Personal Demons – Jack

Jack Todhunter explains how the project began…

This is simply THE BEST work I have done in the classroom.

I taught Steve Alton 20 years ago and was delighted with his work in class‚Ķso much so that I appear to have said he would one day make a novelist. This was a rather curious proposition because Steve excelled at science and wandered into biology/horticulture and now works at Kew Gardens in West Sussex in a high powered job on ecological matters. However, he remembered my words and I was overwhelmed when he took the trouble to trace me and phone me 2 years ago to say thanks as his first novel was going into print. He even included a little note in the foreword to note my help. Steve is now on his fourth book and this is where I “nabbed” him for an experiment.

Steve studied English Lit with me in the days before English language A level opened up a linguistic approach to texts. I asked him about audience, about the passive voice and about reading age in relation to his novels and he was stunned. He had not really considered such issues, so in return for some on the job advice, I suggested he collaborate with my kids on language and plot guidance.

He emailed us sections and we worked on them. We see “holes” and also see “possibilities” which we email in a variety of formats from simple lists and comments to our own prose sections and improvised drama scripts based on his novel. I think we have made significant interjections here. Steve will tell you if this is or is not the case. Certainly it has all been a symbiotic relationship. I get enthused kids who beg me to read and write and he gets ideas and instant feedback. He wrote to our school web page to say how much he appreciated our help. I moved from teaching in main stream about ten years ago so this project has been done with disabled, disaffected and weaker performers in (written) English and the results have been little short of miraculous!!! My head teacher has seen nothing like it and neither have I. We have kids here at Newman telling a novelist what to do.

They have learned to argue, put forward cogent discussions, discuss plot, narrative voice, characterisation, themes and motivation amongst a host of other issues on a day to day basis and the novel has grown in an organic way from our dialogue. Often our ideas may be shot down in flames, but I am proud to declare that the reverse is the case, too. We have developed Steve’s initial ideas beyond all recognition from his original sketches and I hope we will continue to do so. He has the last word, but that is to be expected. I have been STUNNED by my students’ ideas and plot lines. I have a whiteboard in class and we use this to analyse his prose and email feedback in quite a mature fashion. We highlight
sections in colours and submit alterations likewise. We send these back to Steve for his comments.

If you want an initiative to inspire and motivate then this is it! It has been a pleasure to get involved.