Making the most of email: the virtual writer in residence

Trevor Millum
This article first appeared in MAPE Focus on Literacy Autumn 1998

You may have noticed that there's a lot of hype about the Internet at the moment. In particular, there's a lot of hype about connecting up every school and the huge potential for learning which it offers us. The National Grid for Learning is on its way and is already known as NGfL. The opinions of teachers range from the hostile through the sceptical to the fearful and onto the enthusiastic. It does have great potential but my concern is not so much with the content of what's available or how to manage the massive availability of information; it's more to do with the model of learning which is often taken for granted in discussion about the world wide web and all that. Frequently, this model is one of information being 'out there' and of teachers and children accessing it - in other words, a receptive model. Far less is said about children and teachers in a reciprocal role: where they might be partners, not just receivers. In my experience, real learning takes place when the learner is involved in the learning and has some input to it. Hopefully, this will develop, as teachers and pupils (and parents) become more aware of what they can do and less in awe of what is done for them (or to them). Within the wonderful world of the Internet, there exists a taken-for-granted facility which we know as email. It's not headline material, it's not sexy, but it works and it's cheap. With just a phone line (no expensive ISDN stuff) and an email account you can communicate with the rest of the world for the price of a local phone call. What better way to get children motivated - especially those under-achieving lads? And as for girls who might be less interested in technology - they are often the pen pal enthusiasts.
Links with people of different cultures, shared projects with other schools, questions to experts... email opens these possibilities to anyone who can hit a key on a keyboard. And from my point of view it's a great way of bringing a writer into the classroom; it adds mystery, it extends the period you can work with a school (or, of course, any other institution) and it's economical. Even if you have had the real writer in the classroom, it's a good way of continuing that relationship - or perhaps of setting the scene before he or she arrives.
So what might a virtual writer in residence do? Just as a physical writer might, he or she will stimulate the children, set writing activities, read and respond to their writing, perhaps moving groups or individuals towards a finished piece of work which will be produced as hard copy at both ends of the line. In one such 'experiment' I worked with KS 1 children who attended a school in Sheffield. I provided them with the story of the Boojum Bold, a poem I had written earlier. It ended with a lot of questions:

Did the Worm catch up?
Did the Boojum fail?
Did it find a boat with a crimson sail?
When the wind drops
What will Boojum do?
My tale goes on - But my time is through...

They responded with suggestions as to how the tale might go on and what words and phrases might be used. I took their suggestions and wove them into the continuing tale. Along the way we covered a lot of the issues which come up in creative writing - the prominence which the rhyme should be allowed to have, consistency, character and the search for the best word. At the end of the activity, they faxed me their impressions of what the Boojum (and the Great Worm which pursues him) looked like - a wonderful collection of imaginative interpretations.
Another interesting project was shared with a school in Scotland. One of the concerns of the headteacher was in getting boys to be interested in narrative writing - and to produce anything of any length. We decided to write a story together. As they had been reading Carrie's War, they suggested that we write something on the theme of evacuees. I composed a few hundred words as the start of the story and emailed them North.
All pupils were given a copy of the 'story so far' and asked to write their own interpretation of what should happen next. Once this had been done, all the ideas were discussed amongst the class and a class version produced in note form. This was then written up on the wordprocessor by a couple of the pupils. This script was confirmed by the class before being emailed back to me.
It was not at all how I had imagined the story going! Nevertheless, that was part of the attraction and I went along with the developing story line and sent them a few more paragraphs. We batted our episodes back and forth for a few weeks until there was an obvious occasion to draw it to a close. Looking back at the story now, I find it hard to see where the joins are.

There have been other successful projects, notably shared story-writing with a school in South Africa. This is an extract from a report written by the teacher there.

'As we made our own copy of each episode and received the episodes from overseas, I put up the new installment in the classrooms for the boys to read. The excitement was tremendous as the story progressed... One boy was given the role of scribe and he had to make the copy which would be emailed; the long discussions as to the best way of expressing ourselves meant that there were many crossings-out before we finally reached consensus! The improvement seen in the boys' critical faculties was well worth the waste of paper.'

(Perhaps they should have used a wordprocessor!)

So if it's so easy, so rewarding - why aren't more schools and writers doing it?
At the moment there is still the problem of access. Most schools are not connected to the Internet and hence don't have email facilities. This is going to change rapidly over the next year or so. Where the school does have a connection, particular pupils may not have easy access to the computer at times which are convenient. Logistics play a huge part in organising anything in schools. The will, the enthusiasm, which comes from a particular teacher is vital - as it is in any writing project.
There is a fear about cost - which is unfounded. You do not have to be on-line more than a minute in order to send your complete short story to Australia. The time-consuming composition is done off-line.
There is also the perception that it's difficult, that it's technical. It's true that some computer users will make even the simplest operation appear as complicated as possible. However, once the system is in place, sending your messages is hardly as demanding as writing on a piece of paper, finding an envelope, buying a stamp and walking to the letter box. Moreover, if you want to send long pieces of writing, or lots of children's different responses, you don't have to find that A4 envelope and go to the post office to get it weighed Just press 'Send'.
Finally, there is also the long shadow of the National Curriculum which can fall balefully across all sorts of writing projects. Nevertheless, some schools will willingly take on such projects because they see how they can contribute to literacy objectives - others, less visionary, use the National Curriculum as an excuse for not doing anything out of the ordinary.

One can always look for difficulties. One can also seize opportunities. Seize this one, it's great fun.

Trevor Millum can be reached at:
His website, Eastwords, has material for classroom use as well as other material of interest to writers. Find it at:
Trevor has also been involved in the development of software to assist in the teaching and learning of literacy through his work at RESOURCE. The program I Can Write which makes use of frameworks to support writing, is of particular interest.
For a software catalogue/ more details call RESOURCE on 01509 672222.


Extract from Jamie Goes Home

The label reminded him that life was changing again. He should be happy - but he wasn't. Two years of life in the countryside were ending - he was going home. His new friends were left behind. He felt as if he was leaving part of himself behind and he sat still, breathing deeply, to stop the tears that were in his eyes.

He would miss everything. But most of all he would miss his Uncle Bob and Aunty Mary who had been looking after him since he arrived safely at Kirkardler station on September 17th 1939.

As the train entered a tunnel the carriage lights flickered and came on while memories began to flood his mind like a tidal wave. He took out an old blue journal and began to read ...
17th September 1939 Explored my new home

Jamie remembered the very first time he saw Bob and Mary's farmhouse. It had looked so huge. Six small windows with tape criss-crossed on each of the four square panes, the thick curtains because of the blackout and of course the big wooden door with its horse shoe knocker.

Suddenly a strange noise woke him from his day dream.

It was a crying whimpering noise - a strange non-human sound: high pitched, desperate. He looked around. It seemed to be coming from the pile of bits and pieces Mary had pushed into the train as he was leaving. The bag of special driftwood he had collected, the tied up bundle of much-read comics and the little kitbag with last minute clothes and other odds and ends.

The kitbag seemed to be moving. The noise started again. It WAS coming from the bag. Without thinking, Jamie bent down and pulled open the drawstring of the bag. There was a yelp. 'Oh no!' cried Jamie. 'Tamar! you silly dog!'

Tamar was the smallest of Kyle's five puppies. She had taken a liking to Jamie as soon as her eyes were able to open. It was nice to see her - but what was he going to do?

Trevor Millum and Meigle Primary School 1996-1997

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