Andy Chapell and Louise Fitzpatrick describe their approach.
Our middle school was `converted’ to picture books last autumn term. By courtesy of our enlightened county librarian, a large number of picture books arrived in the library. They were greeted initially with the observation that somehow the first school’s books had found their way to us and surely a mistake had been made. After all, picture books are only used when teaching very young children to read or to keep them amused while waiting in the doctor’s surgery. We couldn’t possibly use them, could we? When we discovered that they were indeed destined for us, we took them into the staff room where they were immediately pounced upon and devoured by eager members of staff:
`Is there another Willy the Wimp book?’
`Just look at these wonderful illustrations!’
`When can I show them to my class?’
Everyone responded enthusiastically to them so we decided to explore a variety of ways of using the books with our classes.
To begin with, each year-group was given the chance to browse through the books and share reading experiences. Children of all ages and abilities quite obviously enjoyed this activity. Poorer readers were delighted because they could actually read a whole book in a few minutes, let alone days, and the better readers were pleased that now there were books with pictures for them, too. At this stage, we drew attention to the different formats and layouts of the books. This was important for the work which we tackled later on.
While reading the books with the children, we found that some of the stories naturally lent themselves to points of discussion; books like Granpa which examines the close relationships between children and grandparents and the emotions associated with death, and The Visitors Who Came to Stay which highlights the tensions which can arise in a one-parent family when a new partner is introduced to the family unit. Both books were used successfully with children who were coping with those very same situations.
We were aware that by talking with the children about the stories we were extending their thinking and encouraging them to empathise, but we also wanted to establish a link with writing. One of the first successful writing sessions was stimulated by using Alastair’s Elephant. The story was read almost to the end and then the task was set – if the children were the author, how would they finish the story? Small groups were organised and the children started to plan. They were issued with large sheets of sugar paper, pastels, wax crayons and felt tip pens so that they could include illustrations as well as language. Some of the ideas were ingenious and even rivalled the original ending! The children’s work was displayed on the ‘Alternative Endings’ board in the classroom. A follow-up activity to this was that some children wrote their own stories using the same theme but this time the number and types of animals which followed them home from the zoo were amazing. An array of zebras, orang-utans, and deadly snakes stomped and slithered across the story pages.
Great fun was had by the second years when one afternoon Would You Rather … was read and then used as a basis for writing. The reader is invited by the author to make some rather unusual and sometimes revolting choices! Which would you rather … snail juice or spider stew? Choices were made and then our results displayed on a large pictogram (snail juice proved to be a popular choice). Another page asked the children to make the decision between having breakfast in a balloon, tea on the river or supper in a castle. We developed this by asking children to justify their decision and give further information. Who would they invite to join them? What would they have to eat? Where would they like the balloon/river/castle to be? The finished pieces were presented on large sheets of white paper where the children recorded their ideas and also painted a picture in the style of the book’s illustrations.
We are very fortunate to have a well stocked library van which has some videos of picture book stories. One video available is Strega Nona and it was this film that was watched by our lower school. The story is about an old woman who owns a magic pasta pot. The pot goes terribly wrong when her boy helper activates the pot and drowns the local town in a sea of spaghetti. After watching the film and reading the book, the children soon realised that they knew similar stories like The Magic Porridge Pot and The Sorcerer’s Apprentice. The children then chose a partner to work with and were asked to list what the stories had in common. It was decided that there were five main likenesses.
- Each story involves a magic object which can produce food, liquid, etc.
- There are two spells, one to begin the magic and one to stop it.
- Each story has two main characters – one goodie and one baddie.
- A disaster happens as a result of the second spell not being known.
- The baddie is given a punishment to fit his/her crime.
Once this was established and understood, the children began working on their own stories using this same structure as a basis for their writing. They had to work carefully to meet the challenge of including the relevant details while keeping their story in the correct sequence and telling it in a set number of pages. We suggested a layout for the children to use – dividing their sugar paper into eight equal sections which represented their eight pages. We felt that the success of the results depended upon giving the children a structure and format to work within. Because they were working in pairs it didn’t matter if a child had difficulty with writing because his/her partner could wield the pen, but ideas were shared. Titles of the finished stories ranged from `The Magic Jam Jar’ to `The Magic Truck Factory’, which, due to a faulty spell, produced more trucks in a minute than Ford does in a year! We shared and read each other’s stories and the children were thrilled that they had become real authors.
The idea of writing for a real audience was also developed earlier this year when the snow fell. It seemed a perfect opportunity to use The Snowman and the fact that a year group were studying weather made it irresistible. After watching the video and sharing the book, the three classes were told that they were to become authors for a second time and that they were to write a book in readiness for an exhibition three weeks later. The exhibition was to be mounted in the school library and their work was to be viewed by the rest of the school. They created their own characters from 3D materials, as the boy had used the snow to create his snowman. The children chose from plasticine, clay, papier-mache, dough or anything else that they wanted to use. Soon the classrooms were transformed into thriving, buzzing workshops. Children worked individually or in pairs bringing in typewriters from home or borrowing our long-suffering secretary’s old one. Desks were rearranged as partners spread out their papers deliberating on storyline and presentation. To give a realistic feel and to add value to the finished books, they were covered with clear fablon. Not only were the children thrilled that they had become real authors but the enthusiasm of other children to read their books because of the attractive format gave them enormous satisfaction.
Our eleven and twelve-year-olds based a school assembly on stories they had written after sharing the picture books. The class identified various formats within the different books and used these as a basis for dramatic presentations. Some were sequels like `Willie the Snooker Player’ and `Grandma, Felix and Mustapha Peanut’ (a hamster); others were adaptations with original twists. One based on Alastair’s Elephant used an enormous cardboard house with opening windows to reveal weird and wonderful creatures. This particular idea has now toured much of southern Hampshire. All the stories were motivated by the prospect of presentation to an audience and united by a willingness to re-work and re-draft early attempts.
A different idea was used by another year-group which decided to use the books as a vehicle for linking spoken language and music making. The books used for this purpose were Two Can Toucan, Where the Wild Things Are and On Friday Something Funny Happened. The stories were read aloud by small groups of children while others used the instruments to create sound effects to add atmosphere to the storytelling or composed music to accompany the stories. These taped sessions stimulated rich and varied discussion between the children and gave them opportunities to experiment with their own language and to develop their music making talents. Later on, when the tapes were played, they added another dimension to the stories.
Picture books have provided us with a wealth of ideas and stimuli for developing the curriculum, particularly language. We believe that picture books represent a vast resource for all ages of inspirational material which is just waiting to be used in our first, middle and even secondary schools. We hope you agree. Happy Picture Book Exploring!
Andy Chapell and Louise Fitzpatrick teach at Holbury Middle School, Southampton.
Photographs by Richard Mewton.