Wednesday, 3 April 2013

Working with Very Able and Talented Children

Encouraging very able and talented children with creative writing in and out of the classroom.

 This post ties in with my current feature for SCBWI online magazine Words and Pictures.

Very Able and Talented children (previously termed as Gifted and Talented - G&T) are the top 10% of pupils in each age cohort, as identified by the school, and are then placed on a gifted and talented register. Not all very able and gifted children are good at all subjects. Don't assume that because a child is gifted at maths that s/he can read or write well, or that if a child is talented at writing they are equally good at science. Generally they relate well to learning and enjoy engaging in learning activities for many subjects, but that doesn't mean they won't have challenging behaviours at times or try to get out of working (particularly if they find the subject matter boring, or too easy) .As with any child, don't make assumptions about them just because of the label!

Very Able and Talented children can often be regarded by their peers as the odd ones out in school and can become isolated or find socialising difficult. Very able and talented children deserve an opportunity to interact and accept guidance from a teacher as much as any other child, but because there are so many differing abilities in one class and the priority is to support weaker learners, gifted children are often left to do the work on their own. They may be able to handle this, but it's not always interesting or challenging enough for them. Sessions outside of schools, such as residential weekends at centres such as Kilve Court Education Residential Centre and Leeson House Field Studies Centre, offer opportunities for children to interact with others similar to themselves, and also, importantly, find themselves in a more equal, stimulating and challenging environment.

This post will mainly discuss my experience of running Very Able and Talented courses in the education centres mentioned above. However, I will also touch on bringing some of these principles into the classroom as well.  I believe that teachers have a responsibility to not only promote and encourage children to attend Very Able and Talented courses and workshops, but also to bring the ideas and ethos into the school where every pupil can benefit for them. This is where artists, writers, scientists, musicians etc.can really add depth and interest and bring a new way of thinking to a class.

For the rest of this post I will refer to Very Able and Talented workshops/courses/ideas as Enrichment . I feel this term sums up what the prime ethos is - to enrich the learning lives of our children in the most interesting ways that we can. My thoughts and comments reflect only my beliefs and experiences and not those of any organisation or body that I refer to.  My Enrichment courses mostly run with twelve to fifteen pupils in school years four to six. Groups can sometimes be as small as four pupils or as large as twenty-five to thirty. For Enrichment weekends twelve seems a good number.


Core aspects of Enrichment courses that can be bought into the classroom.

  •  Guidance - children are inspired by seeing something first hand. Involve yourself in the tasks and discussions. Treat the children like equals, listen to their points and questions and ask them to expand on them. Children who are top of the class without too much effort can really thrive on pushing at their own limitations and being expected to raise their thinking even higher. It's not about teaching, but about guiding them into a new way of approaching the subject.
  • Empowerment – children take responsibility for their learning, decision making and problem solving. They feel empowered by their progress and earn real ownership over their work.
  • Independence – no story starts or first lines. No whole ideas given to them, just glimpses.
  • Responsibility for learning – they choose how much work they put into the story, they are given blank pieces of paper to fill. Scary but satisfying. This doesn't mean they only work for as long as they want, it comes back to your guidance. Read their work, ask them about it, point out where it's not working, praise everything that works and then ask them how they will develop/improve it.
  • Problem solving – e.g. craft making, map making, paper engineering – letting them work it out for themselves. If they are struggling give them options. You could do this... or this... or this... what do you think?
  • Experimentation and exploring – with writing and also in craft. Let them try out their ideas. If it didn’t work – why didn’t it?
  • Making mistakes – encourage them to write in pen so they can see the changes they make to a piece of work and to be confident about writing. Pen also lasts longer and photocopies better.
  • Sharing and discussing work - encourage children to read their work aloud to the group, getting feedback, discussing what is working and what is not working. Encourage them to learn that you can’t argue people into understanding what you have in your head, you have to lead them to it with your words.

  • Social experience and interaction – talking with like-minded children, getting excited over the same things, encouraging each other, helping each other.
  • Time – to learn, make mistakes, work on one project in a concentrated period of time (e.g.a weekend). 
Weekend Enrichment courses are not just an extension of school. This is children’s own time, they must be building on and learning more than what they do in the classroom. It should be engaging and enjoyable to really get the best out of them.

I tutor creative writing, I do not teach English.     

Teachers provide the grammar, I provide guidance to help them create something with the building blocks they have learnt (structure, atmosphere, characters, plotting, showing not telling, embedded description, language, using techniques such as similes/metaphors/adjectives sparingly but effectively).

My courses use craft, art, outings, dressing up etc to bring alive the physicality of writing. It lifts writing off the page and out of the notebook, but it's important that the activity is not just ‘tagged’ on. It needs to be embedded into the writing so that the two exist together.


An Enrichment session would run like:
Make it seem big, impossible e.g. a book with a secret compartment, make a world, discover a creature, make a book from scratch. 

But the idea has to have a simple essence
The rockets/worlds/creatures/ can be created with knowledge the child already has, they just have to refine it, e.g. rockets designed by knowing the right information, worlds created by descriptions, creatures discovered using what they know about nature etc. Nothing should be out of reach, but it must seem as though it might be.

Free reign and a blank page
Allow the child freedom to explore, experiment, make mistakes, be silly
and try again.
We deliberately have no worksheets on outings. Children take notebooks and we stop to encourage them to look around, suggest things to them, ask them to feed back to the group. We set them tasks such as listen to the sounds think up an onomatopoeic word to describe them, write it down, look at the light, think up similes/metaphors, write a paragraph describing how you feel simply through describing the surroundings. 
Create a story map when you get back to the classroom

Using group workshopping, one-to-one tutorials we work on the stories. Emphasis is on reworking, not completing. There is no 'right' or 'wrong'/'good' or 'bad' writing, only writing that is working and writing that is not working. Ensure children have the right terminology and understand it before letting them workshop together. Join in to guide the first attempts at workshopping,

Methods for encouraging discussion:
  •  Group work– peer assessment/social interaction.
  • Encourage discussion and debate.
  • No story starts, no corrections only suggestions e.g. how could you show character here, this is a dramatic moment, but I don’t understand what’s happening.
  • Class and group discussions on what is working and why.
  • Questions encouraged/challenging what we say.
  • Writing exercises.
  • Lots of one-to-one tutorial time.
  • Read-arounds - stories are shared without any critical feedback, everyone just applauds and thanks the reader for sharing.
Enrichment key words
Blank page
Free Reign

How can this be brought into the classroom? How can we plan something that includes every child not just Able and Talented, but that is challenging the Able and Talented children too?

Possible Ideas
  • Newsletter/magazine written by and made by children for the school
  • Play that the children write, direct and stage themselves for the teachers
  • A project that can be worked on over a number of weeks
  • Blog/website that needs to be updated (be aware of safeguarding issues)
  • Children led competitions/book panels, book clubs
  • Storytelling - first to the children and then to each other. (Roald Dahl’s revolting rhymes is an excellent way to story tell - I will post about how to use them later this week).

 Examples of writing exercises/activities/filler activities:
  • Group poem exercise –using poems, stories, articles, their own writing.
  • Post card/objects exercise – can be done factually or as fiction (not ‘what is it?’ but ‘what could it be?’)
  • Consequences exercise – story structure can be as silly or as serious as you want. Ask them to include similes/adjectives etc.
  • Group story map - can be done after trips out, walks, inside – collective memory and shared experience.
  •  Book making
  • Bookmark making
  • Feather book
  • Collage 
Future posts will look at these exercises in more depth and give more information/resources on when and how to use them.

In the meantime more information on gifted children can be found here, and you can read more about my courses on the SCBWI Magazine, or on my old Creative Creatures website.

Bye for now!

Words and Pictures

I am very excited to be a part of the SCBWI Online Magazine Words and Pictures. My first feature can be viewed here.

SCBWI is a fantastic place for writers and illustrators of children's books to get together and share ideas and experiences whether they be new writers, published writers or just
dabbling their toes in the pool of creativity.

My feature for Words and Pictures is about my writing workshops that I have been running for over ten years. Over the next few days I will be posting more information and resources to link in with that feature, so stay tuned if you're interested!

The next post this afternoon will focus on running workshops for very able and talented children.

See you then!

Writing workshops for children are full on, but fun and inspiring.

Tuesday, 2 April 2013

Story Knitting

"The brain is reached through rhythm - through rhyme, not reason...Needlework, by definition regular and repetitive, both soothes and stimulates the artist within. Whole plots can be stitched up while we sew."

Julia Cameron
The Artist's  Way, Pan Books, London 1995 p.22

The quote above refers to 'filling the well', the creative well inside us which, if full enough, can overflow with ideas. 

Repetitive activities do often allow my brain to tick over nicely and stretch itself. Often I write scenes in my head while driving, or washing up, or out walking; the creative part of my brain is allowed to fly free and unfettered by the other, more sensible part that's always trying to reign it in. That part's too busy remembering where the biting point is, or scrubbing at hardened pasta sauce, or navigating the cow pats and puddles. If I feel my writing begin to falter, if I can't see the story in my head any more, I know it's time for a project to fill up my creative well once more.
This time my project is a snowy one:

Snow Dog knitting pattern from ecclebooks, Amazon
I’m going to knit the Snowman's Snow Dog for my two year old niece for her birthday in October. 

This may not seem like much of a challenge (especially because we're barely in April), but there’s something you should know – I am not a natural knitter.

I have invented whole new ways to mess up knitting. I can start with 40 stitches on one needle and after many painstaking and curse-filled minutes later I have, magically, 41 stitches on the other needle. Then I’ll knit and knit and decrease the row by one to get back to 40 – and end up with 38.

I don’t know how I do it. Lack of concentration? Carelessness? A knitting gremlin cheerfully sitting on the end of my needle picking up and dropping stitches?

All of the above?

But I want to knit. I enjoy it when I get going. The gentle rhythm takes over, the smoothness of the needles as they slide back and forth magically tying the wool into knots that will become a something. When I’m doing well it’s almost meditative. 

Up until now I’ve done knitting for no purpose, just for the sake of it. But now I want to make something, I’m taking it seriously. I refuse to ‘make do.’ If I make a mistake, back I go and correct it, there’s no shrugging it off any more.

So what’s this got to do with stories?

Well, firstly, for me, this knitting project is a story. It started with me being enchanted with the Snow Dog on BBC over Christmas, it evolved into discovering my little niece was also enchanted with the Snow Dog and it became a link between us. We live almost 100 miles apart, I don’t see her as much as I would like too and so I want to give her a Snow Dog, because the Snow Dog is magical and full of hope. I want to make the Snow Dog myself because I want to put love into it, not money, and when he's made, I want to pack him in a box (with air holes of course) and tie it up with a ribbon and see her face when she unwraps him.

Secondly, I’m enjoying the challenge of taking my time over something that doesn’t come easily to me. I can tap out words with relative ease. They may not be fantastic, but they are always competent and serviceable. To work at writing, I have to make an effort because it’s easy to coast along.

Knitting, however, makes me take time, to think, to struggle, to try and try again.And that's a worthwhile lesson to relearn. It’s easy to get lazy with the things you love and the things that you are good at. How often I make do with a sentence, a description, a scene, a chapter because it’s good. It’s good, but it’s not brilliant. It could be better. You have to remember to keep pushing yourself, to keep raising the bar.

And that leads into my final reason, which returns us to the quote from Julia Cameron at the top of the page.

Engaging your brain in an activity such as knitting is soothing, harmonious, it creates a quiet within (once you've got past the swearing bit) and from that quiet comes the rhythm and colour of words and sentences and stories and beautiful gossamer ideas. Learning to knit has helped me learn to listen to myself once again. It has reminded me of the importance of learning, of making mistakes of going back and correcting them and I hope that when I begin writing once more I will do so without dropping my stitches, or finding myself with more of them than I need.

In Witch of Portobello by Paulo Coelho (Harper Collins Publishers, London 2007) evoke' a spiritual presence, just as the main character Athena deliberately dances out of rhythm for the same reason: 'I knitted much faster and better after that, just as Athena danced with much more soul and rhythm once she had dared to break down those barriers.' (pp. 232-236). This has always stuck with me - that to really understand yourself and your art you must pull it apart and break it and then rebuild it.

For now, I'm continuing my knitting project. I'm making a practice dog first. He's taking shape, and as I construct him out of nothing more than strands of yarn weaving around eachother I cannot escape the metaphor of story strands shaping themselves into a something and I let my mind wander into the blank pages and begin to fill them with words.

For other posts on Julia Cameron's The Artist's Way you can visit my old blog: here