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Wednesday, 18 January 2012

Write or be written!

Today, I attended a Conference for English subject leaders. The first session and keynote address was from Simon Wrigley, ex-chair of NATE and English Adviser for Buckinghamshire. In a thought-provoking address, he touched on the tensions at the heart of teaching English and teaching in general in the current climate, and on some exciting ways of developing independence and confidence in writing.

Firstly, the philosophy and thoughts behind teaching writing, from which I feel wider truths of 21st Century teaching can be extrapolated. Wrigley began by looking at the ways in which we are presenting writing to pupils. He looked at a question asked by the National Writing Project (now sadly defunct - although these versions survive in the US and UK) in 1990 - 'How has writing been defined by the way in which we evaluate it?'

If this question was relevant in those far flung days, then surely it is even more relevant now in the homogenised and standardised environment in which we teach? This was illustrated from some frankly awful quotes from National Strategies documents which stated that writing should 'show how they have responded to learning objectives; they should not just be doing writing' and 'creating a piece of writing is like pegging washing on a washing line'.

As reprehensible as these statements appear to me, instinctively, there is an element of me, as an English teacher trained in the last decade, and a Team Manager responsible for the outcomes of pupils across five years of secondary school, that recognises some form of truth reality in those words. The work our pupils produces must be measurable, and it must be measurable against the standards by which they will be judged. It would be remiss to ignore this; their GCSE grades are passports to their futures and will affect many facets of their futures.

However, it is my feeling that teaching in an overly structured fashion inhibits the development of real confidence and independence, two skills which, although not important to our governmental superiors, are key for any young person seeking to achieve in both education and life. Finding that balance in our teaching is imperative; if we can get that mixture of independence right, we will see happy, confident children, attaining well across a range of subjects, not just English. It is the 'wholeness of writing' which is important, and towards which we must strive. Wrigley referred to David Morley, writing in Cambridge Introduction to Creative Writing, saying writing 'can make you feel more alive - concentrated yet euphoric'. Working out the balance between the literacy objectives which many of us need to inculcate in our learners, and the freedom and love for writing needed for real engagement, is a zone of proximal development in which we need to be pitching our planning and our pupils' learning. (Apologies for being slightly lose in my interpretation and application of Vygotsky's ideas!)

Classes would be transformed if writing was truly owned by the pupils. It would make the teaching of the 'dry' areas of grammar more accepted, as they saw they ways in which they could use those skills to improve their writing. It would reinvigorate the approached we take as teachers to these areas, which are perhaps made dry because of our approaches and prejudices towards them.

Wrigley moved on to some writing exercises, including free writing based on floor plans or maps which we drew, and the creation of a writing history, detailing key writing moments, good or bad, that stuck in our minds. These could well be applied to engaging reluctant writers, giving ownership to them and developing 'psycho-sturdiness' - feeling OK with the fear of the blank page and the writing journey. He also outlined some practices from the nwp including the valuing of authenticity and diversity, of voice and journey above writing product, and of the sharing of writing becoming something all are confident with - staff included.

The consequences will be engaged classes, confident writers, happy teachers - and, if applied consistently, from entry to exit, outcomes will improve, as they engage with the process, with the whole of writing.

Writing that was the easy part - now, to make it happen.

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