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Philip Pullman’s Alethiometer

Without this being a conscious choice, my monday afternoon creative writing groups seem to have divided into girls and boys as my after-school club is a group of girls and then I go on to do another session with boys. Now normally I am not in to dividing genders into these artificial, single sex groups. However, this has naturally evolved for me on my monday afternoons and I can’t deny that I’ve really enjoyed observing where this has taken us. I feel that eleven year old boys can quite often be at the age where they are turned off reading and writing…and poetry? Oh, PL-ease (Truth be told, I have yet to convert them to poetry…but I’ll get there if it’s the last thing I do!). So what I find is that I have to employ some different tactics with them, in a way I find I don’t really with the girls, to interest and engage them.

I’m sorry if this sounds like I’m gender stereo-typing and of course I’m not saying that girls can’t enjoy these themes as well, but here are some examples of what I’m talking about: shrinking potions, sci-fi, time-machines, monsters, espionage, battles, gore and toilet-humour (especially toilet humour.) With these kind of themes in mind, last week with my group of boys, I structured a session around an ‘alethiometer’. If you have read Philip Pullman’s ‘Northern Lights’, you’ll know what an alethiometer is (and if you haven’t, I urge you to do so, I’m currently reading it with my 8 year old and it’s a breathtakingly good book). ‘Alethia’ means truth in Greek and an alethiometer is essentially a truth-reading device which Lyra, the novel’s heroine, is given to find out for herself its purpose. Here’s what it looks like:

I gave the boys a big print-out of the alethiometer and encouraged them to discuss several ideas, such as which symbol represented them and which would be their truth and their untruth. I then asked them what it might be used for before they finally did a piece of writing whereby they imagined a parallel fantasy world in which the alethiometer would be used on a regular basis.

Ok, so there was no toilet humour here 😉 However, there were lots of opportunities for the boys to stretch their imaginations into parallel worlds and I was really excited by what they came up with.

Speaking of Philip Pullman, here is a fascinating article he wrote a while ago on why he doesn’t agree with age-banding on books, a sentiment I whole-heartedly agree with.

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