Children making writing that matters to them

I’ve been hit with writer’s block for about a year, which has less-than-helpfully coincided with my having made time to write. I’ve bought the pens and even begun fashioning a writing shed together, but when the lids come off or the white page flashes open, my hands just hover. I have a plastic box full of mostly empty notepads.

Whilst this is frustrating, it is very much a reflection of the fact that as things are currently, I often lack the impetus to write, but do so with great enthusiasm when the mood catches me or when the gusto pops up. When I attempt to push through when the time is wrong, what results is usually crap – the sentences strain, the sentiments drag and the ideas are stale.

It is interesting to consider this alongside the teaching of writing, both explicitly and implicitly, in school. The thought of walking into a room in which somebody talks to me about something for a while, then gives me precisely 18 minutes or so to produce something before break time that they will then scout through, mark, correct and ultimately judge… is a bit harrowing.

That slightly choking effect of ‘timedness’ is a defining trait of our schools. Lessons tend to be bounded by a rigid timetable, although some lessons may be better if longer and some shorter than the allotted time. The duration of a project or scheme of work is often necessarily decided upon based on the need to do other things rather than the time ideally required for the project itself.

Innovations can be made and there are surely many ways to restructure the timetable, to be more flexible and so on, but for as long as the accountability of schools is so blunt-edged and SATS-oriented, it is unlikely to change.

The teaching of writing in this context is particularly salient. Ross and Phil from Writing Rocks show how the research suggests that the development of skilled and autonomous young writers requires the fostering of self-regulating habits, in which ‘children set the writing topic, genre or both’, in which writing can take place over a number of sessions until it is complete and in which ‘students publish only when they feel they have written something worth sharing’.

This makes me think of edutwitter and teacher blogging. I’m not throwing shade here but we can all point to some people who seem to churn out an unending flow of writing, as tweets and blogs, and the lack of time spent on these thoughts is self-evident. Likewise, we can point to some who write less often but when they do, you know you can expect something of real quality. I would suggest Whatonomy as a good example of this, as well as the writing of Karen Sands O’Connor and Darren Chetty in Books for Keeps, which is always so thoroughly researched, necessary and well-written.

Quality takes time, but it also takes the freedom to write about the things that are important to us and/or the things we would like to write, and (importantly) in the style that we would like to write it.

This level of freedom is one that pupils are seldom afforded when they are learning to write, and there is only so much that schools can do to rectify that, given the several other necessary constraints placed upon them.

Alongside the teaching of writing that takes place within writing lessons, it is worth looking at those other more informal contexts in which writing may proliferate in a primary school, for some clues as to how to ‘build botheredness’. Being candid, some children I know, given the freedom and choice, would choose doing nothing at all over writing for pleasure, without constraint or boundary. The habits do not necessarily come naturally.

But there are others. Over the last few years, and in the last few cohorts of children I’ve taught, there have been a few children who have taken up blogging. Like many of us, they are perhaps very slow to start, and they may do a few posts and then stop, but for that first few posts, they are keenly and joyfully throwing their ideas out into the ether. Given a platform to write whatever they like, I find it interesting that regardless of whether the blog itself is about scientific concepts, or poetry, or biographical storytelling, they all tend to start with an outstretched hand to the reader:

Hi everyone, my name is ______ and this is going to be about __________________. I hope you enjoy it.

So often, there is an implicit understanding that writing is an invitation to communicate, expressed from a writer to a reader: this understanding is one that we perhaps labour at when teaching explicitly categorised lessons (e.g. what is the purpose of a newspaper?) but comes very easily when children have the freedom to write what they like.

The variety of tastes manifest quickly in this context. I have just taken the chance to check on the blog written by a former pupil: last thing I knew, it had been abandoned but I see now that there was a post last week in which he has written a (very amusing) parody of Goldilocks and the The Bears. His previous posts have been murder mysteries and science-fiction. Having autonomy of production allows for this spontaneous experimentation and playfulness.

Writing as a form of communication is quite instinctive to children. I know this from the confiscated messages I intercept as they are passed beneath tables. In these circumstances, I often need to feign a stern neutrality on my face, as I discover the quirky communication taking place. Slangy, punchy and odd: they are a pure form of writing, littered with equally communicative doodles and attempts at indecipherable codes.

Whilst I love the poetry that is crafted, planned and developed over time, there is something special about the poetry that emerges like a weed through the concrete, at an unexpected time and in an unusual place. I teach a pupil currently who, as soon as a task is completed, will ask to create some poetry. In a snatched four minutes, she will produce two or three weird little ditties and before the ink has dried, is already brandishing them towards me to be read. She once gave me a poem about the secret life of a vegetable, so over the following five minutes, we covertly exchanged four-line poems and doodles of depressed carrots, brash potatoes, bullying cauliflowers and macho peas. I think we were both equally amused by this, and at the end of the lesson, this pupil was keen to take all of them back.

I like the idea that they might be saved in a special place, or maybe they went the way of the bin or the washing machine – you can never tell, and that’s why the moment of exchange is so precious with the futile short lives of such tiny texts.

A similar episode goes back a few years, in which one of the students in my maths class absolutely burned through his Year 4 maths test, with thirty minutes to spare. He diligently checked through every question, checked his working out and recalculated to guarantee his accuracy. I got him to subtly flip through his pages whilst I marked it mentally. He had 100% and had done so in about 15 of the 45 minutes. I ask them not to doodle but to use the time to cross-check it all. He had done this and still had an aeon to fill. He smiled and sat dutifully doing nothing, not unlike me as I was invigilating. Without him noticing, I wrote him a little poem about how brilliant he is, and then I passed it to him – after he read it, he was quite literally jigging up and down in his seat, and beaming. Silently, he mouthed ‘thanks’ and looked around, amazed that nobody had noticed any of this.

He still remembers this now he is a teenager and that’s another thing about writing: memories of it seem to sit at a different tier of permanence. As I teach in the same community I always have, and do various other projects, I am still in touch with a lot of pupils who I once taught to tie their laces and who are now old enough to buy their own shoes. Whilst we might reminisce about odd moments of projectile vomit, or stand-out moments in school trips, what is often also remembered is the time spent writing. Not everything – certain tasks are forgotten even as they happen. But certain things stuck with them, and incidentally, it seems in my experience to be the pieces that they had a real creative say in.

We spent time four years ago in Year 5 producing subversive fairy tales. We had a text from the Literacy and Language scheme as a starting point, and then explored a few other subversive retellings of fairy tales, that centred on different characters or that showed a different level of emotional depth. What happened to the wolf in his childhood and early years that might had led to him skulking around the forest in search of grandmothers? It was fun.

Our own written pieces involved designing a transgressive character who our princess heroine would encounter in the forest. Several kids who did these pieces of writing remember them well, and enjoyed the workshop effect – we made a display of our invented characters and spent time interrogating each with hot seating. I self-indulgently made my own, and this added to the workshop spirit of it all. We had ghosts that stopped being scary when they were nervous. We had centaurs who couldn’t maintain a six pack. We had giant spiders who felt really upset that people were scared of them. I volunteered ‘Cedric the Multilingual Centaur’. Each of us really enjoyed the playful stupidity of toying with categories and characters.

Card exchange is a final example to dwell on. Cards are exchanged all the time – Christmas cards, Eid cards and Thank You Teacher cards. Some of these are kindly received but are not particularly personal.

Dear Miss Happy Christmas From Child

Every now again you do get a surprise though. I have real hoarding tendencies and am very sentimental, so it is no surprise that I have a box containing special items from my teaching so far. Key among them are cards and letters from kids and pupils. By no means  do I receive them regularly but they are so meaningful and often eye-opening. One card that stands out in my mind is from a kid who was never naughty or rude but who did struggle to self-moderate – he would get giddy and volume would raise. His thank you card acknowledged this and was a space where he – in quite coruscating detail – sought to explain why it is that he can’t moderate himself, and to give thanks for help in dealing with it from other pupils in the class.

Words matter, or certainly they can.

One of the most beautiful memories of writing I have is when a teacher friend and I led a camping visit. One of the pupils had had a particularly unlucky start in life and, to be euphemistic, he had never had it easy. Whilst he was on the visit, it was his birthday. We gathered the children in the forest, surprised him with a cake, candles, card and a gift. He was shocked and surprised to be celebrated in this way but he didn’t care about the cake. He didn’t care about blowing out the candle  (though he did blow it out). He didn’t even begin opening the gift. Instead, he stood there pouring over every single word that had been written by the other children in his birthday card. These words congratulated him, wished him a good day and told him how funny he is and how much they like him.

Time stopped as he read. My teacher friend and I didn’t quite manage to hold ourselves together, as we watched his eyes passing across the words and up to the friends around him. It was a special moment and it was the children’s simple words that made it so. So much so, in fact, that my teacher friend chose this very same spot in this little bit of forest to renew her wedding vows a few years later, making it two sets of powerful words feeding this soil.

I don’t say all of these things to suggest that we should abandon the formal teaching of the conventions of newspaper articles and diaries and biographies in favour of thank you cards, scraps of poetry and passed-notes.

All I am saying is it is worth of recognising the kinds of writing that children gravitate towards more easily of their own volition – humorous, spontaneous, emotional and interactive – and explore how to ensure all children get the chance to benefit from this as they learn to express themselves with the written word.

Words matter.

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