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Writers' club: Dartmouth Community College.

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Meeting No. 396

The bell rings for end of morning school on the last day of the summer term, 2007. On one of the library tables (three tables forming an octagon) there are a few A5 writing books and some pots in the centre containing felt tip pens, biros, Pritt Sticks and scissors. Fanned out around these are little trimmed copies of the new meeting's starter:
 Where are you going to,
 Knighton?
 To take a baby home


Twelve of us. We stick the starter in our books and prepare to write, the timer set for four minutes. Simon (Year 7, in charge today) reads out the words and says: 'One, two, three, commence'. We write in silence before the beeper sounds and then Simon asks members to title their work and read these out ('starting with Charlie and going round through Tia'), after which he chooses members to invite to read out their work, and most do. The rest of us listen, comment and sometimes applaud (Emily's and Celia's are especially popular). Next, as it's lunch, we've time for the One Minute Dip and the Alphabet Trek. In a Pot of Words I've put two- or three-word phrases cut from photocopied poems and folded, phrases like in her teeth, no one answers, the last thing and pure freedom. For the One Minute Dip the timer is set for a minute and someone selects a phrase that members must write down and use as the beginning of their piece, before continuing. For the Alphabet Trek, members have a minute to compose a cryptic clue to the word we've each picked from a second Pot of Words. I've been leafing through Chambers Dictionary from A to, so far, I. The words ICE, IDEA, IDIOT, IGNORANT and ILL will be first in the Pot next term. My own clue for HOP in this meeting goes:
 'one foot to the same foot
 down the street
 they think you're odd
 the people you meet'


The bell rings for afternoon school and Sara takes the biscuit tin round at the end of the club's 396th and last meeting of the year.

The starter

You act as if you've written it yourself, an interesting idea you've had which, in four minutes and 80-100 words, you are going to develop.

No candles on the cake? Why?

This starter is dated 21st June in my book, and I'd continued: 'Because there's been a shortage of bees this year, of course. The flowers have been crying ... '. What I did, and everybody else did too, was not just to take on the idea of the cake without candles but also the peremptory manner of the questions (and the announcement).
 White animals, like stones, had laid a
 trail behind us.


There's the starter (lunch, July 9th) but here's the rule: 'WRITE, IN THE SILENCE PROVIDED'. The point of the meeting, every meeting, was not primarily the starter but the writing, as demonstrated every so often by someone cutting out three words only and sticking these in their book, or announcing before reading out: 'I didn't use the starter'. Its very dispensability safeguarded its potency.

Members used the starter to write themselves into new cognitive, aesthetic, linguistic and affective territories. It offered them not just a situation but a position, not only a scene or a plot, but also a mood, a manner, a register, a style. This is the way the gentleman rides, light-heartedly pompous in tone, lends itself to repetition and rhyme and evokes memories of infancy. I shall hold you to me as clouds hold the moon invites a simile sequence and much tenderness. Often, starters are paradoxes, puzzles of some kind requiring a narrative investigation and solution as with, It was always a clever ghost, always somewhere else. My favourite of the year, possibly, is the one below, a drawing from Japanese Graphics Now and a single line from a poem:

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Rationale

'Shakespeare knew what interested him, and preoccupied him, only after he had written it down.' (Peter Ackroyd)

'Writing is what you do not know before it is written.' (Helen Cixous)

'No surprise to author, none to reader.' (Robert Frost)

'I really do think with my pen because my head often knows nothing about what my hand is writing.' (Wittgenstein)

Special needs

In November, used to seeing five or six people writing and reading out twice a day in the library, special needs students suddenly doubled the size of the group. By the end of the year seven of these students (in Years 7 and 8) were among the twenty who had attended most often. It wasn't until the middle of December that I realised who (status-wise) Simon, Wendy, Travis, Kenny, Kath, Alan, Brian (Year 7) and Sara, Anette, Hilary (Year 8) actually were: students who had found writing and reading skills elusive since Reception class.

I could have guessed because I'd sometimes glanced through books left on the table, but it would have made no difference if I had. The reason I didn't guess was that these students were as devoted to the club as everyone else was. They wrote, they took charge of meetings, they read out their work and they liked a biscuit at the end. I had, in fact, thought about particular needs: my own (did I have something to prove?), Emily's (Year 7, advanced vocabulary, superb performer, friendless in college), Lara's (Year 11, being counselled for anger management), Barry's (Year 14, day after day--to much adulation--reading out his work to kids). But if there weren't needs there wouldn't be a club and that put a quick end to that line of speculation.

Encountering the names of so many members' names in the school's Learning Strategies for Special Needs Students booklet changed nothing materially but it did enlarge my idea of what was going on and, I confess, gave me as much satisfaction as anything else that occurred in the year. The meetings were exclusive but only in the sense that they were so consistently packed as to deter many students from attending. If my special need was to find a mixed ability home in school (and that's another story) then I found it here: staff, adult visitors, sixth formers, Year 11s, KS3 and KS2 students, the gifted, the failing, the neither: they came, they wrote, they read out--between lessons.

Equipment

Writing books, felt tips, pens, scissors, Pritt Sticks, timer, pots, biscuits, various 'mascots' and writing books (spiral-bound, plastic-covered and costing 1-1.50 [pounds sterling] from Tesco, Woolworth, Sainsbury, W.H.Smith, Asda).

These items contributed a great deal to the club's impressive stamina. In the 'Review' section of Saturday's Guardian, over several months recently, photographs of writers' studies have been featured along with writers' descriptions of these, their writing place filled with ... pots, pens, 'mascots' and memorabilia, shelves full of books, paper and writing books/pads, waste-paper basket (Graham Swift, 28.07.07). Early in the year I tidied up after every meeting but it didn't take long before I didn't and the octagonal table became permanently claimed by the Writers' Club, its members' study.

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Performance

Sara's first meeting was the 59th, at break on October 31st. She was keen to read out but, stumbling over nearly every word, made a terrible bodge of it. 'Read it through beforehand,' I said, 'please, you must.' She read just as badly at lunch, and the next day, and the next. Before Sara's arrival, reading out was fluent and convincing but now, suddenly and at precisely the moment when the group was doubling its size, reading out became a problem. I thought things might fall apart. Not only had members read their work well but had enjoyed this part of the meeting especially, both as performers and as audience. But Sara took three times as long as anyone else and no one could get the gist of anything she said anyway. But she didn't miss a meeting for the next two months and, by the summer holidays, had attended 266 times. She was dedicated. How did the club survive? The week after Sara's arrival not only was her reading out much improved but we were applauding what she read for its charm and originality. The basic skill she was quick to learn was how to write legibly (for herself) at speed. Once she could do that she was able to phrase, emphasise, intonate and inflect in performance. Thirdly, she mastered the skill of hearing her work as she wrote it. Everyone did. No one started as disastrously as Sara, but few managed to be, so regularly, quite as adept. When I told her, 'Read over your work,' I disobeyed my own (secret) rule: don't advise. 'Don't be mean, Sir,' someone had said, simultaneously confirming the rightness of the rule and censuring me for breaking it.

There was a fourth skill: not reading out, deselecting oneself at the moment of asking. Tia and Charlie (Year 7) and Celia (Year 8) declined to read out as often as they accepted, as I did, though sometimes because I had my eye on the clock. In regularly reading out and not reading out these students demonstrated to the group: modesty, unselfishness and judgement.

Every meeting was a publication in itself. As the early weeks passed I used to lament what I considered to be 'lost' work, as if I were a publisher hearing good material going down the drain daily. No one else turned a hair. But one day I wrote a piece that was very well received by the group and that was when the penny dropped: you wrote, people listened, job done. Wider audience? What for? (Well, sometimes for specific reasons ... see 'Beyond the library table', below.)

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Membership 90 contributors; 396 meetings (average meeting size: 9.65 members); 3821 attendances (103 per week).

Beyond the library table

By Easter the 'Artists of the Week' sheet had been established, an A4 colour photocopied page featuring the work (a painting and a poem) of two students produced every week and pinned up in classrooms. In May 'The Loop' arrived, a sequential collage of school life on screen in the reception area, creative writing in abundance. In May and June two 'writing walks' took place, Writers' Club members holding eight meetings on each day--by the sea and by the river, in an orchard and a wood, in parks, churches and medieval ruins. The first walk was filmed and the DVD comprises stunning views, students walking and writing and a soundtrack of music and poems (recorded after).

Throughout the Summer Term The Anthology 2007 was taking shape, sixty pages of poems, paintings, textiles and photography, the work of 76 students. In the last four weeks 'The Medals Scheme' operated, staff and students sending their typed work anonymously to a different guest editor (teacher) every week for judgement--I kept a list of names and titles. Silver was awarded for a poem enjoyed and admired; Gold was awarded for something exceptionally impressive. The results, as they came in every Monday, caused a great stir, students' work always more highly regarded than that of staff.

Except for the anthology, none of these ideas and events had even been conceived let alone planned at the beginning of September. Once Writers' Club had got into its stride students and staff began thinking creatively about creativity, from Hilary and Sylvia inventing the prototype of what turned into the One Minute Dip in November right through to the excitement caused by Medals in July.

Special circumstances

An English teacher since 1967, I retired in 2003 in order to care for, less stressfully, my disabled daughter (hemiplegic, epileptic). But then, Alice's condition becoming less unpredictable, the school asked me to teach some A level and to act as creative writing specialist. Apart from two lessons of A Level I had no classes of my own, hence the 396 meetings in the year, every break and lunchtime and often after school (on Alice's respite night).

Next year

There's a month to go as I write. The thing is to start the new year small: no press clippings (the club was featured three times in the local paper) and no illustrated starters on the wall, nothing on the club display board in another part of the library, no club posters round the school and no mention of the club to the new Years 7s until November at least. On September 5th there will be starters round a pot of pens on the library table and old writing books neatly stacked on the window ledge, but nothing more. One thing led to another last year. Begin afresh, afresh, afresh.
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Title Annotation:Primary and Secondary
Author:Eales, Derek
Publication:NATE Classroom
Geographic Code:4EUUK
Date:Mar 22, 2008
Words:2114
Previous Article:Fostering imaginations through storytelling in the classroom.
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