Put away your textbooks and choose your own adventure

Artist Thor McIntyre-Burnie reflects on how 'choose your own adventure' books were used as a catalyst to support his My Creative School project

10 July 2018

As part of their Creative Catalyst project, Thor and his partner school set out to better understand the inhibitors and barriers to writing by investigating fun ways of inspiring reluctant writers to see the value of writing. In turn, they hoped to inspire students to want to write, which would lead to a higher quality of writing.

My story starts with sitting in on a lesson.

The teacher has found a fantasy book about the circus, colour copied pages for the students, projected onto a big screen, and clearly made an effort to engage them in the reading & writing task at hand. Most are engrossed... but then there's the return from carpet to their desks. As soon as they open their textbooks, and a mist settles over certain eyes. Now its just a case of trying to look attentive and wait for the ding of the bell.

At lunch break, I look through one student's textbook. Stuck at the top of each page is a photocopied slip titled ‘Success Criteria’, and beneath this, an awkwardly scrawled repeat, followed by a big blank page. Flipping through, some pages have a start, some clearly have had assistance, but the pattern repeats. It's evident this boy has a very limited vocabulary and this is something he struggles with. My guess is he doesn’t see the point in reading.

I’m struck by how lonely it must feel to be in a room full of friends and peers, and yet faced with a blank page that stares back at you with the word 'failure'. Sorry, I mean ‘success criteria’.

How have we got so caught up in 'success criteria' that we've forgotten the most important thing we need to do as teachers; excite and inspire our students with the wonder of the written word.

Another lesson and another fun book is being read. The task is to write the blurb for the back of the book. Students are asked what the blurb is for, and what they think the Success Criteria is here. Various hands raise, on student comments,the point of the blurb is to sell the book, Miss - to make you pick it up and want to read it.” Bang on the money! But then the teacher replies, “nooo, that's not what I'm asking.” The boy’s enthusiasm is immediately squashed.

Then a girl answers, “Purple Polishing miss.” Correct.

Purple polishing is going back over and editing what you’ve done, to make sure you're using good grammar and hitting various markers like using frontal adverbial pronouns and so on.

For me, the task here is one of unpicking and finding the “inhibitors”, and trying to break the patterns. Let's start with the book and the act of reading.

We try a Choose Your Own Adventure (CYOA) book.

A boy is locked in a police cell, framed for a crime he didn’t commit. He’s got to get out somehow. After blocking his cell toilet with loo roll, he manages to get himself escorted to the toilets. There’s a window, its small but if he wriggles he might just be able to get through. Struggling atop the loo the window creeks! “Oi, whats going on in there!” the policeman demands.

What should we do? a) Talk to the policeman to try and buy some more time (if so turn to page 74), or b) Just ignore him and push on through (if so turn to p.33).

I put it to the class, and they erupt with excitement. We put it to vote and journey together - “adventuring” through the book.

This is working, so let's push it a step further and put it to the kids' imagination to write the options of what might happen next. And they're off! Not a misty eye in sight. Some students get so carried away that in the space of one sentence we’ve robbed policeman's gun, found a helicopter, shot the pilot, commandeered it and flown off to get some snacks from home. I suggest perhaps adding some more options along the way, and so the art of editing is introduced.

In order to illustrate how a CYOA works, we show the class a flowchart and suggest we recreate this in 3D. Let's not return to desks and textbooks just yet. We write on loose pages and link them together with lengths of masking tape across the floor. The story maps out across the carpet, desks, chairs and even ends with our character getting caught in the bin!

We return to this idea and look at how students can help each other with ideas and feedback. They begin adding stars and post-its to each other's ideas in the network of pages sprawling across the classroom. Desks are pushed to the sides, so we have a big flow chart area of carpet to play with and they can write where they like. Some lie under tables, some gather in clusters, some prefer desks. I notice one boy who had proudly told me how he hated writing and thought reading was rubbish last week, lying on his front engrossed in putting pen to paper.

This has also become a very social activity - friends are excitedly bouncing ideas off each other. As time flies and we need to get bags and coats on, I look around the scrummage of backpacks & hats and notice the despondent student from earlier still furiously writing. The bell rings. Mum can wait. He asks me for the name of the CYOA books, carefully copying them all down.

Now, of course, it wasn’t all easy, and some things worked better than others, but by the end of term we had written our own Choose Your Own Adventure, set in a re-imagined school where each room was a page, meaning you had to walk around the school to read it (instead of flipping through a book). It was quite an epic achievement of the kids and the teachers.

The curious thing is, there were moments when the teacher commented that they'd never seen the whole class so engrossed in a reading & writing activity before. However, the teacher still commented that the quality of the writing was hard to measure and map against a formalised grading system.

We have returned to that fundamental issue confronting schooling: it struggles to cater for difference. For some, simply writing on that great swathe of blank paper is easy, but for others, it's quite the opposite. If this is something we want to deal with, the solution can only come from above. Teachers have to be supported to change and teacher training doesn’t stop at the PGC. If anything, there a lot to unlearn, if we want to teach our children the point of learning.

Download the classroom tools

These ideas have informed a tool and case study for the MCS Learning Resource - read about it here.

Image credit: the creation of Our Lady Immaculate's Choose Your Own Adventure story, photographed by Roger Brown for A New Direction.