An hour with a former Children’s Laureate, who also happens to be a former primary school teacher and a leading light of the save the libraries campaign in recent years, is always going to be golden time.
Keynote speaker, Michael Morpurgo certainly set the tone at the recent “The Inspirational Power of Words” conference led by The Cornerstone English Hub in an interview with Drama Lead, Bronnie Williams. He began his talk by reading his wonderfully uplifting poem, “A Song of Gladness” - written during the pandemic as his “escape.”
“The good power of words makes you think, dream, ask questions…”
He owes his own journey as a writer to his mother, whom he recalled sitting on his bed every evening, reading him and his older brother stories and poems by John Masefield, Walter de la Mare and Shakespeare. She read with “passion and feeling,” and Michael went to bed dreaming of her.
Ironically, and painfully, his own school experience put him off reading. A salutary lesson perhaps for colleagues today. In his day, it was about how you wrote – neatness and correct spelling, grammar and punctuation. So much so that the young Michael stopped reading and wanted to play out instead. Not surprisingly, he’s very no-nonsense about not being a fan of testing. But thankfully for us and his many readers, Michael has built up a lifelong love of stories over his 77 years. As is the case for most of us, he remembered his teacher who loved stories. An old professor in a tweed suit reading Beowulf. He sounds like a character from one of Michael’s stories.
In what became a masterclass for writing Michael cited Ted Hughes and his ideas for writing. Number one: lead an interesting life. Engage, meet people, and experience eye and heart-opening experiences. Number two: develop an enjoyment for reading.
“Reading is private relationship between the writer and the reader and nothing must interrupt it.”
“Dreamtime” is the most important part of story writing. Michael still uses a small school exercise book to pen his plots and advocates only putting pen to paper when you’ve found a story you care about. There should be no pressure to write. Michael goes for walks and talks to the sheep in the fields about his story ideas. Back in the classroom, children need time to think, read, ask questions and then, start writing.
Above his desk Michael keeps a child’s framed letter to him as evidence of the power of reading. It tells how a teacher was reading from his book, “The Butterfly Lion” and suddenly started crying and passed the book to the child to read to the class. Overwhelmed, she had lost herself in the story and was afraid to show her emotion in front of the children.
“Books unlock us – that’s what they do…”
As well as the importance of a good story plotline, his joy for words was palpable. Especially funny words as the spoken word can be easier for children to grasp. Words like nincompoop and his favourite word tikityboo (fabulous for spelling practice!)! Reminding teachers and aspiring writers to make writing fun, as in the tradition of wonderful and timeless authors, Lewis Carroll and Roald Dahl who revelled in making up words.
Demonstrating the universality of stories, Michael marvelled about his celebrated story, “War Horse,” appealing to children of seven and 70-year-olds. A story about the universal suffering of war set in World War I, and narrated by a horse; amongst the many successful adaptations he recalled a moving production in Berlin. Part of the story-making process, there’s the additional joy and inspiration for the audience who watch a play in the theatre and go onto think about being an actor, making the puppets, the costumes etc. Evidence of the richness of reading and books that goes beyond and leads to many creative career pathways – the cinema, theatre and dance.
Linked by video conference from his home in Devon - so close to us in a virtual way – Michael mused on a year of Covid and all the ramifications. Of a divided country and the sadness, tensions and mental health issues in which education can and must play a huge part in the prospects of young people. Interestingly, Finland came out as the happiest country in a recent poll with a serious, but contented population. The secret formula? By and large, Finish people feel equal, with a fairness at the heart of society; which brings a cohesion, with education at the heart. Back to his roots perhaps as a teacher and his own experience as a child, it’s teachers who make the difference if they are properly supported by society.
As well as being a master storyteller Michael told of his charity work with children who come to live and work in the countryside on his farm and experience the joy of picking up eggs, digging in the vegetable garden, watching lambs being born. Ultimately, engaging and as with books, freeing their imagination to go wild.
There were more golden practical insights and suggestions in the Q&A session with Bronnie Williams including:
BW What’s the best reaction you’ve had to reading a story?
MM “Silence. They’re in the story.”
BW What’s the best way to end a story?
MM “It finds its own ending if you let it…Don’t be too tidy…Let the story work it out itself.”
BW How do you foster imaginative opportunities for children?
MM “Limit the ambition…Pretend you’re not writing at all. Tell them to write what happened.”
BW How can schools support parents who are not enthused about writing?
MM “Get parents to come to storytime. AND grandparents! Get the children to ask questions…Engage them!”
Organise big events once a term with storytelling and plays.
Cornerstone Academy Trust CEO & Executive Headteacher, Jonathan Bishop thanked Michael for his talk and true to the spirit of the conference, noted how good writing begins with children’s engagement in reading.
Schools Minister Nick Gibb led the next keynote speech and noted how it is hard to think of anything more important than reading and writing and how the Department for Education is building on schools’ work, particularly in phonics and using technology effectively when education is delivered remotely.
Understandably, much of the current policy work is driven by the challenging and devasting scars of Covid-19, and he thanked teachers for their dedication. The DfE have made huge efforts to keep education on track with £2.7m recovery plans: 1.3 million tablets/laptops distributed to disadvantaged children and working with leading telecommunication operators to provide free extra data for disadvantaged families. He also paid tribute to the Oak National Academy who have provided hours of work, in which a staggering 87.3 million lessons have been viewed.
Launched in 2018, English Hubs are an important force to raise standards of early reading and provide support to up to 30 schools in their area with nine days of literacy training. Similarly, the effective implementation of EdTech Demonstrator Schools - of which Cornerstone is also designated – showcases 48 schools and colleagues providing peer-to-peer support to enhance remote teaching; interweaving technology into high quality pedagogical practice. Technology is never a replacement for teachers, but should be used as a tool and with the additional benefit of reducing teacher workload.
It’s a known fact that children who struggle to read, struggle in all subjects. By ensuring high quality phonics teaching, children have a solid base to develop a love and habit of reading. The Minister celebrated the strong reading culture nationally, built on firm foundations to develop a love of reading and shared his own bookworm reading experiences as a child when he read voraciously. The Narnia Chronicles, Joan Atkins, Hornblower, and even illicitly as a teenager, he read Agatha Christie’s murder mysteries!
The Minister ended by thanking teachers for their energy and commitment and enthusiasm to make improvements in order to benefit pupils. He also thanked them for their drive to instil a love of reading in children to follow them though their lives.”
“A passion for literature that has no substitute.”
Deputy Head of School & English Hub Lead, Matthew Pitts thanked the Minister for his talk and thanked those Cornerstone colleagues due to contribute to the day – many of whom were speaking or leading a session for the first time. Working with Microsoft, other Curriculum Hubs and partner schools, the Cornerstone English Hub is committed to making a difference across the country working with schools in East Devon, Dorset and Somerset to develop a culture where children love to read.
Conference delegates had opportunity to participate in a series of dynamic workshops and discussion groups focused on the five strands of: Reading for Pleasure, Building Blocks, Brilliant Beginnings, Delivering Digitally, and Strong Support. Colleagues were enthused and engaged by exciting sessions led by Hub specialists on topics including, Schools that Love to Read, Intentional Excellence in Teaching Vocabulary, Rebooting Letters and Sounds, Encouraging Reluctant Readers, Agile Assessment in English: Digital Solutions and more.
In keeping with the Cornerstone Academy Trust reading policy when ALL their schools stop and read a story every day between 3-3.30pm. And what perfect way to end this conference, but with storytime led by Michael Morpurgo, reading “My Father is a Polar Bear.” He invited the audience to find out the true bits in this lovely story with a lovely use of words about his real father, the eponymous polar bear whom he watched in a production of the “The Snow Queen,” on Christmas Eve 1948 at the Young Vic Theatre: “The snarliest, growliest, scariest one…”
Thank you to the Cornerstone Team for “The Inspirational Power of Words” conference that was truly inspirational and powerful. A reminder that fostering a love of books can be the pathway to a deeper knowledge and understanding.
By Jude Owens
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