Developing writing through Mantle of the Expert

30th August 2019

Ben Connor

Developing writing through Mantle of the Expert
Mantle of the Expert has changed the way that I teach writing. Using this method has allowed me to explore using a child’s imagination to bring their learning to life.
For so long in writing sessions, pupils are asked to describe situations, settings, events by relying on what they have read or seen. These descriptions are often quite effective and tick all the boxed but lack real heart. Using Mantle and dramatic methods has helped me to put my children ‘in’ the story, making their descriptive writing more effective.

Does it make sense?
Whilst a student and in my first few years of teaching, the go-to when writing a passage of description was always ‘use your senses’. I would exhort my pupils to think of a sentence to describe what they could hear, see, touch… smell… taste? This would often lead to them creating a very two-dimensional description. This method of painting-by-numbers would allow them to meet the grammatical targets for their year group but would leave me, the reader, cold. Authors don’t use senses to describe, they create a description that, rather than making us pretend to be in the story, make us feel like we ARE in the story.

Six Dramatic Forms
One element of Mantle of the Expert that has completely changed my practice has been the use of the Six Forms of Dramatic imagination. When describing a scene in a Mantle, I use the six forms: light/dark, silence/noise, stillness/movement. The use of these opposites helps to create a realistic setting description. Whilst walking the children into a dramatic setting, I focus my use of language on these areas, finding examples of light and darkness within the scene, pointing out areas of silence and where there would be noise etc. Bringing children into the story is vital in ensuring that Mantle works. For example, when bringing children into a Mantle involving an old, dilapidated mansion, the gate would screech, the smashed windows would be in shadow, a ripped curtain would flutter in the breeze.

As well as being vital in creating an imagined scene for the children to ‘step into’, I encourage my pupils to use the Six Dramatic Forms within their own writing. When writing a scene from their story, children use a mix of the six forms to create a description that draws the reader in. This has proven very effective. Once pupils have been shown this method and had it demonstrated a few times, the use of these forms becomes more natural and will add to their writing toolbox.

Conventions: Objects in a story
Another effective method used in Mantle of the Expert is the idea of ‘Conventions’. Conventions are methods of presenting the story, either by use of the teacher or another adult in role or using a picture, object, symbol etc. Pupils can also take on a role within these conventions and the one that I have found most effective for writing is the use of an enactive effigy. An effigy is when a person represents something or someone else. This method has the pupils imagine that they are an object within the scene. For example when my pupils write about a Roman messenger arriving at a Celtic village to speak to the Chief about paying a tribute to the Romans, the children write from the point of view of someTHING in the village. It must be an inanimate object. To prepare the pupils for this, I get the whole class to stand in a circle to create the walls of the village. As the walls, they look in to the village and imagine what scene they would see: roundhouses, fences, animals, people, piles of weapons. A group of children then step into the scene and BE the objects. As a group, we describe the scene on a normal day: the people moving around working, animals eating etc. Children have an opportunity to write down everything they can ‘see’ from their point of view. We then swap roles and children who were the walls become objects. Instead of the ‘everyday’ scene, we describe what would happen when the Roman messenger arrives: panic, animals and children being hidden away, warriors grabbing their weapons etc. Because the pupils are in a fixed position, they cannot describe the Roman messenger, or the events happening beyond the gates, the ‘walls’ can only look in so the description focuses on the village itself.

Mantle really comes into its own when developing the use of character within a story. Because Mantle allows the teacher or another adult to take on the role of the character, the character stops being a passive and becomes approachable. There are a number of conventions which can be used here depending on the confidence of the adult in role. The least-scary version of this is when the adult is an effigy of the character so is frozen in place as if a statue. The pupils can talk about the character, discuss their thoughts and even walk around the character airing their own views about what the character is thinking. From this position, the effigy can take on a range of ‘lifelike’ characteristics. They could be brought to life and deliver a short passage of dialogue, they could be ‘activated’ so they can answer questions. They could even act out a short scene as if on CCTV so the pupils can ‘pause’ them in certain positions. This opportunity to deconstruct the character’s thoughts and motivations can really help the children develop a more realistic character for their story (it can also be used to interrogate a historical character).

Enactive Effigy
Just like with setting descriptions, having the pupils BE in a scene can be very effective. Rather than focussing on describing the scene, pupils take on the role of an inanimate object to change the perspective. Within this inanimate role, they describe a conversation or a character’s behaviour. For example, whilst studying The Arrival by Shaun Tan, we dissected the scene where the main character is leaving his home:

To understand the emotions of the scene it was useful for the children to be there but not be one of the characters. This allowed them to explore the feelings of BOTH characters. The children chose one of the inanimate objects in the scene, for example the carriage clock. They observed the scene and heard the conversation. Instead of being an invisible observer, the objects can be affected by the actions of the characters. For example, one pupil chose to be one of the tea cups. When the man got angry and slammed the case down on the table, some of the tea sloshed out of the tea cup, staining the table top. Getting into the scene in such a way allowed the pupils to gain a better understanding of the characters’ emotions.

Aside from being an effective resource to bring the curriculum to life, Mantle of the Expert has had a massive impact in particular on my teaching of Writing. As my experience of Mantle has increased, I find myself using techniques without thinking. As well as planning full Mantle projects which draw in a number of subjects and take up a considerable amount of your timetable, I have found a lot of value in using dramatic techniques within my everyday teaching to augment and improve my practice.

This article was written as the final assignment of the NEU Mantle of the Expert Training Programme. Ben Connor is a Mantle of the Expert Ambassador and Tweets as @bbcTeaching


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