Most of the time, children are quite savvy in their writing, and they read into the implicit expectations that sit around our explicit expectations. When we model a piece of writing for its grammatical features, or for the clear way in which the ideas are expressed, the children may also take in expectations like ‘I can get away with writing three sentences’ or ‘About half a page worth if I write a little bigger than normal’.
There is a surface level of understanding which is gleaned – a kind of précis that tells a pupil ‘this is the kind of thing that the teacher is looking for’, and typically, this writing is inauthentic. By inauthentic, I mean that it does not represent the actual perspective of the writer. It may be technically accomplished, grammatically astute and neatly organised, but still inauthentic. It may even be a breathtakingly well-written piece of writing, with flair and tenacity, yet still written from a perspective that the child does not hold.
The easiest way for a pupil to curry favour with their teachers, and to appear to be a good writer, is to write neatly, reliably, clearly and ‘to order’.
There are certainly some benefits to being able to write well in this way
too – without the burden of having to actually think about your own creative response, you can dedicate more of your energies to structure, individual turns of phrase, coherence and grammatical variety, and what not.
But for the teacher, at the end of a working day as we browse through our class’s work, whilst there will certainly be a variety in terms of spelling proficiency, and text length, and handwriting, and sentence structure, there may not be much variety in terms of actual content.
We don’t get to see what they actually think.
I have become fascinated with the words ‘actually’, ‘real’ and ‘proper’ recently. By adding them into our instruction, just these simple words, we can see a layer of artifice being scraped away, and it is quite remarkable.
Years ago, but very memorably, we were teaching a unit of work on Identity in Year 5, as part of a whole-school focus on Global Citizenship. Our lesson was looking at the different kinds of family we each have in the class, and exploring the way in which our family influences the person who we become. We had been having a lot of talk about nationality and citizenship, because lots of pupils had been exploring how they are different, or feel different, with their family ‘over here’ as opposed to ‘over there’. This led us to talk about Britishness, since the children each seemed to entertain a fascinated notion of Britishness that was defined in reference to their ‘family’s country’, which they may or may not have ever visited. British seemed to exist on a spectrum, and constituted things like ‘being able to have a good shower’ and ‘there is a Westfield’. Several compared themselves to family in other countries in the style of ‘Because they ____________, they are more Indian/Bangladeshi/Gujarati/Nigerian than me.’
The children wrote some thought-provoking essays.
These essays each gave a more authentic snapshot into the lives of the children, and the expectation was clear that we were writing reflective auto-biographical essays. They could not particularly ‘not’ write something authentic that represented their actual thoughts.
The discussion about Britishness was still ringing in my ears when I was preparing the next lesson, and that question about ‘the British family’ was one I wanted to probe a bit more. I had a bit of a theory I wanted to test. In the lesson, I started them off with a drawing exercise.
“I’d like you to start today’s lesson just by drawing a British family.”
They looked around a little quizzically at each other, since this was an unexpected way for the lesson to begin. They picked up their pencils and got started. There was a fascinating diversity of response – some included pets and some didn’t (despite having pets); some included extended family who lived with them, but not those who did not; some drew their British family with mums in saris and in hijab, with dads proudly wearing their topi atop their heads. In general, the families children drew to represent a British family were essentially versions of their own families.
I paused them.
“Just a reminder, you all need to draw a really British family.”
My inkling was to be put to the test. At the inclusion of the word ‘really’, the children felt that there was something that was missing in the work that they were doing. What was it? What distinguished their interpretation from a ‘real’ one? From an imagined ‘actually correct’ answer? Did they need to adorn everyone in the British family with a Union Jack? Did they need to have their British family seated at a table eating scones?
What happened next was that several children began erasing their family, and replaced them with a white family.
Once the task was complete, we brought all of the children’s sketches together and had a discussion about them. It would be a lie to say that all of the children altered what they were working on, at the inclusion of ‘really’, but it was true to say that each of them thought differently about the task once it had been added. For one thing, we made the point that Britain is a diverse country and that our part of it is especially so – there is not one particular way a ‘British family’ should look, based on skin colour or religion. The children who changed it were invited to reflect on why they made the changes that they did, and it was through this discussion that as a whole class we were able to explore the extent to which being ‘really British’ implies being ‘white British’.
This was something the children had a lot of opinions on, largely from retelling anecdotes of things that have been said by family members. Many told stories of family members who first came to the UK in the 1960s and 1970s and faced blunt, hostile unambiguous racism; for them, and understandably so, ‘Britishness’ was a more guarded category that was harder to assign to themselves.
From a different perspective, now looking at this more broadly as a teaching exercise, there is another teaching point: children are often happy to constantly write towards what they imagine we want them to write. Over the course of a year spent with a teacher, you get a good feel for their expectations, and children’s work is a reflection of their reading of these expectations.
Another example can illustrate this point well.
With the same class from years back, we spent time learning about human rights and refugees. We focused our study on the Rohingya muslim population of Arakan state in Myanmar, whose situation five years on remains lamentably as abject and shameful as it was five years ago. I put these lessons together out of a conscious desire to have the children genuinely engage with what was a real and pressing humanitarian crisis, and one which had at that point received very little media coverage (though Muslim charities and local mosques were working to fundraise, so it was a known story in the community).
We watched some carefully selected news coverage, since it would not help the children to witness the scale of the horror of what was happening, and we discussed the human rights violations.
At the end of this, children wrote in response to what they had learned, and I attempted to mark in such a way as to deepen the discussion and encourage them to justify their opinions.
Every single child wrote in such a way as to show that they cared deeply and were moved by the plight of the Rohingya. Every child expressed a commitment to do something. This was true also when we learnt about deforestation, and it was also true when we learnt about the burning of fossil fuels, and it was also true when we learnt about the slave trade and it was also true when we …
It is not doubting the children’s ethics and character to state that it is peculiar that every child appears to care uniformly about every single pressing global issue. I do not doubt their sincerity, but I think what is at play is – and again it is the same word – an expectation that children will respond in a very specific but only ever implicitly communicated way.
Imagine you are teaching a lesson about the plight of refugees and a child wrote in response to it that they think it sounds sad but they don’t feel compelled to do anything and prefer playing Fortnite. It would feel rebellious and defiant. They may receive a stern talking to for not doing their work properly. But in their response, they are echoing what is the reality for the majority of people when it comes to the majority of issues.
Sometimes, when children state their genuine thoughts, their authentic response expressed through writing, it challenges us because it goes against what we actually, implicitly, expect of them. We don’t just seek a clearly expressed piece of writing that communicates their viewpoint, we expect that viewpoint to be of a particular ethical or political perspective.
Am I saying I would prefer to read Kate Hopkinsian diatribes written by 8 year olds? No. Am I saying that teachers are all lefties? No. But what I am saying is that, as a teacher of writing, I would hope that children’s writing is an authentic enough representation of their own views on the world that, every now and again, it might disquiet me.
The examples I have talked about here have all been from non-fiction writing, and I’d point out here that these rich creations are not shoehorned into the columns of a newspaper report or yet another set of instructions or formulaic recounts. They are just a prose response to a real prompt.
I do think the points here, about the freedom that comes from authentic writing, are equally true in children’s creative fiction. Reading for Pleasure research shows how narrow a canon many pupils are introduced to, and the Reflecting Realities work of CLPE shows the extent to which children’s fiction remains unrepresentative of the diversity of children’s social worlds. Darren Chetty’s essay ‘You Can’t Say That! Stories have to be about white people’ shows how children have a similar reading of the expectations of story writing, as they did to ‘British family’ in the drawing activity.
Powerful and effective writing is often that which challenges the conventions and expectations of form and genre, and whilst a refined knowledge of these forms is vital to learn about, it should not be in order to conform tightly to their rules. In this space, where an understanding of convention interacts with a license to innovate, children’s authentic writing can flourish, whether fiction or non-fiction, and their real perspectives, own ideas and their actual thoughts can be shared.