Tuesday, June 17, 2014

Beginning Narrative With Year 8

I'm a writer. I know how to write, but teaching Year 8 how to write stories? If it was that easy, everyone would be selling.

Yet it must be done. Next year they will have to do their NAPLAN test, designed by a former government to gain votes by making those lazy, good for nothing teachers accountable! And when they sit down to do their Year 9 NAPLAN test they will have to write either a persuasive essay or a "narrative"(that's a story to you and me) - not a choice but one or the other, you aren't told which. And the narrative may well be a prompt such as "The Box". And they will have 40-50 minutes to write it - heck, I'm still working on a story submission for "Cranky Ladies Of History" after months! And I'm a professional.

I did three things on Monday. One was to gather some copies of the school anthology, stories written by students and put together and edited by Chris Wheat, a wonderful teacher and YA novelist who works at my school as the English and literacy co-ordinator. Another was to print out my much simplified version of The Hero's Journey, which I did as a workshop at last year's Continuum convention, with Paul Collins. It makes a good adventure story outline. The third was to put together some links to appropriate movie trailers on YouTube

It was not a good start to the day. The interactive whiteboard room computer didn't work - someone had unplugged the important bits and I had no idea which they were or what to do. Luckily, the other Year 8 teacher had cancelled her booking for the computer room. So I took them there and gathered them around a computer. One of the students logged in and went to YouTube  for me. First, though, I told them the general story, about this ordinary guy who is visited one day by someone who tells him he's special and must go on a quest. Along the away, he makes friends and deals with a major enemy and comes back with a reward for all that trouble. I invited them to think of some stories that fitted that description. They did very well - Star Wars, Harry Potter, Lord Of The Rings, The Hobbit, Up, even a couple I hadn't thought of, such as Percy Jackson and Doctor Who!

We watched several trailers, both the ones I'd prepared and some the students had thought of. We discussed how they fitted the story outline I'd given them.

It was going very well, until I started trying to do a story together on the board. That has worked with other  classes and should have worked this time, but I suppose I was lucky that some of the worse behaved  students had lasted even that long.

I told them we were returning to our classroom, where they would do the rest by hand. My original plan was that after the story on the board they could get into groups to brainstorm, but it was not to be. They went ahead of me and I arrived to find that one of the more difficult students was being told off by a teacher whose classroom window he had broken by butting it with his head.

He was sent with a note and a reliable student to sub school while I tried to unlock my classroom. The door wouldn't open. Some students told me that this had happened when they were last there with another teacher, who had taken them to another room.

I had to find another room for them. We found one, where we read some stories from the anthology together, then individually, about all there was time to do by now. The vice principal brought back the boy who had broken the window and asked for information. Not being suicidal, the students kept silent, so he told them that they'd all do a week's lunchtime detention unless someone came to him and discussed the matter(that worked, by the way).

After all this disaster, you'd think the lesson would be a compete flop. It wasn't.

Even the difficult boys found at least one story that appealed, once I let them choose their own. One of them, mind you, was delighted to find a story with swearing in it - written, mind you, by a good student who was using it in context. One of the girls found a story that touched her and exclaimed, "Oh, how sad! Miss, do read this one."

And two other girls were so keen to write a story based on The Hero's Journey, they started immediately and took their English books home to get on with it. One is a student who, though she is lovely and works hard, has never been able to write a lot. She showed me, today, two pages of dense text about a Percy Jackson-style demigoddess who discovers she is the daughter of a fire god. On Thurday, while the others do the brainstorm, I'm going to let those two get on with their stories.

If I can get into the classroom.


Cathy Keaton said...

That's a pretty interesting experience. It must feel really good to get these kids interested in story and finding them wanting to tell their own, even.

Sue Bursztynski said...

Thanks, Cathy! Well, how long it will last I don't know, this is a difficult class, but today was good. I have them last period on Thursday and by the time we got to the astronomy, they'd just been playing up in the interactive whiteboard room, doing presentations. I knew instinctively a brainstorm wasn't going to work at this time of day, after they'd been playing up, so instead I got a trolley of laptops and talked to them about the writing competition being run by the Melbourne Writers' Festival for Year 7 to 9. One of our students on it a few years ago and there's money in it. You have to use a story starter supplied.

I was pleasantly surprised to see even the lazier ones writing hundreds of words in their first draft. And because they were writing, when a student who is having difficulty with English asked me for help, I was able to give it to him. By the end of the class, he'd managed to write about 100 words about waking up to find the world had turned blue. He would have done more if there had been time. This is very exciting for me!

Sue Bursztynski said...

Whoops, that's classroom, not astronomy!