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Late in 2009, five Lincoln schools - Witham St Hughs Primary (which became Witham St Hughs Academy in 2012), Bassingham Primary, Swinderby All Saints C of E Primary, Brant Broughton C of E Methodist Primary and Ling Moor Primary – joined forces to seek funding for a project involving two dozen Gifted & Talented pupils from years 5 and 6. The plan was for the children to work intensively with a writer to produce fiction and non-fiction pieces which would ultimately be published as a book through Scholastic’s “We Are Writers” scheme.

The funding application was successful, I was recruited as the writer and - in consultation with Helen Patmore, the teacher who was co-ordinating the project - I set about putting together a series of four customised workshops to be held at monthly intervals at Witham St Hughs:

Workshop 1 focussed on fiction writing. Among the things the children learned were: how to structure stories so that they hold the reader’s attention; simple techniques for injecting tension and drama; how to create strong characters and give them believable motives for doing what they do; how to take everyday incidents – things that happen to them all the time – and add elements that will turn them into exciting stories; they also learned about back story, character journey; inciting incidents and the importance of re-drafting and polishing your work– and if you think that certain elements sound a bit earnest and complex for 10- and 11-year olds, you’d probably change your mind if so saw how engaged and enthusiastic the children were, and how many laughs we all had throughout the day. The writing exercises that the children did during the workshop prepared them for their first main task: creating a short story for inclusion in the book. They had a month to write their stories – with me available via e-mail to give advice on their work and make suggestions – before I returned for ..

Witham St Hughs workshop

Workshop 2, in which we tackled non-fiction writing – specifically, writing to inform. The children learned a simple (and fun) way of recognising the key element of what they were planning to write about, and then using that knowledge to choose between two fail-safe ways of beginning a piece of writing. They also learned five effective ways of ending their piece and then set about putting together a newspaper story, armed with the basic facts and quotes from a real story which I had written for a newspaper. In between times, they had fun with a couple of games designed to get them using their full vocabulary and to avoid repetition in their writing – something which I’m told has teachers throughout the land tearing their hair out in frustration! The task they were set at the end of the day was to interview their classmates, their teachers and me, and to write a report on the workshops project.

Workshop 3 stayed with the non-fiction theme, but the focus switched to persuasive writing. Elements we covered included: focussing on who your audience is and targeting your writing at them; persuasive techniques used in advertisements; creating empathy with your reader; putting your point of view in a way that makes it difficult to oppose; and more. The children practised the skills they had acquired by creating posters for a disaster appeal, and were set the final task of writing a persuasive piece on the subject of Overseas Aid. An important element of this workshop was the way in which it drew on the effective techniques for beginning and ending a piece of writing which I had taught them previously. The orthodox way of teaching children how to write persuasively is to get them to state their intentions at the start and sum up at the end – but there are alternative and often more effective ways of beginning and ending a piece of persuasive writing, and I am a great believer in offering children a variety of strong options and letting them choose the one that suits them best.

Workshop 4 re-introduced fiction writing, much to the delight of the children, who were itching to let their imagination run riot again - and they got the chance to do that by becoming scriptwriters for the day. Using examples from my own work, I showed them how to tackle some of the challenges that scriptwriting presents: telling a story purely through action and dialogue, rather than having the luxury of being able to describe a character’s personality and thoughts in prose. They learned about subtext and the art of writing good dialogue; they learned the importance of visualising and how to grab and hold an audience’s attention – and then they set about writing their own short scripts, which they performed as a memorable finale to the day.

I think it is fair to say that the project proved to be a success, since I was asked to return in 2011 and host four more workshops along the same lines. Since some of the Year 5 Gifted and Talented children who had taken part in the 2010 project would also be participating in these new workshops, I varied the content somewhat - combining all the elements of non-fiction writing into a single day and introducing fresh elements of fiction writing, including an additional form of structure and exercises highlighting the conflicting roles of protagonists and antagonists. And in subsequent years I re-worked the content yet again, in order to deliver more multiple workshops for 2012, 2013, 2014 and 2015. The Witham St Hughs project is proving to be a long-running saga!

Here's what Helen Patmore has to say about it all:

“The children thoroughly enjoyed the opportunity to develop their writing skills with a professional writer.  Working with students from other schools added a further dimension to the project, and it wasn’t long before their creative ideas were flying around the room. The children’s enthusiasm for the writing workshops was evident in the way they completed their writing tasks at home between sessions, returning with their finished work to share with the group. 

Guided by Rick, the children’s confidence in their own writing abilities grew session by session.  The final collection of work, published at the end of the project, illustrates the success of these workshops in inspiring the children to write.
                    Helen Patmore – teacher, Witham St Hughs Academy

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