In times more normal than these, a lot of great work goes on in classrooms to build up students’ creative-writing skills. Through my Narrative Toolkit PowerPoint presentation and creative-writing workshops, I have had the chance to contribute to that, by offering a fresh perspective – the perspective of a practising fiction writer with a kit of practical writing tools. For some time, I’ve wanted to extend what I do to schools I can’t physically reach, and now I’m actually doing it.
Full disclosure: all my term two school bookings necessarily dropping out of my diary certainly helped focus me. Yes, this is my own personal JobKeeper program. But it’s also a new and best-ever version of a tried-and-tested product I regularly use in secondary schools, and about which people sometimes say things like: ‘Brilliant, refined talk for students that was entertaining and informative. Was incredibly valuable for the students’ (Kingston State College, 2019).
With the help of the team at OCTV (Ormiston College’s TV production unit), I’ve recorded my Narrative Toolkit PowerPoint presentation, and recorded a new workshop linked to it. These are now available for schools to license for student use.
Why a Narrative Toolkit? Too often students get stuck waiting for the next idea, or feel unsure about their next step, and that’s partly why I deliberately approach my school writing sessions from the perspective of having tools to reach for. I want to put a name to each aspect of story preparation and writing, and for each aspect to be approached consciously by the student, with the confidence that they have tools within reach to address any challenges and take control. From discovering and developing story and character ideas, to structuring a narrative, to writing and editing, the Narrative Toolkit aims to provide tools to empower writers to take command of each step in the writing process. And it aims to do it in a way that makes the most of images and anecdotes, and is both memorable and entertaining.
I have already presented earlier versions of the Narrative Toolkit talk to students across the secondary school years, and I want the workshop to work for students in a range of years too. Creative-writing assessment tasks can vary from one school year to another, so I’ve kept my focus on the writing tools themselves as, once acquired, they can be applied to any fiction-writing task. They should particularly work well for any writing task for which a student is given stimulus material in advance, and preparation time.
The Narrative Toolkit talk is available separately, or as a package with the follow-on workshop. The talk runs for one hour. Suggested timeframes for the workshop include ninety minutes or more going through the stages of story development, two hours to write a complete story of up to a thousand words and one hour to edit that story, but these are only suggestions. The workshop has ten steps, eight of them in preparation for writing the first draft. While these steps can be done one immediately after another, it can work well to spread those eight steps over several sessions, if the student has the freedom to break up the activity.
My standard in-school Narrative Toolkit workshop is a one-hour trial of several key tools, but this new online workshop asks for more time and aims to achieve more. A period when students are spending significant time by themselves presents an ideal opportunity to devote serious attention to acquiring and refining skills with writing tools and to the development and writing of a story.
If teachers are aiming to prepare students for a particular piece of creative-writing assessment, they can customise directions regarding story lengths and timeframes accordingly. I can also support this. For each participating school, I can create a customised introductory video for students, highlighting messages of particular relevance to that student group, if any, and talking through the specific workshop intentions of their school. To allow for at least some interaction, students who have watched the talk are welcome to submit questions via their teachers, and I will provide video answers to questions (several questions at least) to the school.
For students participating in the workshop, it is up to teachers how often they check in or ask students to submit their progress. It might be reasonable to check in with younger students more often, but teachers know their students best. You might choose to have students share their work with each other, particularly their first or second drafts.
Writing is one of the few tasks that is well-suited to a period of isolation and I hope that, by building this talk and workshop into a student’s learning time in the coming weeks, they will enjoy the experience and come away from it with an approach to writing tools that will serve them well into the future.
For interested schools with existing relationships with either Speakers Ink or Booked Out, I’m very happy to work via those agencies. For any interested schools without such relationships, my agent Caitlan Cooper-Trent from Curtis Brown (email@example.com) would be happy to hear from you. Maybe even happier than usual, since she’s working from home as well.