Differentiated learning: How to square the circle

For creative writing practitioners working in a primary or secondary school can be an exciting yet daunting process. There is a different expectation when delivering such creative workshops within an academic setting, as each project should have added educational value. And whilst there is no doubt that experienced practitioners plan their workshops to the nth degree, would they have considered the varied needs of all participants? Do they know how to support those students during a structured creative writing class? Differentiated learning could hold the key to squaring a troublesome circle. It is an interesting way of making sure all students have access to learning, whatever their individual needs or circumstances.

But what is differentiated learning, and how can it help support creative writing practitioners in the delivery of their workshops?

Most students take in information in a universal way, but not all of them. This means some students have problems engaging with curriculum. A differentiated learning environment seeks to level the playing field, considering:

  • Cultural differences
  • Language
  • Gender
  • Motivation
  • Ability
  • Personal interests
  • Preferred learning style (kinaesthetic, visual etc.)

Adapting the curriculum in this way makes it possible for students to access different avenues to learning such as:

  • Finding relevant content (using a highlighter to define key words within a text-heavy content)
  • Processing information (creating a mind-map instead of writing a report)
  • Finding links between topics (discussion groups amongst peers from different classes e.g a talking about a typical school day during the Tudor period accesses both history and sociology topics)
  • Making sense of their ideas (designing their own PowerPoint presentation or infographic)

Personalised instruction is difficult to achieve, but differentiated learning can, and does, help teachers identify those students who need support and those who need a challenge. It also sets targets for each student, based upon their individual needs.

differentiate-apples

These targets are prevalent in many primary and secondary schools and the level of difficulty is indicated by ‘Gold’ ‘Silver’ and ‘Bronze’. It is a system most students are aware of and would be comfortable with.

So how does a creative writer fit into this system?

By having prior knowledge of the level each participant is working towards, creative writing practitioners can make sure their workshops reflect this three-tiered structure. Experienced practitioners (those with an ample stash of resources and plans) are time-rich and able to deliver sessions which provide different students with different pathways to learning in terms of:

  • finding content (name three examples of a villain)
  • processing information (are there any similarities between Iago and Shylock?)
  • finding links between topics (racism was prevalent in Shakespeare’s England: discuss)
  • making sense of ideas (discussing ‘To Kill a Mockingbird’ alongside ‘Othello’)

In theory, it is clear to see how creative writing practitioners can deliver differentiated learning in their workshops with prior planning and good communication with the teaching staff. And yet, teachers are knowledge-rich but time-poor and may not be able to provide a detailed profile on each and every workshop participant.

So how can a creative writer dovetail this system?

As a creative writing practitioner, I have been fortunate to shadow highly experienced teaching assistants and have gained insight into how effective they are at helping teachers with planning and preparation. This is more than just setting up equipment and handing out glue-sticks.

Teaching assistants attached to special educational needs (SEN) know their students well. They understand their motivations and distractions. They also know who works well in a group, and those who may be ‘disruptive’ (incidentally, disruptive behaviour may be seen as a negative trait but is actually an indicator of how a student processors information – kinaesthetic – or a trait of a learning difficultly such as Asperger’s or ADHD).

Teaching Assistants also have a strong understanding of individual needs: some autistic children like routine, others do not like working in groups. This information is vitally important when planning individual lessons and longer projects such as a whole-term topic. They are also aware of the different learning styles each SEN student prefers and will adapt the lesson plan and/or worksheet accordingly.

learning-styles

Types of learning and communication styles

Whilst a teacher is talking to the whole group, the teaching assistant is able to focus on those students who may need the task explaining in a way they are able to relate to and then breaking down targets into more ‘bite-sized’ chunks. This means all students are fully-engaged with the task, regardless of ability or need.

An example of this is when asking students to write a few paragraphs on photosynthesis. The TA will not direct this request to a dyslexic student, nor will they ask the teacher for support. Instead they will suggest different avenues of learning, such as a mind map exercise, or by writing the text in bullet-points. This allows the student to have an opportunity to ‘go for Gold’ and achieve something they may have usually floundered with. In essence, the most successful of teaching assistants work in a highly creative way. This is true differentiated learning, and it need not be constrained to a 1:1 scenario.

Creative writing practitioners would do well to have on board the support of teaching assistants when planning workshops and indeed during delivery. By engaging in this partnership, teaching assistants are able to share strategies that have helped in other lessons, provide ideas for adapting resources and knowledge of key students who will need lots of support in order to achieve. That is the key to differentiated learning, and one which will provide you with the tools to deliver inclusive, engaging and educational workshops for your client.

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Oxford Roald Dahl Dictionary. Book Review

Oxford Roald Dahl Dictionary

The Oxford Roald Dahl Dictionary is very much a multi-generational book, because his stories have been loved by children who are now grownups and are reading the stories with their children. The beauty of Dahl’s stories is that they make an entertaining read for any age group, a characteristic that is enhanced by Quentin Blake’s brilliant illustrations which provide a parallel narrative all of their own. It is impossible to think of Dahl’s imaginative stories without Blake’s pictures popping into your head.

The illustrations are also completely in tune with the wonderful and anarchistic way Dahl used words with which to tell his stories. These are often words that cannot be found in conventional dictionaries, but say so much because of the way they might sound or they squeeze lots of ideas into close proximity with each other to convey so many things in one breath. This is why a special Roald Dahl dictionary really hits the spot, particularly in terms of creative writing.

Creative writing workshops are places where children can be given the freedom to try things out they would not ordinarily be allowed to do within whichever education system they may be in. This is certainly one reason why this dictionary is something that would make a wonderful addition to the bookshelf of anyone involved in these sorts of workshops.

Conventional words are present in abundance and brilliantly explained, as you would expect them to be in a dictionary, but also with examples given from Dahl’s books, the content of which Dahl’s avid readers are likely to be very familiar with. This really makes it possible to bring the definition home. The made-up words, treated in the same way as the ones in everyday use, really create a sense of adventure with language and can help a writer think through the way they want to express themselves. The combination of the two approaches, as well as the illustrations, should really create a curiosity into language and how it can be used.

The deceptively simple illustrations of Blake means that any child who is not yet able to read fluently will also be drawn to the book and not want to put it down. That’s when they’ve stopped fighting everyone else for it, including the adults.

Oxford Roald Dahl Dictionary is courtesy of Oxford University Press via NetGalley

World-Building: The “Smart” way

Here at Write Creating we enjoy a good YA Novel – especially those that engage and inspire children and young adults.

So when an invitation to attend the launch of Kim Slater’s 2nd YA Novel, A Seven Letter Word hit the doormat you can imaging the excitement at Write Creating Towers! We decided to bring along one of Kim’s biggest fans, thirteen-year-old Jess.

A Seven Letter Word

A Seven Letter Word by Kim Slater. Book Review

 The book launch was fantastic. Kim is a passionate and down-to-earth author. She has an ability to create relatable characters young adults identify with and is not afraid to tackle emotive issues such as single-parenting; marginalization of young people within society; and, the all-too-familiar emotional abuse of people with disabilities. Small wonder then, that Kim’s debut novel, Smart, has been lauded with awards.

One of the most striking things about Kim’s craft is her creation of character. Now, you’d be forgiven for thinking there is nothing unusual about that, after all, Kim is an author, that’s what she does. But it is her ability to superimpose character onto a city which is truly remarkable. Nottingham plays an important role in both Smart and A Seven Letter Word and it is clear Kim draws inspiration from the places she knows well. Far from familiarity breeding contempt, this intimate portrait of Nottingham allows Kim to world-build – ensuring that readers are able to live and breathe in the city, even if they have never visited before.

https://strangealliances.wordpress.com/2016/03/19/kim-slater-about-her-smart-journey-to-a-seven-letter-word/

‘I was an avid reader, and read everything I could get my hands on. I also wrote lots, I was always writing short stories and poetry. Lots of poetry. I always used to think (when reading) if they can write something like this, then so can I. And I have!’

Inspired by Kim Slater’s talk, Jess and I set off to explore Nottingham with fresh eyes. And what better place to start than a castle!

Castle

I asked Jess to take photographs of anything she thought noteworthy. The idea was to gain a snapshot of the castle but viewed from another perspective than that of tourist. Jess found an intriguing entrance-way barred from the public’s view by a rusty iron gate…

Iron Gate

Where does this lead to?

We talked about the history of this entrance. What was it used for? Where did the winding road lead? Who walked along those ancient cobblestones?

It became apparent that this was an excellent workshop tool for world-building exercises. And Jess was enthralled by the castle’s seemingly Gothic transformation. Gone were the images of Robin Hood and his Merry Men – sorry Nottingham folks! – instead stood two worlds entwined in one: the one which  Jess and I occupied overlapped by an air of Victorian mystery.

Private Sign

Why the secrecy? 

 

Door

Jess bravely knocks on the door…

We moved on (reluctantly) to the castle museum where Jess sketched and took photos of Victorian costumes. This proved to be a useful addition to the world-building exercise as it allowed Jess to imagine how her characters would move in such cumbersome outfits!

We had a fantastic time being tourists in our own city and saw Nottingham anew, all thanks to Kim Slater’s inspirational talk.

We’ll leave you with Jess’ storyboard sketch and, of course, an extract from her short story!

Story board idea

“I heard canes rip-rapping along the floor…”

“And what do you think you’re doing?!” A hand emerged and grabbed the hoop and bent it into a metal mess. “This is my property not a courtyard!” “sorry sir, it fell” Tom’s vision was blurred with salty tears. “I hope you are sorry boy!” Tom ran off, He couldn’t face Mr Quenfill. Mr Quenfill is an evil man. If you step on his so called property, he will go and speak to your parents or even worse, the police. Mr Quenfill’s cane hits the dark stone path with frustration. “That damned rat!” Tom ran back to his house almost tripping up on his bootlaces. His mother looked puzzled. “Where is your hoop? I saw you bring it out with you, where has it gone?” Tom struggled for an excuse but failed miserably. “Mr Quenfil bent it” His mum’s forehead creased and knit her brows. “Do you expect me to believe that!” Mr Quenfill fooled adults, he was charming, mysterious and flattering but he changes into an evil man when children play near his house. This made Tom very angry. He hated it when Mr Quenfill tricked people (like his mum) into thinking he was a good man. Tom thought it didn’t make sense. Why would someone be so protective over the tunnel. The tunnel was only used as a few homes and waste: nothing more, nothing less. But Tom had to admit it was the best place to play, it was quiet and tucked away from sight. People where to scared to down the tunnel, they thought it was full of the plague and it was very dark. Lots of people in the village didn’t like Tom. He didn’t go to school it was very expensive. He only had his hoop and stick to play with (and an old yoyo with half the string missing) He liked his own space, that’s why he loved the tunnel. He decided to sneak up to Mr Quenfill’s house to investigate, so he’ll have to distract his mother which Tom knew would be very hard!

 

 

Pax by Sara Pennypacker. Book Review

Pax

Pax is a fox who was rescued by Peter (‘the boy’) when Pax was a kit. With the country at war Peter’s father enlists to fight. As Peter must now move in with his grandfather he is forced to leave Pax behind. For both of them this is unthinkable because the two have been inseparable. But, once parted, the bond between boy and fox is strong and they set out to find each other.

This is essentially a story about growing up and coming to terms with change for both Pax and Peter as they learn to live in a very different world to the one they have been used to.

The country and war are fictitious but, as with any well written story, there are plenty of places where readers with be able to relate to the themes of dealing with loss, change and becoming independent, as well as keeping going in adversity.

The chapters with Pax denoted by a fox icon (the chapters with a boy are a silhouette of a boy with a baseball cap), are very well done. In a type of Watership Down series of conversations Pax meets and travels with other foxes and begins to build a relationship with them. Peter too meets a stalwart ally in the form of an injured, female war veteran, Viola, who is suffering from post-traumatic stress syndrome, but is nevertheless very caring and compassionate.

The book is introduced from Pax’s perspective and a very effective way to start a book that needs to grip it readers quickly. The chapters are also short, making for a constantly changing perspective that helps to keep the reading moving along at a good pace.

This is a book that could be read to a younger audience who will look forward to the next illustration, and the content can be abridged by a parent or teacher who can use key parts of the text with the pictures. Jon Klassen’s (I Want My Hat Back and This is Not My Hat) superb artwork brings its own narrative to the story, as well as the type of sophistication of draughtsmanship that takes this book (along with Sara Pennypacker’s wonderfully atmospheric writing) into the realms of a classic.

This book is an excellent sourcebook for stimulating creating writing, both from trying to imagine the world seen from the perspective of different animals, and then different people, but there is also plenty of material for considering loss, friendship, families and the different ways in war affects people and population.

Pax was courtesy of HarperCollinsChildren’sBooks via NetGalley

How To Capture An Invisible Cat by Paul Tobin. Book Review

How to Capture an Invisible Cat

Delphine Cooper is getting on with her life just fine thank you. That is until super genius Nate Bannister calls on her for help. Every Friday the 13th Nate tries to make his life interesting. This time he’s made his cat, Proton, invisible. This might not be so bad, except for the fact that Nate has also made Proton super-sized and Proton is now on the loose. Something Nate expects Delphine to help him with.

Delphine may not possess Nate’s level of genius, but her common sense is actually what Nate is relying on as they race around town to solve the rapidly escalating and impending disaster. No pressure then.

How To Capture An Invisible Cat is a mid-grade reader, given that the main characters are in the sixth grade at school. But the sheer ingenuity of the ever increasingly dire and hilarious situations Nate lands Delphine in really extends the appeal of this book into the young adult arena and will also provide parents with a really entertaining diversion from the stresses of life.

Delphine may not be as scientifically gifted as Nate, but is a perfect companion using her own unique brand of ingenuity to get them out of some very sticky situations.

The book is written in short episodes that are packed with humour and adventure. Indeed, who would not warm to the concept of international villains working for an organisation called the Red Tea gang (who give themselves away by imbibing blends exuding sophisticated aromas and deliver tea as a warning to those who cross them).

It is the type of story that is very visual, cartoon-like and not heavy going, allowing the plot to gallop along at quite a pace while packing in loads of action. Anyone used to watching Danger Mouse will find the madcap episodes follow the same delightful format of crazy inventions and impossible situations.

As a book that could be used as a springboard for creative writing workshops, How To Capture An Invisible Cat is an absolute gift. For example, the invisibility of the cat asks a young writer to really consider a cat from a whole new perspective, requiring them to think about all their senses as they do so. What might a gigantic cat might feel, smell or sound like? They also might also consider what it is like to be a gigantic invisible cat.

New inventions could be drawn and written about, as well as science writing based around some of the strange things happening in the book. For example, you could work out how big an invisible cat is by seeing how much water it displaces if it jumped into a lake. This presents the possibility of working out the volumes of different objects in water.

So you can just relax and enjoy the read, or play with the idea of what it might be like to be dropped straight into Delphine and Nate’s world and how you would deal with it.

How To Capture An Invisible Cat is courtesy of Bloombury Children’s via NetGalley

A Seven Letter Word by Kim Slater. Book Review

A Seven Letter Word

In the eyes of many, Finlay McIntosh is either irritating or ripe for bullying, or both. Having a stutter really gets in the way of achieving a stress-free life and credibility. But he is very good with words and, because of his mother’s enthusiasm for the game, Finlay knows a thing or two about Scrabble. However, his mother has left under mysterious circumstances and it is an event that not only distresses Finlay’s father, but is also something that he refuses to discuss with his son. So when Finlay acquires a friend while playing online Scrabble, he begins to wonder whether his mother is secretly trying to contact him. Meanwhile he has a major Scrabble tournament to win.

As a young friend recently referred to Kim Slater’s previous book, Smart, as ‘Genius’ and ‘This book is amazing and I will read it again and again and again!!!’ (yes, she did use three exclamation marks), the Write Creating team knew we couldn’t pass up the chance of reviewing A Seven Letter Word.

But how do you follow up such a phenomenally successful book as Smart? Quite easily if you’re a writer as skilled as Kim Slater. She excels at telling a really good story that offers many layers of narrative in a deceptively simple plot and writing style.

Finlay’s problem is expressed brilliantly. The author so good at creating such frustration in the reader as Finlay tries to put his point across that you feel like screaming, but not at him. Why do people assume he’s not capable of expressing himself? Why don’t they take the time to let him finish what he has to say, instead of finishing his sentences for him? As a reader you’re repeatedly asking yourself these questions because the writing places you so firmly inside Finlay’s head. This is likely to be a familiar sensation to those who experienced Kim’s first book. Certainly our young informer talked about feeling very involved when reading Smart.

This immersion into a story is achieved in several ways. The descriptions of place are wonderful, for example, the kitchen at breakfast:

‘The wall clock has a loud tick and I can hear the grill pan creaking and snapping as it cools.’

Or characterization through the description of the actions of a caring father who might not have all his ducks in a row when it comes to parenting skills:

‘Dad laughs out loud at something he’s just read and I get a good view of the chewed-up egg and chips that’s still sitting on his tongue.’

The characterisations feel natural and a reader will be easily able to relate to them. They also have real depth, for example, the patient and self-possessed sixth former, Maryam (Finlay’s Scrabble Yoda) constantly wrestles with her own fears and disappointments.

The moments of extreme stress, when Finlay is being bullied, are conveyed in a very visceral and immediate way:

‘People jeer and laugh, making one big, mixed-up sound. Bright eyes and neat teeth flash all around me.’

And it just keeps coming.

Framed around the fascinating game of Scrabble and a miniature thriller, A Seven Letter Word does address some really big issues, particularly why people might be bullied and that misconception through being ill-informed are some important factors involved in prejudice. There is also the problem of internet security for young people. The messages are never heavy-handed or clichéd, but seamlessly woven into the text. This is the kind of book that is guaranteed to generate some healthy debate in a range of highly topical issues, but in a positive way. This makes A Seven Letter Word an excellent sourcebook for a workshop to consider problems such as bullying, prejudice and safety on the internet, in the form of prose, poetry or mini plays.

And of course, let us not forget the Scrabble. In many ways this is a much derided game (maybe mirroring the character of Finlay), but the book acts as masterclass as the contents of the chapters and the chapter titles slip in the rules, tactics and other aspects of the game to the main story that make you consider words and their power.

The overall conclusion is that this book is as smart as Smart, and we suspect our informer will want to get her hands on A Seven Letter Word as soon as it comes out.

A Seven Letter Word  was courtesy of Macmillan Children’s Books via NetGalley

Smart

These Dark Wings by John Owen Theobald. Book Review

 

Theobald_01_THESE DARK WINGSWhen her mother dies in an air raid in the Blitz, twelve-year-old Anna, must go to live with her uncle at the Tower of London. He is the Ravenmaster, and as Anna begins to help him to look after the ravens she becomes to feel more responsible for them. So when the ravens begin to disappear, Anna sets out to discover what has happened, but must brave war-torn London to do so.

This is an excellent sourcebook for creative writing, because it is very readable as well as being packed with information about the Tower of London and the City in the Second World War. John Owen Theobald has managed to fuse fiction with reality in a way that covers not only the main events, but also everyday issues, such as lack of food and clothing due to rationing, looting, evacuations and the type of mind-set children had to adopt while being subjected to extensive bombing. Yet there is no sense of an information dump, just a steady unfolding of a very interesting story.

This was a time where the population of the United Kingdom felt that they could be invaded at any moment. The author captures this tension really well, particularly as the first-person viewpoint adds a sense of immediacy to the story.

The writing style and thoughtful construction with plenty of good dialogue and frequent breaks within chapters make this a highly approachable story to children, even those as young as nine. The clear language also lends itself to being read out in a storytelling session.

While reading the book we found ourselves constantly looking up subjects that came up, because we became interested in knowing more. We were surprised to find that the events that took place in and around Tower of London in the Second World War were as remarkable as those in the book, so we look forward to reading the next in the series.

These Dark Wings Courtesy of Head of Zeus via NetGalley