I first came across the literacy charity Real Action when I responded to a post on the neighbourhood social networking site Nextdoor (which, by the by, I wholeheartedly recommend). One of their teaching volunteers was looking to collect old children’s books from neighbours to add to the charity’s excellent library. I offered a free copy of Jennifer Brown and the Dagger and suggested I might be able to come along for a reading or writing workshop sometime. It wasn’t long before I was introduced to Real Action, and its founders Roger Diamond and Katie Ivens.
The origins of the charity go back to 1995 when North Westminster’s Mozart Estate had high levels of youth crime and gang violence. Roger, and other local residents, realising that many of these young people lacked basic literacy skills, decided to organise a summer reading course based on the ground-breaking Butterfly Method developed by the author Irina Tyk. The success of this course eventually led to the establishment of Real Action as a registered charity in 1998. They are now based in the Learning Store on Mozart Street and continue to provide reading/writing classes for adults, teenagers and children, as well as English language lessons for adults. These are based at the Learning Store as well as Queen’s Park Primary School, Rugby Portobello Trust in North Kensington, and Bevington Primary School.
I visited Katie and Roger at both their HQ in Queen’s Park (the excellent Learning Store on Mozart Street) and the Saturday classes at Queen’s Park Primary School. I observed some of their lessons based on the Butterfly Method and found them highly effective—I’m sure some of their teaching methods could well be adopted more widely. Their pupils are organised by reading ability, not by age, so you often have pupils of different ages in the same classroom. The reading programme itself is based on a highly structured approach using ‘synthetic phonics’ that, on average, helps improve a child’s reading age by a year with just twenty hours teaching (according to Real Actions’ reports).
We agreed that I would deliver a series of writing/storytelling workshops at each of the schools. The first one would be on the last day of term at Queen’s Park, where all the children of older reading ages would be brought together in the assembly hall. The challenge was preparing a lesson that would hold the attention of a mixed age group for two hours, and teach them about the basics of writing a story. No easy feat!
On the day itself, I arrived in good time and began setting up my laptop with the presentation slides and hooking it up to Katie’s mini projector. Of course, technology being what it is, it’s never quite that simple, and the children were already filtering into the hall while I was frantically (OK, exaggerating) trying to get it to work in time!
Finally, with everyone settled, and the projector behaving, we started the lesson in earnest. I began by asking the children about what they understand by a ‘story’, and the fact that you need a character, a setting, and a problem. At its most basic, a story tells us how the character solved the problem (the plot). I also talked a bit about why all around the world, no matter where they lived, people have always told each other stories. It’s also interesting that so many old stories from around the world are so similar in form and often content.
We then explored the ways in which a story can be told. This could be oral, written down, poetry, song, or even a visual form like film or theatre. The next bit was about the ‘who’, ‘where’, ‘how’ and ‘why’. The ‘who’ is about the characters in the story; the ‘where’ the setting, and the ‘how’ and ‘why’ the plot. I then went into how we put together the story through narrative (things happening), dialogue (people talking) and description, and by creating individual scenes that have a little bit of each. A story is basically then a collection of scenes, one after the other.
Then came the fun part, which I always enjoy: creating a story together with the whole class! We started out by picking a main character, some supporting characters, a setting, and a problem. Putting together the eager suggestions coming from the children, we arrived at a story about a boy with two good friends who he falls out with after a fight, steals one of his friends’ computer games to get his own back, then steals money from his parents (far too much stealing in this story!) and bribes his classmates to come to his birthday party! At the party, his friend finds the computer game and the situation gets worse for him…it’s always amazing the things they come up with!
The final challenge was for everyone to write a scene from any point in the story, making sure they put in a bit of narrative, a bit of dialogue, and a bit of description. Anyone who wanted to could then read their piece aloud in front of the whole class, and the best entry would win a copy of my book. Plenty to motivate! There were some fantastic entries, and some made everyone (including the teachers!) laugh.
The morning was a great success and really enjoyable, and I’m looking forward to the next one.