What does every great story really have?

 

Standing in front of a room of 30 ten year olds, I asked: ‘What do all great stories have?’

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The children had come on a school visit to Live Tales, Live Theatre’s new creative writing centre, to take part in a pilot workshop on creative writing and we had just finished talking about our favourite stories (enjoying the challenge of remembering as many Roald Dahl titles as possible). We were about to zoom into the exciting, story creation part of the session when I asked it: ‘What do all great stories have?’ A hand shot enthusiastically into the air and I got ready for an answer that might launch us into a stimulating discussion about imagination. What the girl said … ‘Full stops’. My heart sank. Not adventure, not characters, not things to make you laugh and cry, not even goodies and baddies. ‘Full stops.’ It wouldn’t be so bad if this were the first time I’d been given this answer but, unfortunately, punctuation has been the instinctive response for many of the pupils who have visited Live Tales over the past few months. And it’s not even fun punctuation – not question marks or a good old exclamation mark – but a full stop. The one that says, ‘Enough!’, ‘That’s it!’, ‘I’m done!’.

It seems to me that this is the core of the problem we face when helping children in their creative writing. I’m not talking primarily about the emphasis on GPS (we all know the joys and challenges of fronted adverbials) but rather the harsh and restrictive response to creativity that the ‘full stop’ answer betrays. Does writing offer possibilities, introduce opportunities and open up a world of ‘What ifs…’, or does it impose constraints, reinforce limitations and reiterate the voice that says, ‘You can’t’? My fear is that, for many children, it is the latter. A desire to change this mind-set and, in doing so, to unlock the potential of children and young people, fuels the work I am involved in here at Live Tales. Let me tell you all about it…

On weekday mornings (Thursdays and Fridays initially), Live Tales will be visited by a Key Stage 2 class for a two hour workshop that are free for schools to visit. The children arrive, a little unsure of what to expect, and are soon up on their feet joining in with warm up activities to get ideas bubbling. There is a lot of noise and plenty of energy. They are ready to start making their story; however, this is soon interrupted.

Mr Roberts, the ‘Editor’ at Live Tales (or rather, a colleague in disguise), bursts into the room and announces to the class that children can’t write good stories. Galvanised by that powerful desire to prove a grown up wrong, the group embark on their task of creating a new story. There is drama, fast paced ideas generation and plenty of movement as the class work collaboratively to create two characters, to flesh out the world they inhabit and to establish what happens at the beginning of the story. Whilst these ideas are flying around the room in a buzz of energy and excitement, an artist is furiously scribbling away in the corner, completing illustrations to capture the weird and wonderful ideas of the group. There we have it, the beginning of a completely original story.

Mr Roberts returns, cynical and disparaging, but intrigued by the story beginning. He wants to hear more but will not be content with one story, he wants 30 different ones! Every child is tasked with completing their very own version of what happens next. A ‘Maybe Ball’ is thrown from person to person, enabling the children to verbalise their ideas, and then they’re off. The children split into small groups with designated writing mentors (grownups who, unlike Mr Roberts, are fully convinced that children have superb ideas) and they spend 30 minutes finishing their own story.

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When their time is up, the writing is gathered together and taken to Mr Roberts. He returns to give his verdict on the stories: ‘I didn’t like them… I LOVED them!’ So much so, in fact, that he has decided to print the class story, complete with illustrations, ensuring there is a copy for every child – a copy with empty pages inside to finish off their story. The children leave Live Tales with a newly created story in their hand and a sneaking suspicion, or maybe even a newly found certainty, that they CAN write! We, the Live Tales team, are left with another striking reminder that children really do know what makes a great story.

In developing Live Tales, we have joined with a world-wide family of writing centres that started nearly 15 years ago.  In San Francisco in 2002, author Dave Eggers (Dave’s TED Talk, ‘My Wish: Once Upon a School’, is well worth a listen) and educator Ninive Calegari started 826 Valencia – the original writing lab housed behind a pirate store – and the 826 organisation now has nine writing centres across seven cities in the States. This has inspired centres to start popping up in other countries, including the UK and Ireland: Ministry of Stories in London, Grimm & Co in Rotherham, Fighting Words in Dublin and, now, Live Tales in Newcastle.

Live Tales is the North East’s first writing centre and is the result of many years’ planning and preparation by Live Theatre. Based in Newcastle, Live Theatre is one of the great new writing producing theatres on the international stage and is also deeply rooted in its local community. As well as championing the art of writing for the stage by producing and presenting new plays, it is committed to unlocking the creative potential of children and young people, making Live Tales an exciting addition to the wonderful work already being done by the Theatre’s Education Team including a successful playwriting course putting plays written by young people on Live Theatre’s main stage.  Whilst visiting one of the 826 writing centre projects in the US our Chief Executive Jim Beirne decided that this was exactly what Newcastle needed. He also envisaged a new use for a small, old, listed almshouse located behind Live Theatre, ripe for development as a dedicated creative writing centre, to develop creativity, confidence and story-telling skills in writers of the future. Live Tales has already been endorsed by over ten schools and several hundred children who have already visited in pilot sessions. And by locally based writer, Carnegie-Medal winning author David Almond who is a champion of the centre.

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We have been working closely with other writing centres to get Live Tales up and running with our distinctive Live Theatre stamp and now, following months of pilot workshops, we’re launching officially this September.

This is an important time to be launching Live Tales. With creativity being increasingly squeezed out of the curriculum and teachers facing more and more pressure to focus on the bricks of creative writing rather than enjoying its architecture, we’re giving space for children to experience the fun and excitement of exploring their imagination. And crucially, we’re saying YES!

‘No! Children can’t write stories!’ is Mr Roberts’ confident pronouncement at the beginning of the session. The statement is unfair, it’s provocative and it elicits an, ‘Oh yes we can!’ from the children. I would hope the majority of adults would never say such words to a child, but are there ways in which we unintentionally whisper the same sentiment, leading to a, ‘You’re right; I can’t write’?

‘Can we think of a better idea for where the Ogre might live?’

‘Is there a more interesting word to describe the weather?’

What do these suggest if not, ‘Your ideas aren’t quite good enough’? Yes, we want children to push themselves creatively and yes, we have a dictionary of amazing words to choose from, but is there a way of approaching children’s creative ideas with a ‘YES!’ rather than a ‘Hmmm, I suppose so.’

At Live Tales, the children create a story opening collaboratively and we make a point of accepting every idea. We don’t pass judgement, we don’t impose our adult logic and we don’t wait for what we might consider to be a ‘better idea’ from another child. We task them with listening well to each other and with building on their classmates’ fantastic ideas, trusting that, working together, they will solve any problems in the narrative as they arise. Children are natural storytellers, they understand that a world they create must have its own internal logic, and they are more than able to spot what doesn’t work and why. We ask open questions: ‘Can you say more about that?’ ‘What made that happen?’ ‘How did the character feel?’ and we enjoy and celebrate the extraordinary:

‘His best friend is a piece of toast.’

‘Fantastic. And what does the toast look like?’

‘He’s got an afro.’

‘An afro?’

‘Yes and he can do gymnastics.’

As grownups, we are often concerned that stories ‘make sense’ and what we mean is that they should be sensible. Why? In giving children freedom to write about what they want to write about and enabling them to share this experience as a whole class, everyone is invested in the creative process and they are empowered as writers. Stories school groups have written in the past few months include: ‘The Adventurous Adventures of Jimmy Unicumber and Lady Unicarrot’ (unicorns adorned with cucumbers and carrots – of course – on the hunt for peanut butter), ‘Polly and Xena’ (a clumsy grandmother and her pet dog who take a stroll through the desert) and ‘The Mystery of the Stolen Trophy’ (a ballet dancing police girl who wants to change the world). Who would want a sensible story when you can have these?

Crucially, this attitude of acceptance permeates the entire session and is voiced repeatedly by a superb team of writing mentor volunteers. Once the class have created the beginning of their story, they split into groups of 3-4 and write independently for half an hour. Each group has a writing mentor who sits with the children, listens to their ideas and encourages them not to give up. The power of an adult voice saying, ‘That’s a wonderful idea, keep going.’ is extraordinary, particularly if the child doesn’t experience that encouragement in other areas of their life.

I am excited about the work we’re starting at Live Tales. In such an atmosphere of play and experimentation, children are learning that creating stories is fun and that writing isn’t boring but rather simply the means by which those beautiful ideas are put down on paper. In saying ‘Yes’ to the children’s ideas, something very significant is happening, we are saying ‘Yes’ to them as individuals. There is a very fine line between saying ‘Your ideas are valuable’ and ‘You are valuable’ and if, at this formative time in children’s lives, they can come to believe that they have something to contribute and that their suggestions are worth listening to, theirs will be a future of possibilities rather than limitations.

So, can children write amazing stories? Absolutely! FULL STOP

Christina Castling, Live Theatre, Live Tales

Christina is an experienced drama facilitator with a passion for enabling children and young people to express themselves creatively through writing and performance. She is the project lead for Live Tales and is responsible for developing the schools’ programme and teachers’ CPD model for Live Theatre.

Live Tales is based at Live Theatre, based on Broad Chare, Quayside, Newcastle upon Tyne. Visits to Live Tales are free for classes of up to 30 KS2 pupils, and we plan to diversify our workshops for different ages over the next few years.  

For more information on visiting or volunteering at Live Tales, or to sign up for our Education e-newsletter see www.live.org.uk/livetales. We also offer CPD sessions for teachers to help bring creativity back to creative writing, find out more about our CPD sessions.

This article was first published in NATE, National Association for the Teaching of English Primary Matters Magazine, in October 2016.