A Novel Approach?

Last year, I had the great pleasure of spending some quality time absorbing strategies and approaches through Ritchhart, Church and Morrison’s wonderful book, “Making Thinking Visible” (see previous post https://theteacherlounge.wordpress.com/2012/03/20/cultural-capital-or-culture-clash) … this was closely followed by the opportunity to spend a little bit of time with Mark Church during his visit to Perth, Western Australia.

This had a significant impact on my approach to teaching in the English classroom. I recently promised that I would post an overview of a project we commenced at the start of semester one (2013) – Writing A Class Novel.

I have the benefit of leading a team of secondary teachers who work collaboratively to integrate learning in a Year 6-12 context. We had decided on a broad focus for the semester which informed an array of learning experiences across curriculum disciplines; “Forensics”.

This allowed for a variety of explorative activities to unpack the complex world of forensics, criminology, the ethical implications of law making, detective fiction, exploration of anatomy and decomposition. Our investigation included creation of crime scenes, a visit from two forensic police officers, blood stains analysis, finger printing, “mug shots”, fibre analysis, handwriting analysis, utilisation of composite sketching, entomology (e.g. harvesting maggots) for recognition of time of death… students participated in an archeological dig to “resurrect” half a cow which was buried on school grounds at the start of the year. The “novel” task was delivered in a multi-age classroom for Years 9-12.

I have not ventured on this kind large-scale, corporate writing project (with a class group) before; I have no trouble with large projects with a more “dramatic” flair but a commitment to a large writing-based task was daunting; I remember the cold shiver that went down my spine when I announced to the class that we would be starting the novel project.

College students (Year 10-12) had comprehensively studied the detective genre through the works of various “famous” writers and were challenged to commence a three month project – to write a full 20 chapter detective novel (25,000 words). The task required that students work together as a class in the creation of plot, characters, crime, complication and resolution but also determine who would write each section / how they would establish “flow” between the chapters (since students decided that each student would work on an independent chapter).

As the teacher, I determined that the project would be “facilitated” by me, I would provide instruction and resources on novel composition and guide students in terms of the “structures” that would be required (pov, character, crime choice, genre “expectations”, etc.). Division of labour would be determined by the students. Even in the early stages, the task required the surrendering of fantastic ideas and tested the student’s resilience and abilities to respectfully reject their own and others ideas! As students become more committed to the task, it was harder to surrender long-held-on-to ideas; the process was often wild and frustrating and for some there were tears!

 “It was a difficult process, trying to choose and eliminate ideas, especially when people were passionate about them. It was frustrating to have to deal with people who weren’t listening properly; or who contributed ideas that weren’t realistic or constructive! My chapter was the climax of the novel. I wanted it to be good so as not to let down the rest of the people who had worked so hard on it!” (Student 1 Reflection)

The initial planning / plotting and character development took only 3 weeks, the process of writing / re-working / scrapping and editing took two months of solid and concentrated effort in and out of class.

The student’s decided that they needed to establish an editorial team who took responsibility for the overall “flow” of the novel and worked with individuals to polish and hone individual chapters. It was difficult to “let this happen” – as the “English” teacher – I wanted to jump in to rescue on many occasions.

 “I will never volunteer to be an editor again! It was too much pressure; I hated proof reading [my friends work] I felt like I was being really mean all the time – I tried to make it better by adding smiley faces [on their work] – I don’t think it made much of a difference!” (Student 2 Reflection)

And yet, from the OTHER side of the fence …

“I am not a confident writer. The fact there was an editing team to help out and to proof-read and edit my chapter made all of the difference. They told me if my chapter was ready for submission- it made me more confident to go up to the other people in my class (peers) and ask questions – I felt better organised as a result.”  (Student 3 Reflection)

The rich experiences provided by the whole teaching team gave students a genuine respect for the role of police and detectives – rather than the more “romantic” beliefs many of the students had, had; based on their home viewing of TV Police/Detective Drama. Students insisted on capturing “compassionate” and “real” investigative characters and to show special consideration to the “victims of crime” in their writing.

In order for the students to write authentically about the crime scenes from the novel, we integrated the reproduction of authentic “crime scenes” into the student’s Science investigation. Students closed off local streets to reconstruct the scenes they had “imagined” and “discussed” in English. Students used “evidence photo numbers” at the mock scenes. Students photographed all evidence, bagged mock evidence and created diorama “maps” of the scenes. These were used to write and present reports for their Science (and English) curriculum but also served to fully inform the credibility of the narrative for multiple writers.

As chapters were submitted to the editorial team, we finally had a “read through” together in April.

 “The pressure has started to build but we are now reading out all of the drafts for the first time and I must say I am pleasantly surprised by the quality of everyone’s work. … This has been an amazing experience and all of my doubts about this task have vanished!”  (Student 4 Reflection)

“My favourite part of the process was when we read the chapters in order. I wasn’t only amazed at the fact that we had written a [novel] … but also at the sheer quality of the writing from a young bunch of people” (Student 5 Reflection)

By June, students had completed the written portion of the novel and then moved to consult with a “publisher/printer” to explore packaging choices – paper choices / cover options / font / layout / recognition of authors / cost of commissioning art work for the cover / deciding on title / distribution options and ebook publication options.

We do not yet have a printed novel in hand but students are now in the final stages of pre-production and their “pre-release” of Chapter One was a great success at a local educational conference. I will post again when novels are available for purchase. J

The novel project has helped students to appreciate the depth of research, investigation and angst involved in developing a novel. Documenting the student’s learning journey has also reminded me of the confidence I can have in students – and to keep student expectations … higher!

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