Storytelling workshop at Real Action (Queen’s Park school)

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.

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Meet the Author event at Lincoln Library

I first met the Lincoln-based artist Charlotte Kessler at Leadenhall Market in the City of London, where she was exhibiting and selling her paintings. I was working nearby at the time, and often popped into the market to have lunch at a small café that served hot meals like large chicken escalope with chips and beans…mmm! (No, I’m not remotely recommending that for lunch every day…)

On one of these afternoons, I was milling about the various stalls for a few minutes before heading back to the office. That was when my eyes caught a beautiful painting of a girl with locks of hair flying in the wind near rocks along a coast, with a lighthouse behind her. I approached the stall, and eventually got into conversation with the artist, Charlotte, who almost managed to persuade me to buy it. In the end, I opted not to make an impulse purchase of expensive art at lunchtime (!) and instead bought a small print of the painting. She gave me her business card and I promised to keep in touch.

Time flew by. A few years’ later, when I was in the process of publishing the first Jennifer Brown novel, I thought how good it would be to have a piece of original artwork for my book cover, rather than something generic. Charlotte’s painting (by then framed and on my living room wall) was exactly the sort of thing I had in mind, and her style seemed a good fit. I fired off an email to her to ask if she’d be interested, and the rest, as they say, is history. Charlotte has a great blog post showing how we developed the concept together.

A few weeks’ ago, when Charlotte was exhibiting some of her recent artwork in Lincoln Library, she invited me to join her for a joint book signing session on a Saturday. I was of course delighted to go up–I had been to Lincoln only once before and it’s a lovely cathedral city. I particularly wanted to walk up the ‘Steep Hill’, which is a street along a literally steep hill that leads up to Lincoln Cathedral and is lined with small shops, pubs and tea rooms.

I got up early to head to Paddington station to catch the train to Lincoln. I’ve always been a train person and there’s nothing more pleasant than an early morning train ride whisking you out and away from the big city. (Yes, assuming you have a seat and the carriage isn’t jam packed…one can dream!).

It was a warm, sunny day when I got to Lincoln station, and just as well as I was only wearing a light shirt! I had brought a bag full of books with me, and obviously I was hoping I wouldn’t be dragging them back to London at the end of the day! Charlotte had recommended that I go to a small coffee shop across the road from Lincoln Library (apparently where they serve the best coffee in Lincoln!) and meet her there before the event started.

Charlotte arrived and we headed into the library. We were greeted by the staff, who had already put up a small table for us to sit at. Charlotte had brought some home made brownies to keep us (and the children!) going, and we dutifully munched through them all day. As the weather was nice, things got to a slow start (who wants to go to the library on a Saturday when it’s sunny outside?), but luckily it wasn’t too long before families starting wandering towards our table and we were kept busy answering questions and taking turns to sign copies of the book.

We took a short break to see a little music event taking place in one of the rooms for hire in the library. A man (well known in the area, apparently!) was playing a tune using musical instruments he had made out of various mechanical items.

I always enjoy answering the different sorts of questions that both children and adults will ask about my stories. At the library, one child asked how I got the idea for Jennifer Brown whilst another wanted to know when I’m going to finish writing the second book! Several of Charlotte’s friends came by with their children and I was also pulled into various conversations about how long it takes to write a book and what it’s like to live in London.

After the event wrapped up, we went for a drink before driving to Charlotte’s mother’s house for a long dinner and lots of conversation, which veered off into politics (why couldn’t we just talk about fairies…!?).

It was getting late, so Charlotte drove me to the small bed and breakfast in the outskirts of the city, where I had booked to stay. By the time I got there, it was way past midnight. Rather than going to bed immediately (which I probably should have done), I ended up chatting for over an hour with the couple running the B&B. Finally, after a good night’s sleep, I got up early in the morning to catch the train back to London.

Dyslexia Scotland talk

A couple of weeks ago, as part of National Dyslexia Awareness Week in Scotland, I was invited by Dyslexia Scotland to give a talk to two Primary 7 classes at Oxgangs Library in Edinburgh. I planned a 45 minute presentation to introduce the children to what dyslexia is and how it can affect those who live with the condition. I’d originally wanted to weave in examples from Jennifer Brown, but in the end decided to keep things simpler and focus on dyslexia itself and give as many real world examples as I could.

I took the Caledonian Sleeper from London to Edinburgh. I enjoy travelling by train generally, and even though it’s sometimes a little exhausting, it’s nice both to have the time all to yourself and be able to watch the country as it rolls by.

I arrived in Edinburgh early in the morning, several hours before I was due to give my talk. It was a few days before Remembrance Sunday, and there were poppy sellers all around. I had a stroll down the Royal Mile, buying my poppy and taking a moment in the Garden of Remembrance. I then went to a coffee shop and spent an hour or so just reviewing my talk and practising (in my mind…!) what I was going to say. You can never prepare too much, in my opinion.

I tend to avoid buses wherever I travel, for the simple reason that it’s (a) not clear how you’re meant to buy the ticket, and (b) it’s not easy to tell where they’re actually going to take you! Or maybe it’s just me, who knows. Anyway, my talk was at Oxgangs Library, down in the suburbs of Edinburgh, so walking there was definitely out of the question! In the end, I decided it would be best to just get a taxi.

There was still over an hour to go when I arrived near the library, so I bought a few snacks from a nearby shop and took a little wander. The area reminded me in many ways of where I grew up–a small town in central Scotland. Places like this still (by and large) have a sense of community that, sadly, has tended to wither away in many other parts of the country. I could somehow still get a feel for that as I walked around, even in the mostly quiet streets. After all, it was a Monday afternoon and most people would be at work.

It was finally time to go to the library. After the various introductions, we began setting up the chairs, stands, and hooking up my laptop to the TV screen (keeping fingers crossed that the tech would just work!).

The children arrived with their teachers, and everyone began to settle down. After briefly introducing myself (cringe!), I moved on to a little chat about words and all the places where we can find them, and how important they are to helping us understand the human world around us.

When addressing an audience, especially children, I always find myself paying keen attention to whether what I’m saying is holding their interest or not, or if I need to adjust in order to keep them with me. When they’re completely silent, it’s sometimes hard to decide whether they’re bored or spellbound (or at least more the latter than the former!).

The talk continued onto an overview of what dyslexia is, and its different symptoms. The parts the children (and I!) really enjoyed were the exercises that helped them gain some understanding of the kinds of difficulties that dyslexic people can face. I had prepared two reading exercises and several writing exercises. The reading ones involved switching the regular sounds of the alphabet to totally different ones, and then trying to read a sentence written out in the new ‘alphabet’. The difficulty in trying to individually remember what sound each is supposed to make gives a good idea of what some of the symptoms of dyslexia.

Before starting, I asked if any of the children were dyslexic themselves, as I thought the exercises would be double trouble for them! I was a little surprised that none of the pupils (out of a class of 30 or more) were dyslexic, but it might be that the children simply didn’t feel like putting their hands up in front of everyone. Perhaps all the more reason for more events such as this to remove some of the myths of dyslexia.

The writing exercises created the most commotion while the staff and I handed out paper and pencils to the children. The first task was to try and write their name using the ‘new’ alphabet from the previous exercise. Next, to try and write their name as if they were looking at it in a mirror.

Next, I got them to try writing their name with their opposing hand. Finally, to make things really hard, and build up the frustration, I asked them to combine both tasks, i.e. to try and write their name in mirror writing using their opposing hand!

The rest of the talk gave a summary of some of the other symptoms of dyslexia, but also to a bit of ‘myth busting’. I also shared my own memories of being at school, and of one or two children who may well have been dyslexic but didn’t receive all the support they might have. As I’ve tried to show in Jennifer Brown, dyslexia doesn’t just stop at reading and writing. The problems caused at school can often have knock-on effects in so many other areas of life, and, if left unchecked, can seriously affect confidence and self-esteem.

Afterwards, I did a short reading from the first chapter of Jennifer Brown and the Dagger. When I finished, the children all lined up to get my…autograph! 😮 I found it so sweet how they all waited patiently for their turn.

It’s always so satisfying to come away from a school or library visit with the feeling that you’ve not only given the children a bit of a fun time and a break from regular lessons, but also contributed to raising their awareness and understanding of something they may not have known so much about. It certainly made the long journey back to King’s Cross a whole lot more bearable!

Visit to Coston Primary School

Earlier this year, I had an author visit to a school I’d been to before. No, not one where I’d gone before any time recently. Instead, I’d attended Coston Primary School in Greenford, London when my family had been living there for a year and a half back in the early 90s. Yes, it’s been a while! This visit was the first time I’d stepped back into that school ever since we’d left London all those years ago.

As I got on the Underground for the journey to Greenford, I began wondering if I’d recognise anything from the school. I remembered the outdoor ‘huts’ where some classes were held. I remembered the Y2 form group I’d been in, the Swallows! I also remembered the assembly hall, where I’d once been ‘named and shamed’ as one of the naughty pupils of the month! Most of all, however, I remembered the teachers. There were two that sprang to mind. My main class teacher, whose name I don’t recall, and another teacher, who took our class once or twice a week, called Mrs Brown. I always looked forward to her visits because for some reason I didn’t seem to get into trouble with her so much, and the lessons felt like a relief. At least, that’s how I remember things. Childhood memories, as with all memories, do have a habit of behaving like a deck of cards sometimes.

Now, if the name Brown rings a bell (a certain Jennifer, perhaps?), you might wonder if I named my character after that teacher. Truth is, I don’t know. I didn’t consciously, though the unconscious mind does have a way of making its presence felt.

Arriving at the school, I was greeted by the head of English and taken to the assembly hall. I was very touched and pleasantly surprised to see that my photo had been put up on one of the corridor walls along with various recent historical figures who had lived in Greenford! Somehow I’d turned into a local celebrity!

The assembly hall looked so much smaller than how I remembered it. Then again, perhaps the fact that I wasn’t about to be punished had something to do with it as well!

It was the start of Reading Week at Coston, and I’d prepared a short talk on the importance of reading and all the benefits it can have. I was then asked to spend time with two Y4 classes. In the first one, I spotted some posters the children had made about myths and legends, and what these were. I decided to do a little workshop on how legends start. This turned out to be great fun, and the children joined in enthusiastically. It’s always great when this sort of thing works out!

During breaktime, I had coffee in the staffroom and chatted to a few of the teachers. I took the opportunity to ask if anyone remembered Mrs Brown, and sure enough, a few of the teachers said they’d heard of her. Clearly, she’d left long since. However, one teacher did say that she had apparently been very strict, which I found intriguing. Totally at odds with what I remembered about her!

In the second class, I did an author Q&A, followed by a group exercise on creating a story. This involved getting the children to come up with ideas on characters, setting and plot. Oh, my, this was fascinating! We settled on the main character being a little girl who is generally nice and quiet, and doesn’t ever get into trouble at school. When I asked if she had any brothers or sisters, someone suggested that she had an older brother…the next suggestion was that this older brother was an, er, gangster!

I decided to go with the flow and see where this would lead. Well I never cease to be amazed at the tales that children will come up with! Bit by bit, a really interesting story developed: the girl was struggling with her lessons and worried that she wouldn’t pass her exam. So, she gets her older brother (the gangster) to break into the school and steal the exam papers. The brother is caught red-handed.

At this point, I asked the class how they thought the little girl felt about the situation. I asked them to bear in mind the personality they had chosen for her, namely someone who is a nice person. The answer I expected was that she’d be feeling upset or guilty about what had happened.

Well, that was never going to happen. Instead, one eager girl put up her hand and said, without any hint of sarcasm:

“Well, she realises that you can’t always be nice and kind…!”

Goes to show the unexpected ways in which different people, of different ages, can think about these situations. Given the same scene, we can derive different conclusions. Still, it was great fun working with the children on this. I stayed for a while longer, helping them with their poem writing lesson. When my time was drawing to a close and the head of English arrived to say goodbye, I was almost sorry to leave. Some of the children were saying “Please sir, don’t go…!”

Remembering my own days at school, I understood. It always made a nice change to have another adult in the classroom, such as another teacher, a visiting student, or a speaker. Little did I ever think that one day it would be me!