Tuesday, 9 December 2014

Charlie's First Story

Charlie, age 4 years 6 months has dictated his first story. It was the occasion of his ‘Dada’s’ birthday and his Mum asked him if he wanted to make a birthday card. Charlie said, “No, I want to write him a story.” So his Mum collected together card, pens, glitter and pencils and waited for Charlie to begin. This was the result:

Little Red, Gold and Silver and Pink and Green Riding Hood.
By Charlie Lyle-Williams

Little Red, Gold and Silver and Pink and Green Riding Hood went to visit her granny for tea.
Granny was waiting for her granddaughter to arrive.
The wolf was in the wood which was full of trees that were green, yellow and silver.
Suddenly the giant stepped into the wood and he said, “Who dares to steal my tea pot!” He was angry.
“And who has been drawing us?”
Little Red, Gold and Silver and Pink and Green Riding Hood said, “It was somebody I don’t know.” And the giant said the same.
John and Zui were next to the giant. “Hello!” said the giant, “I missed you a long time ago.”
John and Zui said, “We didn’t draw you, it was somebody else we don’t know.”
John and Zui thought about it some more and then John said, “It was the wolf who drew you!”
Rabbit said, “It was the wolf.”

Charlie’s first story portrays an imaginary world peopled with fairy tale characters – an innovative ‘Red Riding Hood’, a wolf and a giant ­who interact with real world characters – his Uncle John and Aunt Zui. Giants exist and are angry, a wolf lurks in a wood that is both real and imaginary – the trees are silver as well as green and yellow (the story was written in Autumn just as the leaves were turning and he did have glitter in his hands at the time). Ordinary things are happening: a child is going to visit her granny for tea; her granny is waiting for her, but there is a wolf and a giant in the wood.  Charlie has a firm grasp of the role of author and reader as he communicates directly with his readers to tell them the giant is angry.

In authoring this story Charlie knows it is a great present for a birthday. He often receives books as presents and he wants his Dada to have such a present. His Mum recounts how proud he was as the present was unwrapped and received with such pleasure. He is delighted to be acknowledged as competent at this thing that is so valued in his family. He wanted to share his accomplishment with me and asked his Mum to phone me so he could tell me all about it as soon as he had finished it. He knew that this was an important ‘first’ for him – his first authored story and he anticipated my positive response and excitement and the delighted reaction he would get from his father when he received his gift.

Charlie has had lots of opportunities to experience the pleasure of books and he knows that stories are authored by people. He has met real-life authors on several occasions. We have told him lots of stories that are made up as well as written down. Since he was two he has frequently been a joint author of stories and it was just a matter of time before he wanted to become a written author, not just an oral collaborator.

By asking his Mum to write down his story he shows he has figured out how to use writing for a particular purpose, it tells us that he knows something of the complexity of writing as a tool of social communication. In doing so he has taken an important step in mastering the complex sign system that is writing. By asking his Mum to write it down he has accomplished authoring in interaction with someone else, and this surely is an important pre-requisite to internalizing the act of writing for himself. He knows that his words can be retrieved later by his father when he explores his birthday gift.

For Charlie his first authored story carries enormous meaning. It is not just a written story, it is a birthday gift for a much loved parent with whom he has shared lots of stories. He also knows that writing can be accompanied by drawings and recognizes the possibilities of drawing for conveying meaning. Charlie’s mark-making in the past has been used to make graphic representation of the meaning he is making from the world (see my blog on Charlie ?) and for Charlie illustration is used to accompany his words, not the other way round as is more common for a child of his age. He uses other tools to enhance meaning; the silver trees in the story have glitter glued to them, his central character has red, gold and other glitter to show her many colours. His Mum reports that after he had created the visual character he began by saying, “Little Red Riding Hood” and she pointed out that she was not just red and Charlie then listed all the colours making this story a co-construction between mother and child. When illustrating the story he first tried to draw a house but he was unhappy with that and his Mum took the opportunity to turn it into a teapot and Charlie then changed the story accordingly and then asked his mum to draw the house. He wanted to draw a rabbit and got as far as the ears but was unhappy with it so she finished it off for him. He is able to create a giant and the figures of Uncle John and Aunty Zui (their gender indicated by the colours pink and blue). Charlie clearly understands the boundaries between written words and drawing and their relationship.

Charlie’s writing has grown out of his experience of stories and story-telling with other people – we have read to him and told him stories and encouraged him to act out stories since he was a baby. As we have immersed him in story he has had experiences that include attending events where real authors have presented their work and signed his copy of their book; he has joined in the acting out of an author’s story on a stage with other children. He has also watched pantomimes of favourite stories like ‘Snow White’ and ‘Robin Hood’ and theatre productions such as “The enormous turnip”. He knows that stories can be read and acted out and he has been given every encouragement to dramatise stories for himself. He role-plays characters from stories everyday.

I now turn to look at the story itself and explore its structure to better understand what Charlie has achieved.

Little red, gold and silver and pink and green riding hood went to visit her granny for tea.

Charlie begins by using a narrative voice to begin the story by introducing the main character or subject of the story. There are clear links to the traditional story of Red Riding Hood but extended as he borrows from the story for his own purposes.

In the next line the setting is established.

The wolf was in the wood which was full of trees that were green, yellow and silver.

This gives the impression of a magical wood which is reinforced through his drawings.  An element of tension is introduced which because of our prior knowledge of the role of the wolf in the Red Riding Hood story suggests a coming crisis.  

Granny was waiting for her granddaughter to arrive.

The receiver of the visitor is introduced through a ‘meanwhile, somewhere else’ device.  The grammatical structure implies the simultaneous nature of the waiting and the implication that someone will know if she doesn’t arrive and alerts us to the possibility of something going wrong.  

Suddenly the giant stepped into the wood and he said, “Who dares to steal my tea pot!” He was angry.

A rift occurs as a new character arrives ‘suddenly’ giving the impression that this was unexpected and possibly threatening.  The possibility is introduced that it is going to be a giant rather than the wolf that prevents the girl from completing her journey to her grandmother’s.

The plot is now advanced through dialogue and at the same time tension is created by the giant’s words ‘who dares?’ This new character is potentially dangerous. Then Charlie as author steps in to stage-manage the story and he tells us, the readers of the story lest we be in any doubt about the giant: “He was angry” leaving us in no doubt about the giant’s emotional state.

This first piece of speech introduces the abstract concepts of stealing and anger and reveals Charlie’s prior knowledge of folk tales where people do bad things to giants (like Jack stealing the giant’s belongings) and conveys the giant’s sense of justified anger in the face of such events.  

“And who has been drawing us?”

An implied ‘and furthermore’ comes with the giant’s second utterance and additional justification for his anger. He demands an answer. This is an interesting turn of events (it is Charlie the author who has drawn the giant) and who is the ‘us’ the giant refer to? It is perhaps the wolf – the other ‘baddie’ in the story?

Red, Gold and Silver and Pink and Green Riding Hood said, “It was somebody I don’t know.” And the giant said the same.

Is our many coloured riding hood trying to protect someone by not saying who has stolen the teapot and drawn him, or is this a genuine ‘don’t know’?

John and Zui were next to the giant. “Hello!” said the giant. “I missed you a long time ago.”

We now meet new characters from Charlie’s real life, his Uncle John and Aunty Zui. Charlie is now mixing fairy tale with actual people in his life, but continues to use typical story language –‘a long time ago’. In line with the trajectory of traditional tales these characters create a sense of expectation that they are there to help the subject of the story achieve her goal and arrive at her grandmother’s house.

John and Zui said, “We didn’t draw you, it was somebody else we don’t know.”

Charlie introduces the device of repetition ‘somebody we don’t know’ and thereby creates an interesting effect characteristic of folk tales and also introduces dialogue as characters speak to each other.

John and Zui thought about it some more and then John said, “It was the wolf who drew you!”

I found myself speculating – is Charlie using John to blame the wolf for the drawing, is this because a wolf is someone who can be blamed because he is not a good character, or does the character ‘John’ genuinely think the wolf did do the drawing? Is Charlie trying to protect himself, he was the one who did the drawing after all?

Rabbit said, “It was the wolf.”

It is interesting that the soft toy that has accompanied Charlie during the day and to bed each night since he was a baby is a rabbit – is it an accident that a rabbit suddenly appears and joins in with the condemnation of the wolf, or has he been a continuous presence in the story as he is in Charlie’s life?

Will the giant be convinced now that it is the wolf that is responsible for making him angry? Is the giant likely to believe John, Zui and the Rabbit because after all a wolf is not to be trusted? Charlie as narrator is not a neutral observer of these events, he is a partisan commentator who makes value judgements about who we should empathise with and who we should condemn.

This is the end of the story and the final resolution ­– whether or not little Red, Gold and Silver and Pink and Green Riding Hood achieves her goal of visiting her grand mother is left to the reader to work out for themselves.

In his first written story Charlie has a clear understanding of audience, purpose and form. He has clearly taken ownership of narrative, he understands narrative structure and is able to tell a story in his own words and people it with characters from his imagination and his life. He has introduced characters, setting, plot and rift. Whether or not the rift was resolved in his own mind we can’t know, perhaps he just ran out of steam, authoring is a demanding business after all!

Teachers faced with implementing the new English National Curriculum in England will notice that I have not made use of the government’s glossary of essential terms to analyse Charlie’s story. When I was at school I failed miserably at the requirement to carry out ‘box analysis’ on pieces of writing that expected me to be able to identify such things as clauses, relative clauses, subordinate clauses, auxiliary verbs, modal verbs, noun phrases, preposition phrases and so on ­ – all terms from the glossary. The whole thing fills me with horror, but I know that at four Charlie already knows how to do all of the things expected by the end of Year 2 when he dictates a story. I do not believe that the structural approach to teaching grammar and grammatical terms required by the new curriculum will not improve the quality of children’s writing. By listing the features of writing a child is meant to achieve teachers will be looking to tick the features off a list to provide evidence that requirements have been met rather than engage with the meaning a child has generated. We need to provide a socio-cultural context in school that enables children to generate meaning through story. Charlie’s engagement in story writing for the first time comes from four years of rich experiences of story, it is not surprising that he wants to appropriate the role of author for himself. As teachers are forced to focus on the features of writing I think children’s natural story-telling capacity may be compromised and will not help them write stories.

1 comment:

  1. Hi Sue,
    I really enjoyed reading this. In fact, I thought I'd written a response once already and posted it but it seems to have disappeared into the ether, so here goes again!

    I think you have expressed something very profound and important about the effects of numbers in situations such as this. Your head teacher friend is caught in a bind by this instrumental discourse of numbers and measures. If she were to ignore it - well- she'd be viewed as somehow 'incompetent'. By going along with it, she is made to appear as though she is endorsing this practice as 'meaning something' which - as you have so elegantly expressed - it clearly doesn't.

    As for the parents and their children, they are left to fret and blame: themselves, their child, their child's teacher or 'the school'.

    And this culture of individuated blame is so reducing and pernicious. We all become just a little less as a consequence.

    I will share this piece - if I may - with my lovely group of post-graduate teachers studying here in the UK from Kazakhstan. Like us they are caught within the global audit culture of numbers. I will let you know how they respond.

    Thank-you for sharing this: I'd say you were 'above average'. Rebecca