Does your confidence as a teacher-writer alter children’s writing?

‘Sometimes she finds it hard, sometimes writing is.’

We all know the way we teach writing is wrong, right?

We know that the diary entries, with their formulaic ‘Dear Diaries’ and logical paragraphs, and chronological recount, are nothing like the impulsive, emotional thoughtsplurges we may or may indulge in from time to time.

We know that only the most lacklustre of local newspapers runs articles that are anything like the ‘5Ws’-style newspapers article we have the kids write, and we know that seeing newspapers as the main vehicle for news is so unlike how most of us consume our news.

We know that the rigid plot structures we impose on the children’s storywriting are shackling them to a convention that almost all of the writers they love to read avoid. And we know that this isn’t just about skill development for early writers, because they don’t really tend to get a chance to move past that Story Mountain or Beginning-Middle-Endness.

We know that our writing is preparing them for a world of text that does not exist.

What else do we know?

We know that writing is important, and that it is something many of our pupils find hard. We know a great piece of writing when we see it, sparkling with ideas and flair – whether fiction or otherwise – because we know how rarely we see it. We know a lot of writing we get in from children is predictable and often error-strewn, because we spend so much of our modelling time prescribing almost every detail we want from them, and can overload them with criteria.

We know that we, as a community of teachers, may have profound hang-ups about our own ability to write well. Many more teachers would identify as a reader than as a writer, despite the fact that the heart of what we do in our education system is about equipping children with knowledge and the ability to express that in the written form.

We know that in many of our classrooms, if we were to ask the pupils, ‘What do you like and dislike about writing?’, they would state that they like the expressive and creative element, but dislike the time constraint, the strain and the fact that the expressive and creative element is not often there.

Writing is hard, and they should struggle, but the struggle should be one from which they develop as a writer. It is the difference between struggling out of a tight crevice into which you have become trapped, and struggling into it.

The research of Teresa Cremin and Debra Myhill in Writing Voices found that as pupils progressed through primary school, they became less and less likely to see their teachers as writers. The children could see that their teachers were often less inspired when teaching it, and this matters.

Several of the older children observed that their teachers did not like writing: ‘I think he finds it boring’, ‘She doesn’t like writing and says she is no good at it’, ‘I don’t think she would choose to write because she doesn’t like it’, ‘He hates writing, he says we do too much of it’, ‘She doesn’t really like it much, she says she’s no good but that’s not true’ and ‘He does write stuff, but I think it’s because he has to, he doesn’t really like it.’

Teresa Cremin and Debra Myhill, Writing Voices (2012) (p125)

It’s really sad, and it is really sad for the teachers not because of them.

This is not an operation in teacher-bashing. The reason why so many teachers may hold ambivalent views and shaky confidence as writers and as teachers of writing – as is indicated by the Teachers as Writers research – is that so many of us are products of the same curricular approach that we are advocating. We were taught in this way. We focus on structure and organisation often  without developing volition, agency and motivation, which are at the heart of developing a culture of Writing for Pleasure.

Like many of our pupils, unless we have an existing passion, skill or interest in writing, which we have probably developed outside of the classroom, then our confidence and aptitude as writers may have been stymied as we left our own education.

The alternative need not be a free-for-all of unstructured, ‘hands-off’ creativity, as children won’t develop as writers either if they are operating in a feedback void. Rather than being drawn into unnecessary and fatuous polarisations between writing as freedom and writing as control. Instead, we ought to examine our practice to see where we put the freedom and where we put the control.

Often, we impose excessive control at the beginning of a writing process. As teachers, we prescribe what is to be written and, more or less explicitly, how we wish for it to be written. We expect a particular style, particular grammatical features and particular content. By prescribing this much of the task, we withdraw most of the authentic agency from pupils. Perhaps we placate ourselves with a few hollow representations of freedom –  ‘would you like to write an eight-line ABABCDCD rhyming poem about an elephant, a gibbon or a panther?’ We then provide freedom late in the process, encouraging pupils to innovate within the narrow confines that they have been placed. Those children who can do so likely are very skilled and versatile writers; if they are able to maintain a writer’s voice, contribute something fresh and interesting, whilst also being well-structured, grammatically accurate and in a correct form. But the majority would struggle. sA would many of us, probably – I certainly would.

An alternative approach could be to subvert the allocation of freedom and constraint. When we start with a greater breadth of creative expression, and then apply constraint later in the process, the work that the children are crafting is likely to be something to which they have a stronger connection, since it is a more authentic reflection of their own agency. So rather than focusing the ‘objective’ on developing ABABCDCD rhyming poems on either elephants, gibbons or panthers, we might suggest that we are going to be exploring how we can use rhyme to tell a story about animals. Or, if we weren’t tying to a rainforest topic or anything like that, why even prescribe the animals. Use rhyme to tell a story about something that has been making you curious recently.

The focus is still, firmly, on the development of pupils ability to use rhyme in order to write effectively, and this focus is clearer perhaps here than in the first approach, which could be seen as teaching pupils the specific format of the ABABCDCD poem, which is not especially transferable.

When we think about what we actually want the children to develop, in terms of the specific content – in this example, the specific skill – it often becomes clear that providing more freedom around content is not only possible but desirable. The constraint and structure comes about through the quality of editing, craft and discussion – children and teachers responding to the writing that has been created in a writerly way; dissecting, considering its effectiveness as readers, altering it accordingly.

And we can join them in this endeavour. Writing with and alongside the pupils is not cheating. The prickling whispers of performativity have you thinking that unless you are stalking around the classroom, pointing and talking at all times, you are in some way absconding from your duties. If your duty is to help your children to write, you might be minded to grab a pen and paper, and lower yourself onto those frustratingly small chairs with them.

Teachers of writing who are involved as fellow artists in the classroom and who place themselves physically alongside learners, sitting next to them as they engage in their own writing, often become personally involved, thinking and feeling their ways forwards as they compose… They often invited the young people to read and respond to their own writing critically and reflectively, and worked as response partners, listening to their partners read their work aloud and sharing their views. In addition, dissatisfied with responding to children’s writing as professional assessors of specific skills/targets, the teachers sought to resist this particular positioning and refashioned their responses, offering feedback from the arguably more personal position of an interested reader of the children’s writing.

Teresa Cremin and Debra Myhill Writing Voice (2012) (130-131)

If you were in a creative writing INSET, and the facilitator was looming behind you, watching you as you write, getting ready to jump in and contribute their responses every time you wrote something down, you would feel at least slightly uneasy. We may presume children would feel differently, ‘feedback is a gift’ and all, but that may not be case. The study detailed above involved the researchers speaking to the pupils about how the changing role of the teacher changed the way they write. Two of the responses from the Year 6 pupils stood out. ‘When she walked around, it made me feel uncomfortable. It’s like I couldn’t write what I was thinking.’

‘Sometimes she finds it hard, sometimes writing is.’

Perhaps a curious starting point for us all would be a candid and frank discussion with our pupils about writing. By asking a few questions, and allowing for some conversation around it, we may find that there are ways of teaching writing that are preferable for all of us, which are not only more pleasurable and freeing, but actually promote better writing from pupils. You know… the thing we want.

You could ask these questions, as well as your own and any follow-up questions.

  • How is writing at school different from writing at home?
  • What do you like about writing in school?
  • What do you dislike about writing in school?
  • How do people become better writers?
  • How do you feel during writing lessons?

The responses you receive can be very good to think with, no matter how errant and diverse they are, and may either align with or challenge what you have been suspecting from your teacherly perspective.

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