As part of our first week back we decided to focus on just getting our classes writing again rather than focus on a specific text type or unit. I felt this was a great excuse for me to try out an idea I had stumbled across while reading 47 Ronin recently. Although the book isn’t suitable for primary due to some of the language, it has lots of pages that lend well to engaging children especially less confident or reluctant readers and writers. I knew my biggest battle was going to be getting some of my year 6 boys back into the swing of things so I felt this text would allow me to entice them into writing without encountering their usual negativity. My idea was simple but over three days allowed us to address lots of different areas of writing that would be required in the coming weeks and months especially when we move onto studying Private Peaceful and do several pieces of work about writing from different character’s viewpoints.
Before attempting to write from more than one perspective we looked at making sure we could explain events clearly. The children were shown five images from a page but they were shown them one by one and each time asked to write one sentence only about what was happening. The images quickly subverted their expectations and led to them realising that a story can change very quickly and that their words need to represent that change. After creating a sentence for each image we then looked at the different ways in which a sentence can be improved, focusing on adding a beginning or ending and for those more confident, inserting a subordinate clause into the middle of the sentence. Vocabulary was a basic expectation for everyone to improve as we had worked a lot on this at the start of the year.
Some of the best examples came from less confident writers or those children at the start of the year who struggled to create particularly engaging writing. Below is an example from a less confident child that shows how only working on one sentence at a time really helped them to focus on their quality instead of getting distracted by quantity.
The muscular, valiant samurai made the angry samurai drop his weapon by ploughing through his organs, releasing a wave of blood. (Kaden, 9, who I will be 100% honest I didn’t think was capable of writing such a powerful description but because he was focused on one task he really pushed himself to make the best sentences he could.)
Another powerful sentence came from a writer who enjoys writing but can struggle to organise her ideas correctly. Taking a slower approach allowed her to really focus on her basics and structure.
There was no mercy this time, keep moving he said to himself as he furiously stormed out of the water on his way to finish something that should have been finished a long time ago. Annie, 10.
The following day having created our sentences and spent time improving their structure and content we started to look at just two of the images. Together we discussed and noted down how both the characters would be feeling and what they would be thinking in the images. After drawing up a list for each character in each image we discussed how we would be writing a paragraph for each character but they would alternate. So the first paragraph would be from the perspective of the samurai in the white robe and the second paragraph would change to the persepective of the samurai in the grey robe. This would then be repeated for the second image. By doing this their writing would have to change mood and tempo each paragraph due to the contrasting fortunes of the characters rather than them sticking to a very repeptitive formula and tone. It would also ensure the action wasn’t rushed and finished in one paragraph like it often is.
At first some of the class found this a very difficult concept because they struggled to write appropriately for the character, so some had a very confident grey samurai despite the fact he was facing an almost certain death at that point. However as they started to write and draw upon our joint discussions they started to realise how one paragraph would be vastly different to the other. One character would be confident while the other would be contemplating life. These roles would then switch incredibly quickly as the grey robed samurai escaped death and the white robe samurai was left to rue his hesitation.
To help them fully get into the character I had explained the brief story of 47 Ronin and what each samurai was fighting for, this helped them truly understand how disapointed or elated each would be feeling. Gaining an understanding of their overall goal definitely helped transform their writing to a higher standard. A lot of them also really enjoyed the idea of the grey robed samurais fighting for their master’s honour.
Below are some of the best sentences or paragraphs to come from this, some of the children struggled with basic spellings but their content was a high standard. Although they need to work on their spelling to me the content is more important, I will always choose a poorly spelt but powerful sentence over a dull but perfectly spelt one. Some will disagree, but to me knowing what to write is a more important skill then how to spell it. Both are ideal though.
Focus. This is the moment I have been waiting for. My anger trapped inside for so long. I will not fall now after everything. (Laurel, 10, another writer who has struggled hugely with structure and confidence until recently.)
No this can’t be. I’ve lost haven’t I? I’ve disappointed everyone. Absolutely everyone. I don’t even get a chance to say goodbye, to say sorry for letting everyone down. It’s so ultimately unfair. Why? Why me? Deep down I hope for mercy but I know there’s no point in doing so, he’s in control. I’m weak at the moment and I’m going to die a long, painful death. Unless… (Evie, 10, a confident write but one who struggles to sometimes put herself in someone else’s shoes, this was an excellent exercise for pushing her out of her comfort zone.)
A good example of transitioning well from character to character came from Isla in Year 6 who really captured the contrasting fortunes well. Below is the end of her first paragraph and the start of her second showing the switch in perspective and emotion.
He has messed with us without any doubts, so now it is our turn. I will put all my anger into this, he deserves it.
Why? Why me? What have I done wrong? My life is flashing before my eyes. I’ve failed and this is my last goodbye, people make mistakes but sometimes they can never be fixed.
Her use of rhetorical questions was particularly pleasing as we had discussed how this character would be questioning what was about to happen.
The last example is from probably the strongest writer in my class so I was expecting her to produce some decent work. However, I wasn’t sure how she would return after lockdown and if the first week would necessarily see her best material. Despite us not mentioning tools such as similes and metaphors she was able to apply them to great effect. Obviously her work wasn’t perfect and some of the risks she took with her language didn’t quite work but I am more than happy to see her trying to be more adventurous rather than sticking to a tried and tested formula.