‘Tab,’ says one boy, and explains that it’s the family acronym for toast and butter. ‘Sheeshkebablo!’ says another – his home-made expletive for when his little sister does something annoying. ‘Schmannumanning,’ says a girl – the name she gave her little brother. More orthodox vocabulary treasured by these year 5s included Pompadour (whose meaning we had to look up), flabbergasted, petrified, traumatising and curmudgeon. This is the beginning of a writing workshop where the children have a chance to celebrate language, where it’s permitted to learn by taking risks – inventing words, conjuring place-names, enjoying the sounds of words in the air - and where progress is measured not in 'levels' but in growing confidence to write experimentally, regularly, at length, and in sharing and reflection.
What are their preferred approaches to writing? They have explored the writing process before and know the benefits of a range of strategies: plunging straight in; planning; reading; starting with the central characters and working outwards; talking through ideas with a partner.
We observe the room around us from different perspectives; we see the history of things (every object tells a story); we listen. There is a green clay man scaling the thermostat; a dead crane fly dangles from the sensor; a boy wonders what was it that made that white mark on the blue door. A door bangs and the heating hums. There is imagination here as well as attention.
After this comes the modelling of connecting, telling and retelling story - capturing on the board those phrases which engage the listener and those which build suspense. One story is ‘Tommy and the ghost’ by Kevin Crossley-Holland. It ends with a ghost in a bottle. We can see that this is also the start of a new story – and so we all – teachers and pupils – bend over our notebooks. Some are surprised by how much they write in 10 minutes. And then we share. Alex’s short story ends with the man holding the bottle to his lips, and “the contents came to him.” We are spooked - and we enjoy it.
So what of standards and progress?
Such workshops do not substitute the learning of conventions, they complement them. They also give writers a private space to reflect and experiment, and a place to develop a confidence which they can take forwards in to their other work. The year 6 teacher says that the pupils write more fluently and inventively, with greater verve, under these circumstances than those which are more regimented. Perhaps this is what is meant by letting pupils choose topics ... providing more opportunities for extended writing ... placing more emphasis on creative and imaginative tasks. (phrases taken from the recommendations in Ofsted’s schools’ report for 2013.)
See also an extract from Ofsted's 2011 report 'Excellence in English' which describes in detail one school's use of writing workshops.