Reflections On ‘Writing for Pleasure’: Teachers’ orientations

I am making my way though Ross Young and Felicity Ferguson’s encyclopaedic new guide to the teaching of writing – Writing for Pleasure (Routledge). Each chapter ends with some reflective questions, and I am going to answer them. This kind of reflective writing always helps me to understand my practice, which is something that is quite intuitive.

I’d heartily advice you to get a copy – it is worth it, and can be the foundation of personal and whole-school change.

I would LOVE for other writer-teachers or interested readers to do this too. I’d love to read your responses.

The first chapter is about different teacher dispositions, and different overarching ‘approaches’ that might be taken. I found it an interesting read, which immediately got me thinking about the strengths in my teaching, but also plenty of the blindspots.

Did you enjoy learning to write? Why? Why not?

The honest answer is that I can’t remember. I know that I always did well in school, and I enjoyed praise. I suppose that might well be a criticism best levelled at the presentational approach, which I do remember being taught with in upper primary school.

I enjoyed writing when I had choice over what to do, and when it was not social or collaborative. I liked to write stuff as projects, often about things that I wasn’t able to access – e.g. writing about South Park, which some kids were talking about, but which I wasn’t allowed to watch. Lots of this writing was done at home, but I would bring it in (yes, I was that child).

My main memory was of seeking approval for word choices – even at a young age, there was a not-entirely-unsociopathic desire to use vocabulary as a tool for self-elevation. I recall being very boastful about using the word hectic in my writing in Year 3. The most positive spin I put on it is that it showed I had a love of words that I was able to draw upon in writing.

How many teachers can you attribute this to?

The diplomatic answer is that I’m sure I gained stuff from everybody along the way. Not sure that that is true though, as I did have some very bad teachers alongside some exceptional ones.

I developed a huge amount o f confidence in my writing during A Level, and I put this down to two teachers. My Sociology teacher had an approach that I’ve not encountered before or since, in which he set personal reflective essays as a way to develop writing alongside giving a space to demonstrate and develop sociological reflection. These included things like “How has capitalism shaped who you are?”, “What has made you who you are?” and “How has gendered affected you in your life?” I relished these essays, as a way of tying the anecdotal and the academic, and I do think it characterises most of my writing since.

In university – where I don’t think I learned to write any better, just later in the day and quicker – I was frequently told that my writing was very good; that it had a lyrical and expressive character, but lacked a voice of authority. Fair.

The other A Level teacher was the teacher who taught me for English Literature and English Language. He was good at making the writing process one which is enjoyable because it is difficult. His feedback and response to essays would really needle away at word choices and authorial voice. I don’t think I’ve had a teacher who was confident enough to unpick the writer behind the words in that way – he would give feedback like “Are you trying to be facetious here?” Crushing at the time – especially as I didn’t know what it meant – but very helpful as a critical reader.

Do you think you are a good writer now? Why? Why not?

On balance, yes. I think I manage to write in a way that conveys how I wish I spoke. I think I write with character and humour. I tend to write about things that matter to me now, and often bring anecdotes together to make a statement of some sort about teaching, education, childhood or other things I write about.

I think I am very good at attuning to rhyme and rhythm. I have always been a hip hop head, and enjoyed poetry, and I can slip into rhythm and rhyme in a freestyley sort of way.

But there are lots of things I profoundly dislike about my writing. Like that last sentence, I overuse adverbs. Like that last sentence, I self-refer a lot. Like that last sentence, I tend to slip into the ego voice of the first person very easily.

Brevity is not one of my strengths, in general. Which is odd, because poetry is one of my strongest forms. In everyday speech, I can spin a two sentence email into a 10 minute slog for the reader.

Knowing I do this seems not to help me to stop. As you can see…

How does you experience with writing affect your view of how writing should be taught?

I know I am in the minority as someone who has had a broadly positive relationship with writing since always. I think this leaves me with some blindspots when it comes to children who struggle in certain areas. I presume that idea generation is easier than it is, and I think it because I struggle to understand the anxiety that can come about if children can’t think of an idea to share.

My view of writing – reading through the orientations listed in the chapter – does tend more towards self-expression or naturalistic approaches. I think this is the case for a few reasons. Personally, I think this approach has made me feel confident, articulate and creative. It is a lovely feeling, even if the process is hard or stressful. My style of teaching is different because my set-up is different though – I work now as a writing/poetry teacher rather than a class teacher. This affords me the freedom to set up the writing workshops in a different way to when I was there as a class teacher – I can create the conditions that help children to feel confident to write expressively from experience.

I think my strength is in inviting children into writing communities where they can find themselves as a writer, often for the first time. I am the first to admit that my offering does not make for their full diet of writing teaching, though.

Which teacher orientation would you have wanted to have been taught by most?

Amazing question. Probably the community or environmental orientation – I think this best reconciles the merits of free writing with the structures of genre-convention and the joy of a social community of writers. I think this would have been BEST for me. As a child, if you’d have asked me, I would have said the self-expression or naturalistic approach, but I think in my case, that was because I already was fortunate to have been listened to. I felt like I had stuff to say, and having a teacher who supported that and wanted to hear would have been brilliant.

Which orientation(s) do you feel best represent(s) your personal theory of writing teaching?

In terms of my personal theory, definitely a community approach, where children come together to produce a variety of texts and pursue different self-directed aims, whilst serving as a supportive critical community. In terms of my personal practice my teaching is best represented by self-expression and naturalistic approaches. I think I should own that and aim to be one of the practitioners who does it very well – I want my approach to sit alongside that of other teachers, who in my idea school, would be teaching in the community approach.

I remind you – buy their brilliant book, and I’d love for you to read along with me and write your own responses to the chapters.

Writing this just now, I feel I have admitted to myself things about my teaching that I’ve not been so bold as to say before.

One thought on “Reflections On ‘Writing for Pleasure’: Teachers’ orientations

  1. Hi Jonny. I thoroughly enjoyed reading your reflections and I really like the idea of inviting others to reflect on the chapter too. Thank you.

    Unfortunately, unlike you, I have largely negative memories of learning to write at school. I had no confidence and felt no competence. The only time I felt a level of pleasure was when we were giving free time to pursue our own projects. Only then did I come out of my shell a little. My teachers weren’t particularly interested in my manuscripts but I remember by friends enjoying my pieces and that brought my lot of satisfaction.

    My ambition and the ambition of our book is that every child can receive a great writerly education from a whole host of great writer-teachers – one after the other. It’s so wonderful to hear the anecdotes of your best writing teachers and it just makes me ‘socially-dream’ about how it could be if children had these sorts of experiences over many years – rather than it being ‘pot luck’.

    I too think you’re a wonderful writer and you explain your style and voice perfectly here. You writing personality is always a pleasure to read.

    It’s exciting to read how you are reflecting on the strengths and limitations of the different orientations towards writing. I think your mission to give children access to a naturalistic writing environment is brilliant and I’ve loved watching it first hand. You do a brilliant job. It’s good to see that you view this as being a compliment to what could/should happen in the classroom too through a community approach. The two would sit alongside each other very nicely wouldn’t they?

    By the way, this is a beautiful thing: ‘I think my strength is in inviting children into writing communities where they can find themselves as a writer, often for the first time’ and true! Finally, I was also particularly struck by this bit: ‘I think this best reconciles the merits of free writing with the structures of genre-convention and the joy of a social community of writers. I think this would have been BEST for me… a community approach, where children come together to produce a variety of texts and pursue different self-directed aims, whilst serving as a supportive critical community’.

    Thanks again for sharing and happy writing,

    Ross

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