Fellow author, teacher and friendAnne Stormont offered to take the early draft of Kimi’s Secret into her classroom. An experience which proved priceless.
‘Kimi’s Secret’ – A Writing Workshop for Children
I’m Anne Stormont and I’m a teacher working in a primary school on the island of Skye. I’ve been leading writers’ workshop sessions with two groups of Primary Seven pupils. The children are twelve years-old and in their last year of primary school. There are eight pupils in each group. The sessions are held once a week for each group and last up to ninety minutes. The workshops are planned to run for ten weeks.
The aim of the workshops is for the children to improve their creative writing skills. All the children involved are competent readers and writers but now need to be challenged and encouraged to raise their game and achieve the next level. The method I used is mainly as outlined in the Highland Literacy Programme booklet entitled ‘Teaching Writer’s Craft through Reading’. This method emphasises the Reading/Writing connection and involves the children in close examination and analysis of a text in order to identify the techniques and devices used by a professional author. They then employ these skills to improve their own writing.
Why ‘Kimi’s Secret’?
In a project of this sort, the choice of which text to work with is crucial. It must be accessible to the children. It must engage them and be substantial enough to stand up to close scrutiny. First and foremost, though, it must be ENJOYABLE. ‘Kimi’s Secret’ more than meets these criteria. But of course there are many high quality children’s novels already published and ‘out there’ and they can certainly meet the above criteria too. So why choose ‘Kimi’s Secret’? Well, at this stage in the book’s life, it’s…
Work in Progress:
The children get to see at first-hand how an author works. They can compare early and later drafts. By doing so, they begin to appreciate that writing needs to be worked at and crafted – and it’s not just the teacher being awkward when she asks for a redraft or ‘good’ copy. They see that good writing does not arrive polished and perfect at the first attempt.
The children are able to communicate with the author. They can offer opinions about character and plot etc. They can question the author about the choices and decisions he made when writing the book. Uniquely, they get personalised responses and questions from the author. So they feel as if they may be influencing him and that he is genuinely interested in his readers. The children can share their difficulties and problems with writing with a professional and receive back advice and exercises to try. The whole process increases motivation in both reading and writing.
Exercises such as writing cover blurbs, designing a book cover and sketching scenes and characters are done without any preconceptions from a finished product. The children have to think more deeply about what will work or how something should look. And again they must think about what the author is trying to achieve and how he might do it.
And after publication:
It’s a first rate story and it has been tested at the pre-publication stage on real readers from among its intended audience. Kimi, the main character, is a feisty eleven year-old girl. She engages both girls and boys. There is a whole other world to be explored and there’s a cast of highly original and fascinating characters. Kimi is on a quest and a race against time. The book has suspense, humour, sadness and a mystery at its heart. It will be up there with the best of them when teachers are considering texts to share with their pupils. The sheer originality and imagination evident throughout the story sets a great example and places the bar high for the children’s own writing.
Above all, my pupils just LOVE the story.
What we have done and plan to do:
The children have one ‘Kimi’ session per week and it is around ninety minutes duration. I have had the luxury of working with a small group of eight pupils but it would work in the whole class setting too.
I aim to read between one and two chapters at each session. The listening part of the session is interspersed with pauses for the children to respond/discuss/ask questions. I’ve kept the ‘plan’ in terms of follow up fairly loose and flexible and have been guided by the children’s responses. Some of them like to have paper and pencil to hand while listening in order to scribble down thoughts. Sometimes they’ve sketched while they listened but at others have been content to simply listen. They have emailed the author after every couple of chapters with their thoughts and questions. Photos of their sketches of characters and scenes have also been emailed. They have analysed what makes a character credible and what makes scenes work. They’ve summarised and speculated. They’ve revelled in new words, discussed myths, offered opinions on swearing, parenting, adolescence, girl/boy relationships – to name just a few topics!
Still to come: – We are going to write an alternative scene from a part of the book of our own choice. We are going to write our own chilling, mysterious and atmospheric opening paragraph for our own story. We are going to design a cover and write a blurb. We are going to write our own ending – BEFORE we hear the actual one. And who knows what else will arise!
What do we think so far?
Whenever I stop reading to allow a break for discussion or just because time has run out, the demand from the children is always ‘Keep reading!” They are ENTHUSED by ‘Kimi’s Secret’ and by this way of approaching literacy. And I am equally enthused by their responses. Fellow teachers in the school have dropped in during our sessions to see what all the fuss is about and have been impressed by what they’ve seen. The children’s class teachers report a high level of enthusiasm and anticipation on ‘Kimi’ days. Some parents have also reported how positive the children have been when talking about this project.
If you’re stuck for an inspirational text for your literacy teaching, or if your pupils are experiencing a bit of writers’ block, I can highly recommend ‘Kimi’s Secret.’
Just past halfway –
Well, we’re more than halfway through our ‘Kimi’ project now. It continues to go well. The book has sustained the children’s interest. Each reading session still ends with the children wanting more! They have greatly enjoyed meeting each additional character as the story progresses. They’ve laughed, squirmed, and gasped in about equal measure.
They’ve made some uncannily accurate predictions of how things will develop. I think that’s a sign that they’re very involved with the story.
They’ve also adopted some of the great words and creations into their everyday chat. For example one of the boys slips ‘discombobulated’ into his conversation whenever he can. Two of the girls have come up with a hand-smack greeting – where they smack palms and say ‘blisssss’.
The children have built up quite a bank of writing and sketches along the way. There are some stunning depictions of the characters and creatures from the book as well as written critiques and pieces of imaginative writing.
The interaction with Johnny is proving to be a great motivator for the children’s own writing. As well as letting Johnny know what they think of his writing, they’ve submitted pieces of their own writing to him and received feedback from him. They value this input from a real author. One boy in particular has been very inspired. He is writing his own short story – it’s original but has its roots in Kimi’s Secret – and he has been delighted to get Johnny’s encouraging critique.
So, as you can see, it’s going very well!
The ‘Kimi’s Secret’ project is now at an end. The children continued to enjoy the book right to the finish. Excitement was high as we got close to the final chapters. There was lots of speculation about how it might turn out. They weren’t disappointed. During the reading of the last chapter the children were utterly still and focussed – there wasn’t a sound in the room. One child who was absent on ‘the day’ asked for a copy of the last two chapters to read at home and another two asked for their own copies of the same chapters just because they wanted to reread them.
During the last phase of our project the children continued to provide astute and insightful feedback to Johnny. They also continued to produce pieces of quality writing of their own in response to the stimulus provided by Kimi’s Secret. The boy who was inspired to write his own extended short story is going to continue to develop it in the summer holidays!
Feedback from parents on parents’ night was very positive. The children were discussing the story at home and parents were delighted with their kids’ increased enthusiasm for reading and writing. One parent was so impressed that she contacted Johnny by email to tell him so!
We finished the project with a Kimi-themed party and had a great time – complete with thank you presents from the author.
I have been asked to present the story of the project at a Highland Education Showcase on an INSET day in October. It was felt by my head teacher and by the organisers of the showcase that this was an exemplary piece of work in terms of the spirit of the new Scottish curriculum. Whilst this is very gratifying for me, a project such as this can only work if a quality text is selected at the outset. That was certainly the case here. It also had the unusual added element of interaction between the author and the children on a dynamic work in progress.
So my advice to fellow teachers seeking to inspire their pupils to write, is try this approach. Choose your text and author wisely and you are certain to succeed. This has been the highlight of my teaching year and one of the top few highlights of my 31 year teaching career. Above all it was great fun!
N.B. The Scottish Book Trust can provide a list of ‘tame’ children’s authors who are willing to work in and with schools. Find them at www.scottishbooktrust.com (For teachers outside Scotland it would be worth investigating your own national Book Trust).