of all the things that went flying over my head, things I just didn’t understand because they weren’t spelled out to me.
Yes, I know I keep banging on about this all over my website, but when I was a child people used to say to me, ‘For goodness sake, use your imagination!’ and in the next breath they’d yell, ‘Oy you! Stop daydreaming!’
So why do I keep coming back to this? Because I have a real issue with the distinction between imagination and daydreaming, and with the whole idea that daydreaming is somehow lazy, avoidant, self-indulgent and unproductive.
- daydreaming is play – playing with virtual actions and events so as to produce particular emotions within yourself
- creative writing is play – playing with virtual actions and events so as to produce particular emotions in a reader.
So whenever I can get a class of children writing, we start by discussing daydreams and before we write we sit in silence for a minute (it seems like an eternity) daydreaming about what we’re going to write. It’s almost painful to maintain the silence and the appearance of doing nothing even for a minute. Grown-ups like activity, it reassures us that “work” is being done. But apparent inactivity is often when the most creative ideas occur (some of my best eureka moments have come to me on long, boring train journeys, in the bath or on the toilet…)
When you run a story in your head like a film reel, stopping, zooming in, zooming out, panning round to see if you can spot anything else interesting, rewinding and trying it out another way, seeing a character in your head, stepping into their shoes, feeling what they feel… that’s daydreaming… it’s a special, purposeful brand of daydreaming but it’s daydreaming nonetheless.
The second memory from my schooldays is being repeatedly told that every story should have a beginning, middle and end. This was never explained or elucidated. It was just repeated like a mantra. Every story should have a beginning, middle and an end… So has a piece of string! It’s something I feel quite angry about, because it took me years – decades – to pull what I instinctively understood, from having read so many stories as a child, right to the front of my brain so I could consciously use it as a tool to help me write.
Where does the beginning end and the middle begin? Where does the middle end and the end begin? These are the important questions that we should be teaching children the answers to. So when I visit schools I try to demonstrate how problems and desires drive stories, and how that affects – even dictates – story structure.
Here are some of the resources I plan to post
- Problems, Problems, Problems! Here’s a game I developed to show how everyone’s favourite stories are driven by problems. Shuffle the story cards and give one to each child. They then have to find their partner, who has the other card associated with their story. This involves a lot of poring over one another’s cards and discussion about what the story is. Once they’ve found their partner. Each pair in turn stands up and reads out their story e.g “Four children find a wonderful, magical land.” “BUT the land is ruled by a cruel witch who makes sure that it’s always winter and never Christmas…” At which point all the children shout out “The Lion, the Witch and the Wardrobe!” (or “Narnia!”) and you can point out that this well-known story – like almost every other story the children know – is centred around a problem.
- Story Starters* I have a hard disk full of opening paragraphs, so I’ll post them here as story starters.
- Let’s get cooking A video about the creative process, using cooking as a metaphor to illustrate the importance of planning, revision and proofing, but also that it’s OK to get things wrong and make a mess, and that you have to use trial and error if you want to make something new.
- The Yin and Yang of Story Only I know what this is at the moment!
- Tell Me When it’s All Over A call my bluff game to help children think about what makes a satisfying end to a story.