Thursday, July 31, 2014

Otago Literacy Association Writer's Workshop - Port Chalmers school - 30 July 2014

Today I had the pleasure and privilege of working alongside four New Zealand authors and sixty excited children, from year 4 to 8, from around Otago and Southland.  The Otago Literacy Association hosted a Writer's workshop day at Port Chalmers School with authors Melinda Szymanik, David Elliot, Sandy McKay and Quinn Berentson.  I was extremely fortunate to spend some time with each of the authors and was equally enthralled and inspired.  I spent an entire session with Melinda, and had to zap between David, Sandy and Quinn in the next slot.  Like the children I was wishing I could have attended all four sessions!

Melinda Szymanik (pronounced shi-manic)
Melinda started with a fabulous introduction into the writing process moving from inspiration through to resolution.  I thoroughly enjoyed being a part of the journey with the learners, through the process. 
·      Inspiration
·      Beginning - dramatic event, complication, problem, 
·      Middle - journey, developing skills, team tools, building up the story, more tense, more problems,
End - climax, resolution

Melinda then read her book ‘The Were Nana’.  I was transported back in time til when I first shared this story with my class in 2009.  I remember the class voting it definitely ‘not a bed time story’.  I remember when we made the posters to promote the books for the New Zealand Post Book Awards, displayed in the foyer for all to see.  I remember the excitement when ‘The Were Nana” won children’s choice!  What a delight for me today, to hear the story read by the author.  After reading her story aloud, Melinda revisited the story discussing the book in line with the drawn up criteria.
Melinda shared rule of three – starting with a problem, two mini complications, a climax/solution, followed by a happy ever after resolution.   Melinda has an educational resource on her website for The Were Nana 

Next Melinda led us into an activity around making characters appealing through careful thought with:
·      Appearance;
·      How they behave;
·      How they interact;
·      How they talk;
·      Making decisions about what is important to focus on;
·      Identifying features;
·      Using subtle ways to show characteristics – eg. Nail polish wearing at a uniform school where it is banned, can tell a lot about the character;

We then revisited her book to look at the subtleties, in text and illustrations.  Oh the power of reading, digging deeper and really exploring a book with our learners.  We MUST take time to explicitly teach the skills required to unpack text, illustrations and nuances. 

The pictures always contribute significantly to the story in a picture book.  Character names often tell you a lot about the characters, and accessories eg a pet.   The nana in the story is Nana Lupin, from the Latin word lupine for wolf.  The wall paper in the illustrations is loaded with subtleties for the story.  Do we really allow our learners time to explore and discover these subtleties?

Melinda then led us in an exercise, interviewing a character, to really shape up our character before writing:
·      Forming an idea of a character;
·      Are they child or grown up?
·      Do they live at home?
·      Do they read the newspaper?
·      What is character’s favourite TV programme?
·      Favourite song?
·      Do they brush their teeth? Once, twice, three times a day…
·      Do they prefer shower or bath?
·      Do they play a musical instrument?
·      Do they sing?
·      Do they play a sport? Team or individual sport?
·      Are they good at it?  Bad at it?
·      Are they humble or a skite?
·      Do they have any special skills?
·      Do they have brothers or sisters? Older or younger? Eg Harry Potter’s isolation…
·      Orphan?  Parents? 
·      Polite or rude?
·      Do they like school?
The behaviours and interactions of characters are so important for us to add layers of understanding. We must actively teach how to read into the comments or talk of characters. Spoken word tells us a lot about the speaker and the person being spoken to. eg “Hey you, four eyes!” This four word comment gives us incredible insight to both the speaker and the one being spoken to.  We can achieve so much with the words you choose to use.  We are communicating all the time and our words are incredibly potent! We really must think very carefully about the words you put in the mouths of your characters. 

Melinda then issued a problem: a person in a tower with no way in or out.  How will we shape our character?  Will we go for an easy solution or will we draw it out and have challenges and options? What attributes will our character have. 

Oh what a pleasure to spend time being challenged and supported to develop the characters in our writing. 
Two delightful DNI students thank Melinda
Thank you Melinda for an incredibly powerful journey with our learners! 

A great site to check out with your writers for an online writing competition:
Practising your writing, sharing your writing.... what a wonderful opportunity!  

“Read as if your life depends on it if you want to be a writer….” Is my quote of the day from Melinda!

Sandy has written a whole stack of books.  I had only heard of Recycled so I was delighted to see some more of her work. 

He most recent book is Charlotte and the Golden Promise – telling the story of a young girl who grew up in Naseby.
Sandy’s website is rich with teachers notes and resources to share.

Check out the stack of books Sandy has written!
Sandy discussed many ways of writing a story and shared one of her books that is entirely written in letters.  She encouraged us to consider diaries of letters, and thoroughly recommended a book for recording ideas to explore.  (Later, over lunch, Sandy spend some time writing in a little book – I wonder if there are words for a future book shaping from today in Port Chalmers…)
Sandy led us through a brainstorming process for thinking through our ideas.  Starting with something we know or have experienced is a great idea.  Maybe starting with headlines from newspapers, imagining what a story might be about.

Sandy opened the floor to questions, and of what fabulous questions came from the learners, digging into the life of an author.
I am realizing how much I miss the learners, but equally realizing that for now I am right where I need to be!  Doing what I am is the best possible place for me and wonderful opportunities are evolving today…

Sandy also works as an adult literacy tutor. Her recommended reads are ‘When our Jack went to war’ and ‘Who wants to be a millionaire’.

Her favourite authors are Nick Hornby and Ben Elton.

‘Read lots, be nosy and keep ideas notebook’ is my quote from Sandy.
Thanks for a fabulous session.
I arrived at David’s session well through and felt I’d really missed a powerful start. The learners were attentive to all the discussion around ideas for stories.  David reiterated that our first ideas are not our best ideas, just as our first sketches are not our best sketches. He used the analogy of writing as if you are shaping a piece of clay. Shape it up as you would a big piece of clay, starting big, adding the details later. Start drawing, start with big simple, lightly drawn blobs, just the way you would squeeze your clay...

Just as you work in layers with clay, or sketch in layers, write in the same way!  Know at the outset that you will make mistakes.
Put blobs of words down, think, how can I squeeze them to be better?  Most importantly, start off not trying to be perfect.
Don't get trapped by your own story. Get the ideas going, change the work, order, delete chunks, and add chunks. Start with a book dummy, add layers, and show changes. Do up to twenty versions of a story, share with an audience, hear and see what is working... Revise! Expect to do fifty versions of your story before it is ready. Work on your thinking about your story. Careful modelling of the details is necessary.
Make the ideas and notes your own! After a period of discussion the writer returned to their notes. Modelling that through copying ideas of others you rely on ideas of others. Taking ideas, shaping them, personalising them, making sense of them for yourself.
Allowing the learners to share some of the ideas and elaborating on for others to capture. Welcome mistakes along the way!
Don't let the story determine what you do.  You shape your story, just as you shape your drawing. Using the illustrations of the objects in your story you can add mystery, and invite the writer into the story.
Pictures of objects were given to the writers for a writing exercise.
Using the picture of the objects roughly sketch out a story.  This exercise made me reflect on the power of a short piece of writing, a specific skill, a paragraph, a chunk of text.  How often I got caught up in the mind set of writing stories or pieces. 
I only caught a brief time with Quinn but the power of his encouragement of the young writers will stay with me.   He spoke of the need to draw the reader into the story from the very beginning, and keeping them in the story! He talked about the power or revisiting and rewriting stories from your past. He shared this quote from Saint Augustine “The world is a book, and those who do not travel read only a page.” Quinn said “Ink on a dead tree can change the way you think about the world.”  This is a very powerful quote for us all. 
Hook the reader from the first line and keep them hooked. Think about great first lines. Share your lines, listen to them read aloud, really take time to create intriguing first lines. Allow time for learners to create first line drama!

Indeed, what a pleasure and a privilege to spend time with these inspiration authors and enthusiastic kids.  What delight to see the authors mobbed by the kids for their autographs at the end.  
One excited little writer proudly let me take a photo of his autographs!!!

This was a thoroughly enjoyable day and MAGIC has hatched out of it… More real soon…


  1. how wonderful to see these authors inspiring young writers and their teachers. Extremely interesting ideas and advice,
    Thank you

    1. Thank you Susan, it was indeed inspiring!
      Following up from this we have started a NZ Children's author page where we will showcase one author a week!
      I think it will be very exciting to learn more about authors.
      Anne K