Wicked writing lessons for children
Motivation and confidence are key to getting children writing, says Michael Morpurgo
Wicked winners 2012: Michael Morpurgo (front) with members of the cast and finalists at last year’s Wicked Young Writers’ Awards
The first book that the award-winning writer and former British children’s laureate Michael Morpurgo put his name to was Children’s Words, a compendium of poetry for children that was published in 1972.
“I think I picked up very early on in my career as a teacher,” he says, “that the two most important things to get children writing are motivation and confidence – seeing that their work is being treated with respect.”
The book put the work of children (including a 13-year-old Daniel Day-Lewis) “side by side with the juvenilia of a writer like Coleridge, and for a child to see that something they wrote can belong in the same book as a great writer is part of the same process, is one of the most important things you can do to build their confidence.”
Morpurgo is now well known for his historical children’s fiction, including Private Peaceful and War Horse, which has been turned into both a film and a play. He started his professional life as primary-school teacher, and was directly inspired by his work with young children to turn his hand to children’s fiction.
“I discovered early on that the way I could empower children the most was to help them find their voices as writers. I noticed that there was a lot of fear about writing: getting spelling and punctuation correct, getting your handwriting neat. But we read stories aloud every day in the classroom, and it [became clear] that essentially, it all comes from speech, which is natural for children who love talking and telling stories.”
Morpurgo noticed the stumbling block for children came not at the moment of creative invention but in the act of writing the story down. “Inhibition comes when they are putting their stories on to paper,” he says. “We need to encourage them to understand that this writing thing is for everyone, not just for clever or talented people, and the more books that you read, the easier your facility will become, the more you will be able to access. We wrote stories every day, and I found that the more I encouraged children to forget about being ‘right’, and to focus on the world around them and their place within it, the more engaged and the better their writing became.”
A similar belief in the relationship between reading and writing has inspired a new Arts Council-funded writer’s residency, administered by the education initiative of the Church of Ireland College of Education. It was awarded this year to the children’s writer Sheena Wilkinson. The idea arose out of the Write to Read Literacy Project being piloted in primary schools. It was initiated as a response to results in the OECD’s Programme for International Student Assessment (Pisa) test. This found that Ireland dropped down the league table from fifth to 17th place during assessments in 2006 and 2009.
The Write to Read Literacy Project is based on an award-winning study by Dr Eithne Kennedy, Raising Literacy Achievement in Disadvantaged Schools: Empowering Classroom Teachers through Professional development. The strategy focuses on building children’s higher-order thinking skills – synthesis, evaluation, inference, critical analysis, problem-solving – in reading, writing and oral language, to enable them to develop as readers, writers and thinkers.
It also involves a whole-community approach, with afterschool and summer projects, as well as parental involvement, playing key roles. Working with first and second classes at a disadvantaged Dublin primary school, the programme has resulted in a 75 per cent drop in the number of children reading at the lowest level and an improvement of 20 per cent in reading at the highest level. Teachers reported increased confidence and expectations for their pupils, who began to see themselves as readers, writers and thinkers, both inside and outside school.
The writer-in-residence helps to encourage an appreciation of creative writing among teachers and children, as well as an appreciation of the richness and diversity of children’s books. Crucially, it also encourages teachers to express their own writing and storytelling creativity.
For Morpurgo, the teacher-child relationship is vital in sustaining an interest in reading and creative writing, both within and outside the classroom. Although he left formal teaching after 10 years, he still considers himself to be involved in education, and uses the storytelling skills he learned as a young teacher in the school visits and children’s book festivals that dominate his schedule.
At his Farms for City Children charity, which he founded with his wife, Clare, in 1976, he says that reading and writing are the priority once farm chores are finished.
Now that he is a professional writer, Morpurgo admits the dynamics of the classroom have changed. When he visits a school, for example, the first responsibility for his connection with the children lies with the teacher rather than with him.
“If the children haven’t read any of the books, you are just a bloke standing there talking about writing, but when the teacher makes a point of reading around and through the stories, the children feel they know you because they know your work. Then you can explain to them why you write the things you write, and be specific, telling them, ‘Here is the notion the book began with; this event fed in to it,’ and they can see that storytelling is a conscious kind of dream-making.
“It is important to me that I still connect with children [in an educational context], because when children meet a professional writer they see that books exist in the real world, that reading and writing are not just something you do at school.”
Young writers’ competition
Morpurgo’s continued belief in the importance of education for nurturing a passion for young writers and readers is also one of the reasons he got involved with the Wicked young-writers award.
It was established in association with the popular musical, which has its Irish premiere at the Bord Gáis Energy Theatre in Dublin on November 27th. The musical, which is set in a boarding school in the magical land of Oz, deals with a variety of themes pertinent to a school audience, including difference, bullying and different types of achievement.
Entrants to the competition are allowed to write on any subject, and entry is open to residents between the ages of five and 25 of the Republic of Ireland and Northern Ireland. Scott Wilson, a student at Knockbreda High School in Belfast, was the winner in last year’s 15- to 17-year-old category, for his story The Soldier’s Wife.
“The idea,” Morpurgo says, “is to set young writers on fire by giving them some sense that people are prepared to have a serious discussion about their writing, a sense that they can be published too. And we take it very seriously. It is important that we bring our judgments to it, that we consider their efforts with respect. It is this type of encouragement that lets them feel that they have done something worthwhile and it is being recognised.”
The closing date for Wicked Young Writers is January 19th. writetoread.ie, wickedyoungwriters.com. Wicked is at the Bord Gáis Energy Theatre from November 27th to January 19th
MICHAEL MORPURGO’S WRITING TIPS
Live an interesting life.
Dream the idea inside your head first.
Speak your writing on to the page.
Write it out it again. This time make the words tell your story a little more carefully
Read it out loud.
Help children find their writing voice.
Respond not just to what is written but how it is written.
Create an interest in the writing process: make it a feature of your teaching that you provide insights into the different ways writers work.
Provide high-quality feedback on children’s writing: remember that the writing belongs to the writer and avoid the temptation to take control.
Attune children’s ears to high-quality writing: the importance of reading aloud cannot be overstated.
Create a rich environment: surround children with interesting pictures, posters, writing prompts and books made by children.