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A few years ago, while I was still teaching regularly, our school set out on a thrilling journey to help children develop a genuine excitement about writing – we wanted their eyes to light up when they knew they were going to write, to come in and ask, “Will we be writing today?” Our solution was to introduce three elements centred around one key component: embedding art – the use of watercolour painting – into writing.
First, children learned how to use watercolour to produce vibrant illustrations. Each child had a box of paints, a thin sable brush and a small pot of water. Starting with only one primary colour and white, the challenge was for them to make as many variants and tones of that one colour on a 2cm x 2cm square of goodquality paper as they could. Some of the patterns and designs they produced were wonderful: thin, wispy lines weaving across the paper, lines of paint that varied in tone almost imperceptibly and blocks of finely graduated colour.
Once they had practised this for a while, they moved on to try it with two primaries. They were enthralled and discovered a love and respect for watercolours, which they found could be full of surprises and pleasures.
Next came the challenge of producing illustrations. Some wanted to copy pictures. Others wanted to branch out and draw from real-life plants or artefacts. Still others wanted to use their imagination.
Resources were plentiful so that all children could find something to help them. At the same time, I showed pupils some watercolour work I had done using exactly the same techniques I was teaching them.
The second strand focused on inspiring children to discover an authentic love for writing. I read to them daily, immersing them in excellent stories, prose and poetry. They enjoyed learning at first hand and as practically as possible. This fuelled in them a desire to write as experts and they flourished quickly as writers, finding their own voice and appreciation for the nuances of language.
For the first writing activity, we went onto the school field on a warm September day. Each child found a place where he or she could be completely alone and just sit still and experience being ‘in the moment’. Children were encouraged to listen, smell, touch and feel. I asked them to capture that moment in time, writing down some thoughts, feelings and experiences on a pad of paper. They had 20 minutes. It was too short for some pupils, who loved this quiet, sensory experience; however, it was long enough for others to become bored. I also asked children to bring one thing back that would remind them of that 20 minutes. Some chose a flower or branch, others a stone, still others a sweet wrapper, lost toy or piece of litter.
Once back in class, they started to write what they had experienced during that time on the field on a plain A4 sheet of paper. They also had to include a watercolour illustration of the object they brought back. The children could combine the two in any way they liked, and it was their choice as to whether to begin with the writing or artwork. For those children for whom drawing and painting was a challenge, I told them to find something they felt confident painting – a leaf, a small petal, a twig, a pumpkin stalk – “Keep it as simple as it needs to be for you to be able to succeed,” was the mantra.
I reminded them, as so often I did when teaching writing, that this piece of white paper in front of them was magical. It would contain ideas, thoughts and stories that would never be captured unless they wrote them. And because they were putting these marks on a piece of paper today, their children, grandchildren and people who live hundreds of years from now would be able to read and know exactly what they were thinking today. Magical!
They also knew they had to get it right first time, as they weren’t going to be able to redraft or edit. It had to be carefully rehearsed in their heads before it went on paper. That is one of the great advantages of painting and writing together. When the ideas dry up for a moment, or you need to think things through for a bit, then you put down your pen and pick up your pencil or paintbrush again. Each helps the other. This was especially true for those who struggled as writers initially, but could draw and paint well. The fact that they were able to produce one thing to a high standard seemed to convince them subliminally that they could the other as well.
From that small beginning they started to develop their own voices as writers and also to write at greater length, quickly graduating to A3 sheets. Improvements were rapid and striking. They began to discuss the best words to use to bring out a particular shade of meaning and comment critically on each other’s work. They had started the journey to becoming authors.
The third strand was a heavily structured emphasis on handwriting. As a school, we took the decision to teach an italic style, which they learned quickly and used for their ‘best’ handwriting. It swiftly revolutionised the way that children regarded their work. They took immense pride in it, so that their handwriting matured in style and legibility and, together with the amazing watercolour illustrations and their renewed skill as authors, their achievements and attitudes to learning in general were transformed.
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