An OULIPO tale!

Over the course of the last 12 years my main aim has been to provide teachers with practical, effective ideas and strategies to help develop literacy and a love of literature in the primary and secondary classroom.
What I say to teachers over and over again is that they should “steal and adapt ideas from as many sources as possible” : one method of teaching won’t work as well as a wide range of ideas and approaches.
I’m glad to say that, every so often, a teacher takes an idea, runs with it and improves it!
Martine Brumwell, a teacher from Wolverhampton emailed me recently with some samples of work she and her Year six class had produced after using my latest book 50 Ways To Retell a Story: Cinderella.
The book is based on the work of OULIPO, a group of writers and mathematicians who believe that constraints lead to greater creativity. The full introduction to the book can be viewed at http://www.thecepress.com/samples/cinderella.html#/4.
With this in mind Julie (my wife), Christopher Storey (eldest stepson) and I took the traditional tale Cinderella, and re-wrote it, in half a hundred ways…as a lipogram –without the letter ‘O’; a haiku, a recipe, a blog, a limerick, a letter of complaint …. and 43 other versions. The entire contents can be viewed at: http://www.thecepress.com/samples/cinderella.html#/2
The book has, fortunately, been very well received…
Primary Times said: “Not just a fascinating, brilliantly imaginative and clever collection of reworks, this is a terrific literacy aid for both primary and secondary teachers that illustrates the different ways language and form can bring fresh new approaches to the same story ingredients, inspiring and encouraging children to flex their writing muscles and try retelling the stories themselves”.
Submitting a book to any third party for review is always a nerve-wracking experience. We were delighted with such a positive response; Christopher especially so, as his royalty payments are part -funding his MA!
But we were equally delighted with what Martine sent to us.
Her email read:
Dear Alan,
Since I attended your last course I have become fascinated with OULIPO and so have the children in my class. When I purchased your “50 Ways to tell a Story” book, your wife asked me to send any copies of children’s work that were inspired by the book. After SATS, I decided to have a go and my class have written “A Very Oulipo Caterpillar” and “Three Oulipo Pigs”.
I’ll bring their work with me when I come to your other course in June, but I couldn’t resist sending this one.
I introduced the class to ‘Larding’ this morning and this is what Josiah came up with – no help whatsoever. It made me so amused, I thought I would share it with you”.
Now, ‘larding’ doesn’t feature in 50 Ways To Retell a Story: Cinderella, but I really wish we had included it and, believe me, I’ll be ‘stealing’ Martine’s idea and adapting it for future training events!
The process of larding, also known as “line-stretcher’s constraint” (after 19th Century writers who were paid by the line) is a simple, yet effective, game.
From a given text, pick two sentences. Then write another sentence in the interval between them. Then write another sentence in each of the two available intervals of the new text (between first and second, between second and third). Then write another sentence in each of the four available intervals, and so on until the desired length is reached.
Now, read Josiah Davis’ example. Josiah is 11 and re-wrote The Very Hungry Caterpillar, using the ‘larding’ constraint.

An egg hatched.
A beautiful butterfly emerged.

An egg hatched.
A green caterpillar with a persistent hunger came out clutching its stomach.
A beautiful butterfly emerged.

An egg hatched.
On a leaf the content of the egg claimed its territory, but didn’t feel accustomed to the new vicinity.
A green caterpillar with a great hunger came out clutching its stomach.
Running persistently around a kitchen it had managed to sneak into, it scrutinised the cupboard and shelves.
A beautiful butterfly emerged.

An egg hatched.
As suddenly as a flash of light the newborn creature came out.
On a leaf the content of the egg claimed its territory, but didn’t feel accustomed to the new vicinity.
Worried, separated, amazed, it realised the giant step it had taken and that it would have to survive on its own.
A green caterpillar with a great hunger came out clutching its stomach.
Hungry, depressed, dehydrated- it wondered for a while what to do until instinct kicked in.
Running persistently around a kitchen it had managed to sneak into, it scrutinised the cupboard and shelves.
It found on day it was born: – a succulent watermelon, a delicious saveloy, a scrumptious Gruyere, a circular green and red fruit with a leaf on its stork from a coniferous, a delectable ginger fruit and an appetizing yellow boomerang and the best of all the mouth-watering pear.
A beautiful butterfly emerged.

An egg hatched.
Quite unpredictably after months of motionless thoughts it decided to come out.
As suddenly as a flash of light the newborn creature came out.
It thought to itself if I can make a difference, if I can develop a cocoon and bring upon myself the process that is metamorphosis, if I can widen my body, maybe I will fly gracefully like my ancestors.
On a leaf the content of the egg claimed its territory, but didn’t feel accustomed to the new vicinity.
The caterpillar, who was longing for a companion, gorged as its only satisfaction or sense of achievement.
Worried, separated, amazed, it realised the giant step it had taken and that it would have to survive on its own.
How would you do when separated from everything from birth? I think that he was quite courageous and dealt with his situation better than I would have it shows his great independency.
A green caterpillar with a great hunger came out clutching its stomach.
His stomach was violently urging him to get some food in his system.
Hungry, depressed, dehydrated- it wondered for a while what to do until instinct kicked in.
Instinct kicked so hard he had no option but to listen.
Running persistently around a kitchen it had managed to sneak into, it scrutinised the cupboard and shelves.
It wanted food so much it resorted to stealing; it rummaged through the garbage and raided the kitchen, it also crept finding its way into picnic baskets and lunch boxes alike to the owners surprise.
It found inside: – a succulent watermelon, a delicious saveloy, a scrumptious Gruyere, a circular green and red fruit with a leaf on its stork from a coniferous, a delectable ginger fruit and an appetizing yellow boomerang and the best of all the mouth-watering pear.
That night after its humungous savaging it was reluctant to even bite a leaf and decided to fulfil its potential because even though it was stout it knew it was once again going to be as thin as it was at birth; so it seedily it began to start its journey of transformation from a stout caterpillar to a slender butterfly and it made its cocoon.
A beautiful butterfly emerged.
We wrote to Martine and Josiah to tell them how much we had enjoyed reading their work.
Martine’s reply was:
“I’ve attached a few more examples for you to have a look at. Most of the children are in Year 6 but I also teach some from Years 4 and 5 (Angela and Alena are two of these). I’ve deliberately left in mistakes – so they aren’t perfect. I have such a passion for literacy that I drive everyone mad in school, dashing round making everyone read the children’s work. I have some amazing children in my class – most of them have English as a second language and Jasmeen couldn’t speak a word of English until she was 5. An amazing achievement when you read her work. Her twin brother has the same passion for writing – he wrote a piece of work last year, when he was in year 5, after I had read The Highwayman with the class, which astounded me. Thanks for your comments. I read the e-mail to the children and they were so encouraged – not that they need encouraging – they would write all day if I’d let them!”
I was obviously delighted (and relieved!) that Primary Times valued what we have produced in 50 Ways To Retell a Story: Cinderella. But a HUGE thanks to Martine and her class, who showed me just what can be done when a teacher is “inspiring and encouraging children to flex their writing muscles and try retelling the stories themselves.”
Please send any other work based on my ideas. I’ll use as much as I can in future blogs!
Thanks
Alan Peat

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