Monthly Archives: July 2011

The Highwayman


I’ve just finished teaching a really successful unit on The Highwayman to my Year 5s.

We began by looking at just the first two stanzas of the poem – analysing the language and trying to visualise the scene. As we discussed what a “highwayman” is, I was pointed to this excellent Horrible Histories video: Lots of fun, and immediately engaging for the kids. (At the end of the lesson, I played them “Stand and Deliver” and “Prince Charming” so that they could hear where the musical style had come from)

They then drew their idea of what the opening scene might look like, using the metaphors carefully (ghostly galleon tossed upon cloudy seas, etc).

The next day I resisted the urge to read them the whole poem. Instead, we had a “story bag” with props from the story, such as a red ribbon, a blood stained shirt, etc. (These were photos on the IWB but it just struck me that the actual objects would be even better for next year!) The children wrote down their ideas about how the objects might be used in the story and what the narrative might be.

Finally, in the third lesson we read through the whole poem, a stanza each, allowing children to opt in to read or opt out if they wished. I was really pleased to see some of the less confident readers earlier in the year reading beautifully! They then formed 3 still images of key points in the narrative. They performed these to the class and I took photos.

The next day, I showed the photos of the still images which I had uploaded to the blog the day before. I gave a bit of thinking time for the children to imagine what the characters might be thinking. We then set up the still images again and did “thought tracking”, where children come up to the characters, place a hand on their shoulders and speak their thoughts aloud. I had tried this before, but it hadn’t been very successful. However, this time it was great for a few different reasons. Firstly, I said that everyone had to say something for at least one of the scenes. They had had thinking time through seeing the photos, and there was increased engagement because I filmed the thought tracking so they knew their work would be recorded.  There were some very thoughtful interpretations.

At the start of the next lesson I showed the class the excellent machinima version of The Highwayman: They really loved it! We have watched it several times more since! I pointed out that an important part was missing – the scene with Tim the Ostler – and argued that this was the key scene of the poem. The children agreed – we had all come to the conclusion that Tim had told the redcoats about the Highwayman’s plans, and that if he hadn’t overheard none of it would have happened! One of the children suggested Tim might have had good motivations, and I invited her to come up and be hotseated in role as Tim. There were lots of excellent questions which she answered really well – such as how did he feel when Bess shot herself – did he try to rescue her – had he known she was meeting the Highwayman before or was this the first he knew. They had really thought about it carefully!

The final thing that we did with the poem was to write part of it in prose – the scenes from Tim’s point of view, using third person limited POV. Our class target is writing in paragraphs with links and topic sentences, so it worked well for this – there are lots of changes of time and place, and good ways to start the paragraphs. The stories turned out really well – some showing that Tim felt remorse when he saw the soldiers abusing Bess and that he tried to help, but failed. Others portrayed him as a coward who washed his hands of the whole thing. They all showed his feelings really well, due I think to their immersion in the drama techniques beforehand.

Even after we had finished this work, many children voluntarily chose to carry on work on this theme during self-directed learning time, making Wanted posters and rewriting other parts of the poem. I think it’s a great piece of literature and hope you may find some of these ideas useful if you are studying it next year!


NaNoWriMo – creative writing for kids!


I mentioned earlier on Twitter that I had finally ordered the last few of my writing club’s novels and a few people asked me to explain more about this, so I thought I would blog it!

NaNoWriMo stands for National Novel Writing Month. It’s been going for over ten years and I have been involved with it for 2 years. For adults, the challenge is to write a 50,000 word book in a month (specifically, November). It’s a great challenge because many people have a idea for a novel but without a firm deadline it is very hard to put aside the time needed. The word count initially seems high but you soon realise that it can be done if you put aside an hour or so each day. There are also lots of people all doing the same challenge at the same time which is great to spur you on.

NaNoWriMo is not just for adults – there is also a version for under 18s called the Young Writers’ Programme ( The site allows each young person taking part to sign up to the website, or you can (as I did) sign up as an educator. There is a recommended target word count for each age group but basically each child sets their own target.

I run NaNoWriMo as a writing club over lunchtimes, and this year had over 60 members take part, with targets ranging from 500 words right up to 30,000 for a G&T writer in Year 6. As an educator you get a great kit with a big poster and stickers so that children can chart their progress – and badges for when they achieve their target!

It’s a fab way to enthuse and motivate kids to write outside of normal lesson time. It lets them write about anything they want to and also gets them thinking BIG and writing extended narratives. I’ve had action stories, spy stories, fantasy stories, time travel stories and family issue based dramas! The really GREAT part is that every child who reaches their target gets a free proof copy from CreateSpace, Amazon’s self-publishing wing. What a great prize! Imagine being a published author at the age of 10! WOW!

***Update: Jan 2012****

Unfortunately Createspace have now withdrawn this offer – the proof copy needs to be paid for 😦 However, you can purchase proof copies for around £5 so it could still be possible for the children to publish their books – it’s just more problematic. A real shame.

Now to how to organise things:

1) Before November begins, set up the club. Get the kids thinking about their stories. There are some excellent workbooks on the YWP site that have character and plot planning sheets you could use.

2) Set up your educator account on the site well in advance so you get your package of goodies!

3) Set up a template for the children to write on in Word. This will save you a LOT of time later. My preferred “trim size” when printing has always been 5 x 8, which in metric works out to a page size of 12.7 x 20.3. Set the margins to 1cm. Also add page numbers centred in the footer at this point. I also like to put reminders on this file for the children: I leave page 1 blank, put “Title by Author” on page 3, “Dedication” on page 5 and “Start writing here” on page 7. The word file is basically the interior of the book.

4) Make sure you set the template to a read only file so when club starts each child will save their own version. Incidentally, if you are using Google Docs so the children can work from home, it will not be set up that way for them, but they can always copy and paste into the template later.

5) Write write write!

6) When the children finish, get them to proof read their work. This includes making sure nothing (word art, clip art) is intruding into your 1cm margin or your file will get rejected. Also check to make sure that all the new chapters begin on an odd numbered page as all new chapters start on the right hand side. Something you don’t notice normally but you will notice it if you don’t do it! Also, every file has to be at least 24 pages long, with an even number of pages, and no more than ten blank pages in a row.

7) At the end of November, contact the YWP by email and tell them how many winners you have! (A winner is anyone who completes their target)

8) Start an account on CreateSpace so you can publish the books. Some people like to send home a letter to parents detailing copyright issues and assuring them their child’s intellectual property is secured, etc. That is up to you. Also, if children would like the chance to actually sell their own books on Amazon or CreateSpace’s website, they will need to get their parents to set up the account.

9) Start a new title for each new project. The children then get the really fun part of designing their own cover!!! You can upload photos or use the ones already on their website. Could be a good time to discuss copyright and Creative Commons!

10) Use a free PDF converter such as Primo PDF to convert the Word files into PDFs that can be uploaded as the interior file of the book. Make sure the name the child has put on the cover matches the name that is on the interior file. Surprising how often they are different!!!

11) You need to fill in lots of details on the CreateSpace website such as price, BISAC code, description etc. Most of this is just for use if you were going to sell commercially so don’t worry about it too much, as long as you put something in each box.

12) Once the cover is ready, submit it for review. If they are happy with everything you can order your proof! Here is where you put in the code that you have been sent for a free copy. I like to keep all mine in a spreadsheet so I can keep track of which child has used which code.

13) A few weeks later a very exciting parcel will arrive and you will be able to present a super excited child with their very own copy of their very own professionally printed book! YAAAAY!!!!!

If you have any questions please do ask me in the comments. 🙂