The freezing cold air making my face numb. The silky touch of the carpet making my soul warm.
Year 5 pupil, St Mary’s Church of England Junior School
Had you entered the Y6 classroom in Almond Hill Junior School in Stevenage on a cold day in early spring 2019, an unusual sight would have greeted you…
Picture if you will, children sitting upon their tabletops, swaying gently in an imaginary breeze, as they envisage themselves swooping over a landscape far below, their imaginings being supported by drone footage, displayed via the interactive whiteboard. The children are of course not really sitting on classroom tables. Oh no…they are riding their magic carpets, readying themselves to embark upon a writing adventure that will leave an indelible mark on them, and their teachers, for some time to come.
The Journey Project – as it has become known amongst the 5 participating schools – was the idea of Sarah Inman, English Subject Leader at Pixmore Junior School in Letchworth, Hertfordshire. Sarah’s incentive to launch the project came about as a result of careful monitoring of writing practices and outcomes within her school. She concluded from discussions with pupils, and from work scrutiny, that something was amiss: in essence, the children (and perhaps the teachers) had lost their ‘writing mojo’, to quote Sarah’s choice of words. Writing was happening, but it was not necessarily bringing joy to the writer, or indeed the reader. Sarah set about her mission…
She began by launching a whole school writing focus using a stunning book, Zeraffa Giraffa (by Dianne Hofmeyr, illustrated by Jane Ray). Using resources and stimulus from a Herts for Learning training course, Sarah shared her vision with her colleagues for how this text could be used to stimulate creative thinking and writing in each class. The Pixmore team responded with enthusiasm and ,quickly, attitudes towards writing began to change. Buoyed by the success of this whole school writing project, Sarah wanted to keep the momentum going, and see what could be done to further enhance writing standards and practices when other schools joined the party.
Sarah set to work sharing her vision of an inter-school writing project involving the junior schools within the partnership. Her vision fell upon welcoming ears and 5 schools signed up immediately.
The stage was set. Now, all that was needed was a great text that was capable of offering opportunities for creative writing and thinking. For this, Sarah chose Journey by Aaron Becker – a choice that proved unanimously popular amongst the participating teachers. When enthusiasm is felt by teachers, it is often transferred with ease to the children. Indeed, very soon, the children were enthralled by the book. So much so that a teacher from The Grange Academy noted that, ‘There was a sense of anticipation whenever [the children] saw the text’.
The English Subject Leads from the respective schools decided that every child in each school would be guided to write a 1st person narrative based upon this text. How the teachers achieved this outcome was left up to them. They were given carte blanche in this respect – a decision that was well-received by the teachers, and that led to varied and creative planning approaches. It was also agreed that a competitive edge would be introduced to the project with awards going to a child from each school for achievement in the following categories: Best Writing: Endeavour Award (for effort): Progress Award (for most improved).
Joy cascades from my mind as I realised it was the lilac fowl and we flew ever onward towards a world in which no chains or cage could ever hold me captive.
Year 6 pupil (and in-school ‘best writer’ winner), Pixmore Junior School
In spring 2019, the competition began. What followed led to some truly stunning outcomes. Visit any one of the junior schools who participated in the project and you will be greeted by a visual feast of superb written outcomes, all displayed creatively, and often sumptuously, across the schools. It is fair to say that the project allowed creative juices to flow. Alongside engaging in varied writing tasks, the children created flying machines (inspired by those depicted in the book); they painted vibrant, and sometimes surreal, landscapes; they created images of majestic buildings leading to collaborative murals depicting the scene witnessed by the travelling girl in the book. The staff and pupils at Woolenwick Junior, led by their SL Karen Jones, went one step further by transforming their library into a physical representation of the text, complete with hanging lanterns and fairy lights. The results from across all the schools are stunning to behold and evidently provoke enormous pride in the teachers and children who are keen to lead interested visitors through the vast array of work on display.
Beyond the physical outcomes festooning the corridors and classroom walls of the respective schools, the SL at St Mary’s Church of England Junior School in Baldock – Anna Scammell - was keen to convey the deeper, less evident, impact of the project. Anna reflected on the fact that behind the impressive written outcomes from the children, it had also freed up teachers to further explore their creativity within the planning and teaching of writing.
She reflected on the fact that staff delighted in the internal collaboration that the project afforded. Although a strong tradition of team working practices had already been established across the school, the project led to even greater levels of co-operation and collaboration. The teachers threw themselves whole-heartedly into the project, working together on producing ideas that would not only excite them, but also the children. From this collaboration came conversations about pitch and expectation. Questions were asked, such as: were expectations suitably raised from one year group to the next, and what approaches and resources could be used in each of these year groups to enact these expectations? With a deep sense of co-operation and solidarity came a flood of creativity. Teachers were now openly sharing ideas in the staffroom, and talents were being pooled to see who had the artistic flair/ the literary knowledge/ the dramatic expertise to take on various aspects of planning within year groups.
An unexpected outcome of the project, as noted by the Subject Leader at St Marys, was the impact on moderation. Far from their usual experience of sitting together in a staff room tentatively offering up samples of writing for scrutiny by colleagues, the moderation experience afforded by the project was fun, frantic and sometimes fiercely fought. As part of the process for selecting pupils to go through to the final judging, teachers were set the challenge of convincing impartial judges (in the case of St Mary’s, this duty was bestowed upon the Headteacher, Deputy Headteacher and the PE teacher) that a particular child’s work deserved consideration for an award. This lead to deep scrutiny and forthright vocalisation of the merits of one child’s work over another. Although the staff hadn’t seen this as moderation at the time, subsequent reflection helped them realise that rarely had they looked collectively and with such tenacity at such a wide range of pupils’ work. This effect was felt across a number of the schools, with one teacher at The Grange Academy offering the following reflection: "The project led to one of the most useful moderation meetings I have been to! It was fantastic to see the progression across not only our school, but across the partnership."
The orange sunset was nearing closer as my heart synchronised with the bird’s flapping wings.
Year 4 pupil, The Grange Academy
The project culminated in a glittering awards’ ceremony. For this, the host (the Headteacher at Pixmore Junior School) donned a copper gown – what else would one wear for one of the most high-profile awards ceremony of the academic year? For this is how it is now thought of amongst the teachers, children and parents who attended the ceremony. The SL, Karen Cleaves, and the Deputy Headteacher at Almond Hill, reflected on the significance of the event, noting how it had raised the profile of writing across the school, ensuring that writing was now on a par in the glamour stakes with PE – no mean feat, she felt. Suddenly, there was a real audience for the pupil’s writing, accompanied by real judges (in this case, the chairs of governors from the respective schools) and real trophies! According to all those who attended, the night was one to remember. The short-listed writers – ranging from those who perhaps had had past experience of having their writing celebrated, to those who were unaccustomed to such high-profile praise – still reflect with pride on the event, and the work that led up to it. When asked to select their best writing, the SL at Almond Hill Junior School noted that most pupils selected, without hesitation, the Journey project writing as their work that makes them feel most proud. Having seen it, I would whole-heartedly agree.
‘The sky lay like a warm blanket over the wonderful land. The last rays of sunlight fell like a curtain being closed.’
Year 6 pupil, Almond Hill Junior School
A term on, and with the memory of the project beginning to fade, the SLs are keen to turn their attention to next year’s competition. All have agreed that such a powerful project needs repeating. The only challenge – and it is a big one that I anticipate will lead to much heated debate – is which text to choose. With a passion for literature reignited by the 2019 project, the teachers are now abuzz with suggestions. As an interested by-stander, I wait with baited breath knowing that if the text alights imaginations and creative passions in the same way as this year’s choice, there will be a great deal of wonderful writing to behold in 2020.
‘I knew it was time to go back home and these two days will be a memory that I will never, ever forget.’
Year 3 pupil, Woolenwick Junior School.
Top Tips for Subject Leaders who wish to run a whole school writing project
- Spend time getting the teaching team excited about the selected text – some may know it and already be on board with the choice, others may need some support to see its merits. Enthusiasm for the text choice is key.
- Allow for ‘freedom within parameters’ for planning. Agree a collective outcome e.g. each child will produce a 1st person diary entry, but beyond this, let imaginations fly. Share ideas to get creative juices flowing, and to model the flexibility of the parameters in place, and be clear that teachers have the freedom to pursue whichever written outcomes they believe will interest and excite their pupils.
- Encourage collaborative planning. In larger schools, with several forms of entry, this may be common practice. In smaller schools, encourage year groups to work together e.g. year 3 & 4. This will encourage conversations around pitch and expectation, as well as lessen the planning burden and feed creative planning conversations.
- Prepare the school environment for the wealth of writing that will be produced. Many of the schools chose to display the work in mixed year groups so that contributions from all ages could be seen on one display board. This was a joy for the reader, but also encouraged the children to look more closely at the range of stunning work on display.
- Reach out to partner schools – there may well be a collective interest in working collaboratively on a project. The shared good practice and enthusiasm that comes from stepping outside of your usual working practices may just be the edge that is needed to reignite writing passions.
- Consider in advance how the writing will be celebrated. An Award’s Ceremony worked spectacularly well for the Herts project schools. If you choose to go down this route, don’t hold back on the glamour. Consider how the event will be made to stand out amongst the many other school events that take place across the year. Perhaps engage the children in considering how they would like their efforts to be rewarded and recognised at this special event.
- Recognise that teaching can be hard and that it can be all too easy to fall into predictable ways of working and planning. Use a whole school or inter-school project as an opportunity to reignite passions for reading and writing amongst both pupils and colleagues. Most importantly, have fun!
With thanks to the inspirational leaders and teachers at the following schools:
Pixmore Junior School, Letchworth Garden City, Hertfordshire
St Mary’s Church of England Junior School, Baldock, Hertfordshire
Almond Hill Junior School, Stevenage, Hertfordshire
The Grange Academy, Letchworth Garden City, Hertfordshire
Woolenwick Junior School, Stevenage, Hertfordshire