Authors Live: Darren Shan - An English & Art department collaborative project, Part 1

Catherine Wylie, an English teacher at Alva Academy in Clackmannanshire took part in our Authors Live Teacher Ambassador Programme. She tells us about the brilliant collaborative project she ran with the art department, based on Authors Live: Darren Shan and inspired by the artist Joseph Cornell.

Part 1: Reading the book

“This book is disgusting, Mrs Wylie…disgusting, but good!”

This was the verdict of Ellie, one of my first year pupils who had devoured the first chapter of the Darren Shan novel Zom B in fifteen minutes flat. The whole class were buzzing with excitement. New books. Exciting covers. Zombies. What more could an S1 English class wish for?

The S1 class at Alva Academy are my Project Class. They are a mixed ability class whom I see for one period of forty minutes each Wednesday. This project period is designed to give the English teacher freedom within a tightly constructed English course. I had been told that I could do as I wished.

The previous term I had created links with the art department and we had developed a cross-curricular project called The Portrait Project involving the analysis of  image and the creation of art, poetry and prose. I was lucky as I had the freedom I wished for, just at a point in the week when Douglas Snedden, Faculty Head of Arts, and Karen Flood, a teacher in the art department, were both available on the timetable. Their keenness to be involved has been the key to this whole venture. Karen had already introduced me to Joseph Cornell and his beautiful boxes. We were excited to see if we could use these ideas with the class.

Scottish Book Trust approached me to develop materials for the Authors Live: Darren Shan event that would take place in January 2013. I was keen to be involved and suggested that the links with art could also be explored, so Karen, Douglas and I embarked on The Zom B Project.

Getting started – discussing personal reading habits & researching Darren Shan

Initially, I knew little about Darren Shan. I knew of him as an author of fiction for young adults but that was about it. However, I was certain that the pupils would know of him. My way in, I was convinced, was through a discussion of their personal reading habits. The first lesson was a class discussion of what they read, when they read and how much they read. The results were interesting. They loved Michael Mopurgo, Roald Dahl, and Cathy Cassidy, hated filling in primary school book reports and, in fact, slowed their reading down in school so that they wouldn’t have to write one of the dreaded essays. A salutary lesson in itself to a teacher who wanted to develop the reading habit! No one had read Darren Shan except Ms Mason, our teacher from Additional Support Needs, who was in with the class. She talked of her passion for Cirque du Freak. She had picked it up one holiday and had then gone on to read the whole series. We had a quick look at the Darren Shan website before the bell went and they were gone for another week.

Preparations - unpicking the themes in the novel

My preparation for the next lesson was to read the novel Zom B. This I did one Saturday afternoon and I was fascinated by it. I decided that the narrator would be our way into the novel. It quickly became clear to me that the zombies were merely a device and that the author wanted to explore contemporary issues – racism, domestic violence, identity and gender. I found myself asking the question good gothic literature poses: Who is the monster? The creature? Society? Ourselves?

The books were issued to the class. The majority loved the whole idea and the energy levels of the class rose. For the fainthearted or squeamish – there are a lot of brains to be eaten – I suggested ways in to the text. They should think about the zombies and their violence as cartoons, or just miss out the first chapter and move immediately on to the London section. Sensitive pupils, then, would be caught up in the fast-paced plot and engaged by the character before the zombies arrived again. I said that I wanted them to decide what it was really about and they were given two weeks to read the novel at home. I also suggested that I would be interested to hear what they thought about the racist element of the novel.

Another cross-curricular opportunity - Involving Social Subjects

On being asked to consider the theme of racism in Zom-B some pupils became even more excited and told me that they were choosing to do a presentation on racism as part of the Rights and Responsibilities element of their Social Subjects course work. Following a discussion with their teacher we arranged for the group in question to do the presentation to Douglas, Karen and myself as part of the final group presentations which we had planned for the end of our project.

In Catherine’s second blog entry she will discuss in more detail how the English and Art departments worked together on The Zom-B Project, to explore character through visual representations.

Catherine Wylie

Catherine Wylie is an English teacher at Alva Academy in Clackmannanshire. She coordinated a collaborative project between the English and Art departments based on Authors Live: Darren Shan, as part of Scottish Book Trust's Teacher Ambassador Programme.