Mr Creighton, can we send our stories to some experts for feedback?

Two powerful aspects of a Writing for Pleasure pedagogy are:

  1. Having authentic audiences for writing;
  2. Empowering children with the volition to control their own writing process.

These come perfectly together in the practice of the writing workshop collectively deciding on the purpose and outcome of a class project. 

This short post will explain the process and impact of one such decision within my year six classroom and look at how and why it might be replicated by other practitioners.

What had the children written in this project?

The class, a group of 24 year six children, had written what is called ‘Flash Fiction‘. The children understood this as a short, impactful piece of narrative writing that focusses on a single moment (perhaps from a larger story). They were allowed – even encouraged – to leave some aspects of their stories unexplained, focusing on crafting their chosen moment rather than the wider narrative that it (perhaps) fitted into. The genre or topic for their stories was generated by them.

What did they choose as their publishing goal (and how)?

In the first lesson of any new writing project, I like to discuss and define the genre of writing we will be producing and its purpose. A key part of this is choosing a final outcome or audience that the writing is intended for. This lends real purpose to the writing; it is being crafted for a reason beyond teacher assessment. 

To select this ultimate aim, the children spend time consulting the ‘Publishing Menu’ (a list of possible outcomes) provided by The Writing For Pleasure Centre. The class then suggests four or five options which are then voted on.

This was our second class project of the year, so the children had some experience of this process already (for our first project – Social And Political Poetry – we sold anthologies to parents to raise money for Amnesty International). For Flash-Fiction, the children voted overwhelmingly to send their stories to writing ‘experts’ – which they took to mean authors, editors, publishers and world-class writing teachers.

This is where the power of Twitter came to the fore. I put out a tweet explaining the situation and asking for volunteers and was immediately flooded with generous offers of involvement. I quickly amassed a list long enough to allow all children to get feedback from such distinguished figures as Jennifer Killick (author of numerous books including the Alex Sparrow and Crater Lake series), Philippa R Francis (editor at the Golden Egg Academy) and real world-leaders of writing education such as Ross Young, Felicity Ferguson, Jonnny Walker, Ben Harris and Marcela Vasques

What was the impact of the feedback on the children?

In a word: excitement. The feedback arrived in stages and I gave it out as soon as it dropped into my inbox (making, I admit, a rather theatrical show of each one). This meant that some children got their critique before others. The absolute joy with which the kids poured over the feedback was wonderful to see, as was how those who were yet to receive theirs would ask whether it had arrived multiple times a day. It was also clearly more than a passing infatuation as I have noticed children getting their messages out again and again to read over even days later. I have also seen them swapping and discussing each other’s feedback, leading to fantastically reflective discussions about writing and being writers. We are just starting our next class project, so it’s too early to say whether the feedback is being brought into their subsequent writing, although it does seem to be trickling in to their Personal Writing Projects

Evidence and examples

Included with this post is a copy of two of the stories along with the feedback they received. Also, below are some short reflections from three of the children about how they found the process and whether it was useful to their development as a writer:

‘I felt excited because I wanted to get feedback on my work to see what I need to improve on. I felt happy reading through what they sent me because it was good feedback and told me how to make things better. I found the feedback really useful because now I know that I should write some moments fast and some moments slow and go into the details. I think I will use the advice in the future.’ 

‘I felt happy to send my work off because I knew I could use that feedback to develop my skills and improve what I had written. I felt happy to get the feedback because I could change what was wrong and persevere. I will definitely use the advice in the future because I know that to develop my writing, I need to make some moments more specific.’

‘I felt really excited to send my work to an expert because I wanted to know what they would say. When I received the feedback I was really happy because it sounded like they liked my work. I did find it useful because I now know to try and describe my characters more.’

Some children responded that the feedback was not useful but when asked about this they were able to reflect that it was because the responses they received were only positive and they were keen to also have areas of development highlighted for them. I think this shows that they have internalised a very positive and developmental mindset.

The Village Pond by Humaiyra, aged 11:

Feedback for Humaiyra from Jennifer Killick, author of Crater Lake and Alex Sparrow series, Lottie and the Junkers and the upcoming Dread Wood:

I was so impressed with this story! Humaiyra does a brilliant job of creating an atmosphere through her clever use of description – definitely a future horror author. It contains so many classic horror elements and is genuinely chilling. Something I think Humaiyra could do to strengthen it even more is give the reader a better idea of the characters by adding a few additional details. We know they’re cousins and that Humaiyra is reluctant to go to the pond, but she changes her mind very easily – why is that? Are they older than her and often encourage her to do things that might get her into trouble? Or is she naturally a person who follows others to make them happy? I’d love to understand a little more about their relationship. There are some gorgeous details that really draw the reader in, like when the characters sink their feet into the pond and I’d love for those to be expanded just a little more. What does the pond feel like around their feet? Does the mud squelch? Does it smell? Overall I think this is a brilliant piece of writing – atmospheric, chilling and with some excellent details that paint the scene for the reader. Humaiyra definitely has a talent for horror.

A Fiery Imagination by Nivi, aged 10:

Feedback for Nivi from Philippa R. Francis, developmental editor at the Golden Egg Academy:

Your title is a clever play on words and hints teasingly at what is to come. You set the scene with a sense of calm and reflection from your first-person narrator. This helps establish the dragon as an imaginary, though frightening, creature.

The next few paragraphs include realistic and convincing dialogue with a rather irritating brother. Your use of sounds: shout, thud, bang helps the reader experience the annoyance directly and you convey the narrator’s physical and emotional response well. Such a neat sleight of hand that this seems all so normal and then the main character looks through the window!

Your diction (choice of words) is specific and creates concrete images: for example, smoke drifting down, drenched and shattered. My personal favourite is the simile like deadly snowflakes. That moment where something red and wet wraps around the main character is also effective because you leave it to the reader to work out it’s the dragon’s tongue. That really increases the ick factor!

You have created a sense of increasing peril in the last two paragraphs and the whole piece ends with the reader wondering how the main character could have survived to tell their tale. I wonder if using the present tense throughout the whole piece might increase the feeling of danger? Whatever you decide, it’s a cracking piece of writing and I would encourage you to keep practising your skills with enthusiasm, Nivi.

Next steps

It was not only the children who benefitted from the process, I also found the feedback valuable. A fresh pair of eyes over the children’s manuscripts and the areas of development these experts identified really helped inform my understanding of the writing community I’m lucky enough to be a part of and to think about what future Mini-Lessons might be needed. For example, a repeated theme in the expert responses was the need for children to Slow Down… key moments more, so this is something I will revisit as a mini-lesson.

On a more individual level, I want to Pupil-Conference with each child to make sure that they both understand their feedback and know how to implement it in the future.

By Sam Creighton

Sam can be found on Twitter @sam_creighton

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