Righting Writing #3: Father Christmas in Prison!

Santa ClausThis is fun to do with a Year 9 class – it’s a writing activity you can do in the first week back after Christmas.  Click the links to download the materials:

Papá Noel en la cárcel  (A5 student sheets)

Papá Noel en la cárcel 1 (A4 visualiser sheet)

I usually slice the student sheets in half to make two A5 sheets, then I can keep the task to myself so the class doesn’t get ahead of me until the right moment (goodness, that would be almost like telling the class my objectives! Ugh!!!  Incidentally, I have it on good authority that OFSTED no longer require objectives to be stated at the beginning of lessons.  My good authority?  An OFSTED inspector, last Thursday, speaking to 50 witnesses in London!).

I digress.

For non-hispanists, this is what it’s all about:  The sheet is a mock-up of a front page story in the newspaper, El País, published on 5 January, the day before Reyes, the ‘second Christmas’ in Spain (although I’m sure many would argue that 6 January was celebrated here long before 25 December).  The story goes that for the first time ever, the 3 Wise Men are having a year off and won’t be delivering the presents in time for 6 January while they take a holiday.  Great timing. (A bit like pupils taking a holiday in term-time) and Father Christmas was due to stand in for them (a spot of Yuletide cover, if you like).  However, reports have come in that he’s swapped mince pies for porridge, and jingle for clink.  In short, he’s in prison. So the children may not get their presents tomorrow.  Big news.  No-one really knows why he’s inside yet, but there are a few funny goings-on and personal issues which everyone would like a bit more information on:

  1. He’s very tired because more and more Spaniards are giving presents on 25 December, so he’s shattered.
  2. The neighbours have been saying that he’s knocking back too much sherry these days when he’s in the houses and then it’s a bit of job to get back up the chimney.  Not the easiest of manoeuvres when you’re half-cut.
  3. No-one has seen Rudolph for a whole week now – Where is he?  Is he ill?  Or worse?
  4. This year Father Christmas didn’t win the Christmas lottery (El Gordo) so there are some questions as to how he was able to pay for all the presents.  It all seems a bit fishy.
  5. On Christmas Day, loads of kids got the wrong presents because apparently, Father Christmas lost his map (or his Santa Nav).
  6. On Christmas Eve, Father Christmas had a row with his wife (Mary Christmas) and she hasn’t been seen since.

So all of these questions are up in the air, and the newspaper hopes to publish an interview with Father Christmas tomorrow.  That’s the task – the pupils have to write either an interview or a report on what’s going on.

Before we get into any further detail on how pupils might go about the task, let’s pause and think a little about the characteristics of a good writing activity.  We very rarely write in a vacuum.  (Come to think of it, it’s difficult to do very much at all in a vacuum.  Don’t try this at home).  If we write, someone is intended to read it, even if we’re only jotting down a reminder to ourselves.  So, a sense of audience.  It’s useful to make it clear when setting a writing task who that audience is.  For some activities pupils may choose their audience from several possibilities.  Wherever possible, it’s better if the audience actually exists!  It could be another pupil in the class (who will then respond, either in writing or orally) or the teacher or headteacher, in which case the marking can take the form of a two-line response.  In the case of the headteacher, a little ghost-writing comes into play.  Having the sense of audience clear is good for helping students to enter into the activity, but also to work out the style of the piece, for example, the level of formality and any relevant forms of address or turns of phrase.

We rarely write for the sake of it, merely to fill paper or to exercise our fingers on a computer keyboard.  It may be to narrate, explain, justify, give instructions, clarify, enquire, complain, protest, sound off, remind, inform, congratulate, commiserate, warn, confirm… (and if we do a couple of each of those every year, that’s already 30 writing activities)… In life outside of the classroom, it’s rare to write something just so a teacher reads it and marks it, or to fulfil some artificial exam criteria, yet in many schools that may well be the basis of the normal writing diet.  So why are they writing?  A sense of purpose.  It’s easier to engage with an activity and get the creative juices flowing if it’s clear why we are writing, particularly if that purpose is a good one. (“Because I say so” doesn’t quite do it).

When we write something because we want to, we often adapt to the type of text automatically.  It could be a postcard, a (shopping) list, a to-do list, an email, a (SMS) text, a letter, a list of instructions, a poem, a story, a placard for a protest, and so on.  So, a sense of text.  Making the text-type clear to students will help them to work out how to express whatever it is they need to write to the audience they have clear in their minds.

In this case:

  • T:  A sense of Text (a newspaper report or interview)
  • A: A sense of Audience (newspaper readership)
  • P: A sense of Purpose (to clarify why Father Christmas is in prison and what is going to happen about the presents on Reyes)

Writing activities on TAP.

Here’s how I go about this particular sequence:

  1. Before any sheets are given out, I flash the text on the visualiser, very quickly.  What sort of text is this? (Two columns, first paragraph in bold, photo in the middle, headline, date).  Ah, yes, a newspaper!  What page is it? The front page – must be important news!
  2. I cover up everything except the photo in the middle.  What might be going on here?  Pupils speculate with each other, offer a couple of suggestions.  I reveal the one-line comment below the photo, more speculation.
  3. I slow-reveal the first paragraph on the visualiser (two A4 pieces of white card, one on top of the other.  One is moved downwards, below the first line, the other is moved slowly to the right to reveal the first line to the class, part of a word at a time.  The class has to predict what each word will be.  Depending on the level of the class and how well they are doing with it, you can speed up or slow down).  The first paragraph summarises the whole story, and at the moment, this is all they can see.  Back to pairs – what has happened?  Speculation in pairs, as soon as they are engaged, I leg it round the room putting face-down A5 copies on their desks.
  4. I arrive back at the front, wheezing.  (Even though I may give up my New Year’s Resolutions for Lent, the one about going to the gym experienced its definitive demise within the first two days of the New Year).  All may now turn over their sheets and avidly read them to find out just what happened.  Silence all round.
  5. When they chuckle at Father Christmas’ wife being called Mary Christmas (I know, that one gets me every time too), I know they are near the end of the text.  I read it to them, fairly slowly, on the visualiser, adding in any miming or accompanying pictures as may be necessary as parallel sources of meaning.  No translating.
  6. I have a box of 20 dice which come in very handy at times like these – back I go, round the room, dolling out one per pair of students.  A little roll and a number is chosen, which corresponds to a question in the newspaper report (the ones I’ve listed above).  So different students will have different numbers, several pairs of course will have the same number as other pairs.  All pupils speculate with their partner on the answer to their question for a minute or two (depending on the group, range of level within the class, how accustomed they are to doing this sort of thing, this may need some extra support on the board) and I take a few answers.  My only aim, really, is to get a bit of enthusiasm going.
  7. I explain the activity that they have to do.  I think it’s a good idea not to go straight from reading the newspaper report to writing.  I want to get some ideas going first – some will be more inspired than others – the wackier, the better as this will really appeal to some pupils’ sense of humour.  Everyone chooses for themselves whether they want to do an interview or a straight report.  The interview is generally easier, so I may suggest to some to do this if I think they may find the report too challenging.  We establish who the audience is, what the text is and why they are writing it (TAP).  Let them think about it for about a minute, no talking.  Then I give out the instruction sheet (the bit I sliced off the student sheet so they didn’t get ahead of me).
  8. I’m assuming in all of this that the class is already at the stage where they can use the preterite tense fairly well.  If they can, the instruction sheet has a couple of useful reminders about endings.  At this point, I get everyone on their feet and bung a beach ball at them as I shout random verbs in the second person singular (preterite, then later, present) for them to reply in the first person singular, as a way of conditioning them to think about these verb endings when they come to write the interview.  Then the same again, this time giving them infinitives for them to give me the third person singular (for if they want to do the report).
  9. Then it’s over to them and I see what they come up with.  The best, funniest, quirkiest get shown on the visualiser, but I don’t tell them that until I’ve got them all in and marked them.

Have fun with it, once you’ve decided how you want to go about it, it could become a staple of your first week back after Christmas each year – ah, now that saves on some planning during your holidays…

Feel free to use the share buttons below and pass the idea around.

Happy Christmas, one and all, and in the New Year we’ll have a look at that healthy living unit, which will probably be very timely after all that Christmas pud.

The Target Language Classroom

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