How Behind the Bookshelf inspires creativity
Richard Kavanagh visited a primary school to see how teachers and pupils are using the Behind the Bookshelf video service.Back in March we introduced a new service to the English literature scene. Behind the Bookshelf is a video streaming resource which motivates and encourages students in creative writing. Famous authors talk on various aspects of creative writing, providing expertise, encouragement, and inspiration
With BtB being used by a growing number of schools, we wanted to see how things were going.
Yerbury Primary school in Tufnell Park is a typical London Victorian school. It has gothic overtones in its old red and yellow brick construction. Val Rutt, a year 6 teacher there, had kindly agreed to let us see at first hand how the school uses BtB and to learn more about how the pupils reacted to its use in the classroom.
We were allowed to sit in on two classes: Val's year 6 class, and Dave Smith's Year 5 class. Both classes worked on English, but in very different ways.
Any notion that children today are not both attentive and conscientious would be dispelled by years 5 and 6 in Yerbury. The children were of course curious about the strange person in the corner of the room, but after introductions and a period of getting used to the intrusion both classes settled down to work. In Dave's class, the children were all asked to sit on mats close to the screen. Then a series of warm up chants ensured everyone was ready to take part.
Dave wanted to develop the class's powers of description, and chose David Almond reading from his novel Skellig to stimulate thoughts and discussion. The passage that Almond read is the one in which Michael discovers Skellig for the first time in his shed.
It was here that it became apparent that Dave uses the videos interactively. Rather than playing the whole video, he would pause after a passage and ask questions about the reading. What images do the descriptions give? Would you like to be in the shed? What words are most effective? How does the author get the image across without mentioning the image directly?
Using this as a primer, Dave gets the class to guess what is going on by describing around the fact. For example, a pupil has to get across the notion that he or she is sad, without mentioning the word "sad".
It was clear that the class were enjoying themselves, but how did it all work? A few days later, Dave delivered an opinion on the session: "A great way of getting the children excited by the website is to watch a few videos that help us get to know the author/ have a more comedic element (eg, favourite word "bum"), which gets the children on board and interested in the authors. Then to show a few copies of some of their books and give children the chance to read and review them was really motivational.
"What was lovely, I noticed, was actually how each author came across quite distinct in approach and personality, which was good for the children to see as it made them more normal/personable.
"In terms of using the clips for a lesson, I think it's good to spend some time choosing a clip that is directed towards your teaching aim, and not to be afraid of going back/ replaying/ pausing the video to get the most out of it and also for the children to really have a chance to look at in more detail.
"One way in which it affects the children is that they become more conscious of what they're choosing to read. Since reading a Morris Gleitzman book, my class have been starting a little collection of his books in my classroom for everyone's use. It's been a useful way into reading for some of my less enthusiastic readers."
In the year 6 class, Val wanted to start off by getting her class to think about their favourite books. She played videos in which Malorie Blackman and David Almond describe their favourite books, and more importantly why they were their favourite books. Using the videos as a lead, she asked the class for their own favourite books. Then came the crux of the session: the tools and skills of reviewing. Questions such as, "Why is that your favourite book?", "Pick out examples of what you like about the book", "Why do you like that aspect?" abounded, and if the children needed a little help, Val quickly replayed sections of the clips to spur thoughts. Many of the children cited books written by BtB authors as their favourites, and this undoubtedly helped when it came to how well the videos worked in holding the children's attention. But it was apparent that no matter who the favourite author was, the videos held the attention of the children and it was obvious they were listening intently.
The class moved on to poetry. Val played an author reading a poem. The video she chose was Malorie reading, or rather reciting, her favourite poem, "Matilda". It became clear why Val chose this one: she wanted to get the class thinking about learning poems by heart. The class went on to consider their own favourite poems.
It was fantastic to see the classes in action with BtB. While most of the credit must go to Val and Dave, it's clear that the videos were instrumental in the great reaction by the class. That's what BtB is all about: motivating and inspiring students of English in the art of creative writing.
It was Dave who summed up his class's efforts in a way that was music to our ears – "I was amazed at the quality of writing the children produced afterwards." You can't wish for more than that.
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