Case Study: Writing for film

John Roberts

John Roberts is a teaching advisor at A Tale Unfolds. With over 40 years experience as a primary teacher and headteacher, during his career, John’s great passion was for creative writing. As video technology became more commonplace in schools, he used his passion for creative writing to produce films written entirely by the student’s themselves.

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During my primary-teaching career of over 40 years, I found that making films with pupils was a perfect way to increase engagement and progress through what becomes covert learning, as they get completely wrapped up in the excitement of having a real purpose for their work; a film premiere in their school or even the local community. For children who live in today’s digital age, it is the perfect way to combine the school’s primary agenda (to show improvement) with that of a child; to have as much fun as possible.

Suzi’s take on Ann’s Last Day

Suzi (Y5) was writing a script for a short film about a girl in our school who had drowned in the nearby River Lyne one winter’s day in 1934. Not the cheeriest of storylines, I thought, but she had different ideas.

“I’m not writing about the drowning,” she said in a low voice, “that would be manky.”
“Try morbid, it’s a better word.”
“That would be morbid. I’m writing about her returning.”
“Returning?” I tried to keep my voice low like hers.
“Returning. Here. Now. Here in our school to talk to us.”
“The run up to the accident. What life was like in 1934, how bad the winter storms were, what she ate for dinner, why she went home that way, what was in her mind.”
“Tell me what’s in your mind Suzi.”

“Well, I see her and I can describe her to you, and she comes here quite quietly into our class and tells us all about her day. Her last day. I’m calling it ‘Ann’s Last Day’. She takes us down to the river and we follow and she describes everything she sees. She takes us to that last step near the ford - we see her face and she looks so sad. We say ‘goodbye’, and she says ‘goodbye’, and I think that’s what she needed, just to say ‘goodbye’.”

“You see this?”
“I see it all.”

"We talked about camera angles and light. We noted the close ups and the music to set the mood. We talked about what the director wanted us to feel."

Suzi saw the picture of the story long before she chose the words. She saw the development of the story, saw the main character, even empathised with her and saw the ending. The script painted the picture in her head. After she wrote the script which she completed at home, we discussed close ups, long shots, panoramic shots, even music…all the things necessary to do justice to the images in her head.

Suzi was already an accomplished writer. She had all the skills to know when to use powerful verbs, adverbial clauses, smart connectives. She could sit a Y6 SAT paper and breeze a level 5 but that would mean nothing to her. Her writing needed to have more purpose. Films gave her that purpose.

I used films a great deal to improve creative writing with my mixed-age class (Y3 to Y6) in my small rural school in north Cumbria. We watched and analysed short films and excerpts from various movies. We talked about camera angles and light. We noted the close ups and the music to set the mood. We talked about what the director wanted us, the audience, to feel. Two boys in year 3, who struggled to read words, had immediate access to the story and felt that they ‘got it‘ just as much as the older and more capable pupils. Using film to analyse a story line is something that all children can do. Getting them to make their own film is something that drives them forward and gives them a goal.

"Once a child realises that their ideas, images and writing will be presented to an audience, the drive for them to improve what they do is tangible"

Writing for film has two defining aspects. The first is the manifestation of the child’s creative ideas written down in the form of a script. The second is the realisation that this film will be shown for others to see, and this in itself brings about improvement in writing. Once a child realises that their ideas, their images and in particular their writing will be presented to an audience, the drive for them to improve what they do is tangible. They have the self motivation to search for better ways to express themselves, look for more powerful words, empathise more with the characters, making the teacher’s job more to do with guiding than instructing. The exciting fact that their creative ideas will be presented in the form of a film for anyone to see spurs them on to produce writing that gives them a sense of purpose and fulfilment.

Suzi completed the film of ‘Ann’s Last Day’, though she wasn’t happy with the first draft which she shared with the class.

“There’s something not right,” she said. “Something at the end of it all. The last scene. It doesn’t say what I want it to say.”
“Well OK, Suzi”, said Sam, one of the boys in year 3 who had difficulty with reading… “why did she come back to see us then?”
“Erm….” Suzi was struggling with her reply. I let the silence linger in the class.
“I know why,” said Sam with the slightest of twinkles. “She wants us to remember her. There you go, Suzi, there’s your last scene.”
“Brilliant Sam, cheers,” laughed Suzi. “The last scene… she turns to look at us all and whispers ever so slowly in the dying light, ‘please remember me’.”
I turned to the class and said, “Looks like you’ve done exactly that.”

[Written with the assistance of
Dominic Traynor]

Have you used film-writing in your school? Let us know in the comments.

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