Writing Workshops with the Big Read in Dene Community School

Over six weeks, writer Bob Beagrie and I took two groups of year 9 students on a whistle-stop tour of How to Create a Story.

Using David Almond’s Half a Creature from the Sea as a starting point, we explored various literary devices employed by writers to construct narratives. Starting by creating a map of their childhood home, we developed the idea of the ‘omphalos’, the ‘navel’ or central point of a story. This drawn map became the touchstone for both the tale they went on to tell and an excellent starting point for conversations: these included one young person who had lived in multiple locations throughout her early years due to being a Looked After Young Person, another whose ‘world’ was her room as she rarely left it, as well as many who shared locations due to growing up in the same neighbourhood.

While using on a mixture of memories and imagined possibilities for inspiration, Bob introduced ways of developing dialogue, the climax and ‘the bomb’ (or turning point), helping young people to develop compelling and entertaining tales entirely of their own. Many grew in confidence, others shared memories perhaps otherwise forgotten, and all laughed – a lot!

Often using games and quick poetry-writing techniques, some beautiful results came out of seemingly ephemeral exercises. The young people were often surprised at the strength of their work.

Almond’s work served to inspire the young writers, while Bob – an energetic and engaging educator and spoken word performer – animated not just the book but also the work of the young people, reading aloud the stories that grew week by week.

Characters grew (often illustrated to hilarious effect) taking on lives of their own. The young writers developed stronger ‘personal voices’, writing without fear of judgement and thriving on the alternative approach which, while supplementary to the curriculum, relies on an entirely different method of engagement.

It was a privilege to work with the staff and young people of Dene Community College and, who knows? Maybe we will be using their work in future projects with New Writing North.