A celebration of the many positions children adopt when they engage with writing

The Ofsted Bold Beginnings report stated a need for children in Reception to be taught proper pencil grip and how to sit correctly at a table.

But why does writing always have to happen at a table? For the children I work, with the amount of self-elected writing they engage with is phenomenal. But hardly any of it happens in this conventional way.

As a writer, I often find myself adopting a range of positions when I write. I quite like sitting cross legged on the floor when I’m outlining a story by hand. Sometimes I lie on my belly and sketch out a character, and more recently I purchased a laptop stand that sits on my desk so that I can write standing up.

Sitting  all day long is not good for any of us, regardless of our age. Our bodies are not designed for it. When we move less we burn less calories. Its harder for our bodies to digest food if we sit down on a full stomach. Sitting for long periods of times strains our neck and our shoulders and can give us back pain. We’re just not built that way. So why is there a growing insistence in the early years that children should get used to sitting at a desk, when any of us who work at a desk all day long know far too well how bad that is for us.

In this short blog I want to celebrate the writing positions of Reception aged children who have taken it upon themselves to start writing, and are doing it for the sheer fun of it.

Children write in many positions…

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Lets celebrate it…

All these children started writing their own stories, self-elected as a result of regular engagement with Helicopter Stories and the knowledge that each of these stories would be acted out and reach an audience.

And for those of you who are interested in impact…

From September 2017 to July 2018, I have been delivering Helicopter Stories on a regular basis with a class of Reception children in one of the highest Super Output areas in Chippenham, Wiltshire.

When the group came in at the start of the academic year, only 27% of them were reaching the expected level in writing for children of that age. By the end of Reception this had increased to 76%. With the national average at 75% in 2017 I think that is pretty impressive.

Speaking went from 41% to 82%

Self confidence 58% to 88%

Imaginative Skills 59% to 100%

For more information on Helicopter Stories visit http://www.makebelievearts.co.uk or contact Trisha Lee at info@makebelievearts.co.uk

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Scribing Verbatim Part 2 – Creating an Exact Record

Bella sat beside me. I wrote her name at the top of my A5 sheet of paper, and she started to dictate her story. Like many of the children I run demonstrations with, I had never met her before and I had no idea what words would come out of her mouth.

“W. A. Pon. A. Tum.”

“I’m sorry. I didn’t hear you, could you repeat that?” I asked, leaning forward and making sure that this time I was listening more carefully.

“W. A. Pon. A. Tum,” she repeated.

Immediately I understood.

“Once upon a time,” I repeated, saying each word out loud as I wrote it on my A5 page.

“A prin-ess live in a car-all,’ Bella continued. Her speech was difficult to understand, but I tuned my ear into the various nuances of her language and was able to scribe her exactly.

The final story went like this:

‘Once upon a time a princess lived in a castle.

And with really long hair.

With a cape. A pink cape.

Her got high heels on.

And her got pink hair.’

While I was scribing Bella’s story, I was making a lot of choices. I could see that she had a range of speech and language difficulties, and was struggling to shape the words in her mouth. Where this is the case, I always write what I believe the child is trying to tell me, rather than the words they actually say. If I had repeated W. A. Pon. A Tum, that would have felt like I was making fun of her.

W. A. Pon. A. Tum became Once upon a time.

By repeating these words back to Bella, I acknowledged that I understood what she was telling me.

However, when it came to the grammar side of her story I wrote her words verbatim.

Her got high heels. And her got pink hair.

An Exact Record:

By writing verbatim, we create an exact record of the children’s grammatical understanding. This gives us a range of information on where each child is with regards to their speaking, narrative development and comprehension. I keep copies of children’s stories in individual books, made out of a cover and a treasury tag, and in this way I can also see progression.

To change the sentences above to She has got high heels and she has got pink hair, would be to change the rhythm of the authors speech. When Bella dictated her story to me, she said these words with such pride, looking into the distance as if she could see the princess she was describing.

Modelling language during the Acting Out:

When Bella acted her story, I read each phrase back to her, exactly as she said it, and then I asked to see the actions.

Can I see the girl walking around the stage in her high heels? Can you pretend that you have pink hair?

Bella moved her head as she walked, as if shaking out a mane of pink locks. She smiled as she stepped into the castle that had been created by four of her classmates.

At that moment, I didn’t need to correct her grammar. The learning that was happening without my intervention was plentiful, and I doubt she would have noticed anyway, she was so engaged in her own creation.

Bella was demonstrating creativity. During the scribing she created an imaginary character. During the acting, she demonstrated comprehension, by bringing the story to life. During the process her confidence soared, which isn’t surprising, as that is what happens, when our ideas are appreciated and our unique way of expressing ourselves is accepted.

 

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A Language Rich Environment:

I am always modelling language with children. I do it through conversation, through telling oral stories, and through repeating back sentences in the correct tense.

But when I do Helicopter Stories I write each word exactly as it is told.

Often fight becomes fighted, go becomes goed, run becomes runned. This is one of the most common errors that occurs in early language development. When children add an ED in the wrong place they are demonstrating an understanding of the grammar rule where we add these two letters to a word to move it to the past tense. What we see with these errors is children applying a rule correctly, and the only reason it’s incorrect is because the English language is full of irregular verb. I have never heard an adult say fighted, or goed or runned. Linguist, Gary F. Marcus refers to this error as over-regularizing the past tense rule. In an article entitled Why Children Say Breaked, he stated, “Because parents almost never over-regularize, these errors demonstrate that the language learning involves more than mere imitation.” Children are making sense of a rule, and over time they will learn when not to use it.

If we bombard children with questions, corrections, or comments about what they are saying and how they should say it correctly, we are stopping them from discovering these things for themselves.

I am told beautiful stories each day by the children I am lucky enough to work with. Regardless of where they live, or what their lives have been like so far, all the children I meet understand Helicopter Stories and engage with it, as if they have always known about it and have just been waiting for someone to ask. This is their opportunity to express themselves, however they choose, a place where they can play with language and develop their narrative ideas without fear of getting anything wrong.

Believe me, the rewards are worth it.

Here is a story from 5 year old Max:

Once upon a time there was a shark. The shark lived in the water and the shark can jump high. And then there was a lot of mermaids in the water. And the shark ate all the mermaids up. And then all the heroes came and killed the shark. And then the mermaids were free again.

Scribing Verbatim: Part 1 – Creativity

scribing (5)One of the questions that is often asked about Helicopter Stories is why both Isla Hill and I scribe verbatim, exactly what each child dictates, without attempting to correct their grammar or push the child to elaborate on his or her story.

I have several reasons for why I do this and over the next few blogs I am going to explain some of these in detail.

I will start with my favorite reason – Creativity:

Creativity is one of the most important skills we have and yet it is often the least encouraged within our society. It isn’t about conforming to rules and working within rigid structures. It is about pushing boundaries, asking questions and taking risks.

When we are working creatively we find ourselves thinking in different ways, making connections that others might not have seen, inventing new products, imagining new possibilities and solving problems. In his Ted Talk Do Schools Kill Creativity Ken Robinson discusses how children have a natural capacity for being creative, and how sadly we school this out of them.

For me, during Helicopter Stories, the most important premise is to allow children to explore their creativity without input or correction from an adult. Children are given the opportunity to make up a story, without planning or fixing it first. Amazingly, they do this easily and willingly from as young as just two years of age.

IMG_2710There are many skills that children utilise when they dictate their own stories. They are being spontaneous, improvising, communicating with an audience and creating something from nothing. In order to achieve this, they readily use all the means at their disposal; the expression on their faces, the movement of their hands, the words or sounds they know and the ones they have invented to serve this purpose. They communicate with urgency, telling the story as it forms in their minds, so that we can record it on paper.

To be brought back from this place of imagination to the world of correct grammar or questions that expand on the plot, is in my mind a distraction that is jarring. Imagine you were telling someone about a time when you were happy and they kept interrupting you to find out what colour dress you were wearing, or how many people were there, or what the date was. Eventually your focus would be lost and the story would fizzle out.

When we scribe children’s stories verbatim, we place value on the words they use to describe their universe. The stories we scribe reveal so much about the way an individual child sees their world, their understanding, and the nuances they use to explain it. Often children’s dictated stories contain a rhythm or an unusual way of playing with language that is worth celebrating for its unique creativity. This element that is so special in their stories would be lost if we decided to correct them.

This sentence below is part of a story from a five year old EAL girl. The princess was running away from a big bad wolf. She eventually arrived at her house and ran inside.

‘And then she closed the door, a thousand cellotapes.’

What a beautifully descriptive way of locking a door. During the acting out, the girl sealed the door with an imaginary roll of tape, sticking it across the entrance to ensure no wolf could get in. Look at of the rhythm of her sentence, the way every word counts, the vividness of her imagination.

To be creative we need to be in a safe space. If we are judged, or our way of speaking is questioned, we will be unable to take the risks necessary to make up stories.

John Cleese describes creativity as a bit like a tortoise. It pokes its head out nervously to see if the environment is okay before it fully emerges. If we want to develop a creative classroom, we need to create a ‘tortoise enclosure,’ a safe haven where creativity can emerge.

As a writer myself, a lot of my first drafts are about The Joy of Writing Badly  – getting my story out and not worrying how awful it sounds to anyone else. For me it is a distraction to concentrate on the micro management of the words on my page, have I spelt this one right, could I say that one better, until I have an idea of the bigger picture. Editing happens later, but during the first stage of creativity, I just concentrate on getting the story out.

I have seen 4-and-5-year-olds retell the same story week after week after week as part of their own self-elected editing process. They might change one aspect of it, or one word, but gradually they are shaping their story, and developing the way they tell it. This is the same as we all do, when we share a personal story of excitement or trauma with lots of different friends. With each retelling we add and hone our version, until we are able to tell it almost without thinking.

Our two, three, four, five, six and seven year olds are just beginning to craft their stories. They need time to play with the wonderful language they are acquiring and time to discover their own rhythms and the ways they communicate with an audience.

By scribing verbatim through Helicopter Stories – I find myself in the privileged position of hearing a range of stories, from a range of children, each of them told in a unique voice.

There was a monster in the woods. And it did eat the trees. The monster went to a house, and sat on a chair. And it did say, ‘Where’s my supper.’ And it did look at the pots on the stove. And it did see that someone was cooking. And it was afraid. And it ran up to the bedroom and hide-ed itself under the covers.

Nicholas – Age 5

If you would like to know more about Helicopter Stories visit http://www.makebelievearts.co.uk or email info@makebelievearts.co.uk  01249 714607

Princesses, Dragons and Helicopter Stories is a how to book on the approach.

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Keeping a Record of Children’s Stories

There is no hard and fast rule about how to keep a record of the children’s stories you collect during a Helicopter Stories session, although it is important that the size of the paper is A5 or a similarly small size. This is because if you scribe stories on A4 paper they will end up being too long and it will be difficult to bring them to life through the acting out.

In this blog post I have decided to share some of the things that work for me re: keeping a record of a child’s stories, and to explain how my thinking has developed over time, often as a result of things I have seen in other setting, or through conversations between Isla Hill and myself that have made me reflect in different ways.

Early Days:

This is the very first Helicopter Stories class book that I used when I first started working with the approach in 1999.helicopter stories 1st book

In those early days, I’d purchase a beautiful square shaped hardback book for every class I worked with. I would write each story inside, placing the child’s name and the date at the top of the page.

If I wanted to track the development of the stories for a particular child I had to flick through the pages till I found each of their entries and then I’d type them up so that that I could look at them in one go.

I liked the ritual of the class book, but it does make it harder to notice the more subtle changes that take place in every child’s story, especially when they have been engaged in the approach over a long period of time.

Scribing in Duplicate:

During the early years of MakeBelieve Arts, Isla and I had the opportunity to visit the Rice University Centre for Education in Houston, Texas. The centre runs a training programme around the work of Vivian Gussin Paley, (the now retired kindergarten teacher and renowned author of 13 books, who developed the Storytelling and Story Acting approach.)

910eDIdrjxL__SL1500_The teachers at Rice University scribe children’s stories in Triplicate  books. By placing a piece of carbon paper between every sheet, they create three copies of each story. One copy goes in the child’s file, one is sent home, and one stays in the Triplicate book as a record of the stories of everyone in the class.

Returning from Rice University, Isla and I began using Duplicate books, so that we could leave one copy with the school and keep the book for our own records. This worked for a while, but it never felt satisfying. The paper was too thin, and although this was vital to enable the carbon to work, it didn’t command the same value for the children’s stories as the thicker paper did.

By tearing a copy of each story out of the Duplicate book and placing it in an individual folder, we solved the problem of viewing all the stories from one child in a single place, but the carbons copies left in the book were often hard to read, and as each page was a bit smaller than A5 it was impossible to cram in the longer stories that were emerging as children grew more confident.

A5 Paper and Individual Books:

Aaleera's title pageSeveral years ago, I grew tired of Duplicate books, and ended up guillotining pieces of A4 paper in half on a regular basis and using these to scribe children’s stories. (That was before I discovered you can buy A5 paper pre-cut – oh the delights.)

Then one day a teacher from Essex, who I had been working with on a regular basis, had a brilliant idea. She created a cover for each of the children in her class, and using a treasury tag, she joined together all of their stories, adding any new ones to the back of their individual book at the end of each session.

The Helicopter Stories Book Cover was born. If you want to download a free template for this, here is a link to an A4 PDF with two copies of this cover, side by side. so that you can print them immediately on thick paper, or card. Alternatively, you may prefer to design your own version.    HS+book+cover+GREEN+A5+x+2+PDF

As an extra bonus, we also have A6 sized covers that are perfect for scribing stories from 2 year olds, especially good while their stories consist of one or two words. Helicopter+Stories+main+cover+for+twos

The Benefits of Individual Books:

There are so many values to the Individual Books.

Having every story told by an individual child in one place, creates a fantastic record, showing you how their language is developing, their use of imagery and metaphor, the themes that fascinate them, and those they have left behind.

But there are also other benefits. Some of the Reception and Yr1 classes I work with leave the books out, either hanging them on the wall, or laying them out on a shelf. Children often sit reading  their own books, or using their emergent reading skills to retell a version of one of their stories to a friend. Books are shown to parents when they come to pick the children up, and they can become a storehouse for other bits of writing and drawings that have come about as part of the Helicopter Stories session.

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Writing on an A5 Whiteboard:

And finally, here is another way of recording stories that I discovered recently. I was speaking to a woman who works in a Forest School. She told me that they scribe their children’s stories on small whiteboards, as its hard to use paper when they are working outside all the time and it goes soggy. To keep a record of the children’s stories they take a photo of the whiteboard. The photo goes into a file for each child, creating an online record.

I would love to hear if there are other ways that I haven’t come across, and their pros and cons.

This video is of a Reception aged girl from one of the schools I work with regularly. Having written her own story using emerging writing, she decided to read it aloud.

If you would like to know more about Helicopter Stories visit http://www.makebelievearts.co.uk or email info@makebelievearts.co.uk  01249 714607

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Leading the Acting Out – Asks

indexYesterday I visited a nursery where the Helicopter Stories approach had not been working. The moment I got the email about the setting, I knew I had to visit. The idea that Helicopter Stories might not work for a group of children was too difficult for me to grasp.

I booked my visit for the first free date available, and masking tape in hand I headed towards the classroom. The teacher was enthusiastic and the school was on board. They’d read my book, Princesses, Dragons and Helicopter Stories, attended MakeBelieve Arts training, and they’d been trying Helicopter Stories since September, but somehow it wasn’t happening. The children were too quiet. They weren’t moving around the stage, and their stories were just lists.

The teacher and I chatted anxiously while we waited for the children to arrive, me nervous that maybe I’d finally met my match in the three and four year olds I was about to meet, and the teacher worried that I’d find something wrong in the way she ran her classroom. Thankfully, neither were true.

The children gathered around the taped out stage and I started the session. I decided to do it like it was their first experience of Helicopter Stories and I began with an introduction.

“There were five spiders. One, two, three, four, five. Can you come onto the stage, and can I see you pretending to be spiders crawling around your web?”

IMG_4643Immediately, we were away. Five children crawled onto the stage and slowly, hesitantly began to act. At each stage of the story they grew more confident, demonstrating with both their faces and their actions a clear understanding and enjoyment. Each child showed a desire to move and to act in the stories with their friends.

My heart lifted.

The teacher was surprised. The children were amazing.

And I knew instantly what had gone wrong.

When I run a Helicopter Stories session, I never demonstrate the actions with my hands, a fact that I often talk about. The teacher had taken this on board, and was careful not to show the children how they should act each character.

But something was missing.

There is something I do, that I know helps the children to feel safe on the stage, supporting them to take risks in the actions they portray. Yesterday, I realised that I need to highlight the importance of this more, when I next run training.

Asking:

I ask a lot during the acting out. When each new character arrives on the stage, I ask for an action. I always ask how the character moves, or to see an emotion, (if one is included in the story). I ask to hear the sound of the wind or to see how a group of children will pretend to be a house.

I ask, and ask, and ask, and it seems to work.

  • Can I see how the Princess walks around the stage?
  • Can you show me how the dragons flies?
  • Can I see the dog crawling?
  • Can you show me how the girl eats the candy floss?
  • Can I see the spiders looking scared?
  • Can I hear the wind blowing?

The film below is from a Reception classroom that I work with regularly.  Even though they are highly skilled, I am still asking them to show me various aspects of the acting out.

By asking, we give children confidence to move, and to act in the way the story requires, suggesting what they can do to bring it to life. They may ignore what we say. That is fine. But I believe the asking supports them.

Asking opens up the stage for the children, inviting them to demonstrate how they would walk to the park, or fly like a dragon. I also ask children to speak the words of a character, or to PRETEND to fight. Pretend is the currency of children, and they know when they hear it, that this is not real.

For me, asking offers reassurance from the side of the stage, pushing the action further as the children crawl, climb, and stomp, in the stories of their friends.

Yesterday I truly saw the benefits of this, through a group of three and four year olds, who are now ready to fly.

If you would like to know more about Helicopter Stories visit http://www.makebelievearts.co.uk or email info@makebelievearts.co.uk

01249 714607