Two weeks ago I wrote a highly critical post about how, currently, we teach young children to write, and promised the next time I blogged on this subject it would be a “how to” rather than a “how not to” post. Surprisingly, despite a lifelong career of teaching writing to age groups from 4 to adult, I’m now humbled by finding it much harder to pull together a positive post than to churn out a moan. But that’s for a good reason. As I explore what I want to say, I keep getting diverted down multiple byways (which will all make excellent subjects for future articles: there’s just too much brilliant stuff around to sum it up in one blog post). Yet the essentials that keep recurring in my mind are both grander, and vaguer.
They are: imagination, and empathy. All the rest is incidental.
Of course, we must teach the actual physical craft of writing, tone those hand and wrist muscles, get familiar with that keyboard, teach making marks on paper that show up and that subscribe to a universally understood code. For that you need the pre skills to tone the muscles (eg: playing with sand and rolling out dough, squeezing plasticine and grasping objects). You must provide opportunities for enjoyment, sharing, the experiences of disappointment and achievement, the pleasure and frustration of encountering something new. You have to talk about what you’re doing, make models, conceive shapes and ideas and try to express them through role play or making a model or painting or dancing or rolling down a hillside or whizzing down a slide. Bump! Giggle! Extend horizons and keep an open mind in yourself as well as promoting one in any children you care for.
These things will develop imagination and empathy.
Yes, we must teach a certain amount of spelling and grammar, but a rich listening and reading experience supplies much of that by verbal osmosis. Yes, we must teach craft: plotting, structure, style. I refer you back to the rich reading experience. Read prose and poetry, fiction and non fiction, jingles and exposition and comedy and polemic. Read from different cultures, and in different languages if you can. Read from the past and the present and read all the genres you can lay your hands on.
Discuss the mundane and the extraordinary. Point out similarities and contradictions. Celebrate and wonder and commiserate and express your shock and anger and confusion and relief and hilarity. What’s random? What’s linked? What matters? Go on doing this all your life. These things develop imagination and empathy too.
A few years ago we hardened old infant schoolmarms were taught a great writing lesson by some student teachers who were on placement together in our school. They made an enormous papier mâché egg. Vast, huge, massive, colossal, it was. It appeared in the foyer before school opened in the morning, with no explanation, and at first not everyone noticed it.
But then – the school buzzed! Where had it come from? Who had laid it? What was inside? For a few days nothing happened. Then one morning, we found it broken. Pieces of “shell” lay scattered about. It had hatched!
Of course, what really hatched was conversation, conjecture, prediction, description, fear, amazement, art work, group work, drama and some wonderful writing from all age groups. Nursery pupils dictated a sentence to be scribed for them. Older pupils wrote so much we ran out of exercise books.I wish I’d kept some of it, but it was part of a process. No one was marking it or giving it a level. (Authors! Think how it feels when you get a rotten review carping away about what you could have done better. We do this to children every time they write anything at all. It’s a wonder any of them have any confidence left.)
Do we always have to write in English, by the way? Translation is a wonderful craft and parents are an equally wonderful resource. A family I work with sent this in to school:
Why write alone? Adults have writing groups, for support, so why not children? Here’s a group activity: collect words, no need to be clever, just brainstorm all sorts of single words and note them on small bits of card. You’ll find they fit in groups, so put them together on a large coloured base – paper or a table top. Read them out. How do they sound best? Do you need to rearrange them / delete some / bind them together somehow? Do they need a special voice or voices? You’ve made a poem, so stick the cards down to celebrate your final version. Go and recite it to another group, and listen to theirs. If it didn’t result in anything worthwhile, scrap it – you have permission! – but it almost always does.
As a young English teacher with a class of 14 year olds, I collected 22 yellow, 8 blue, and 2 orange counters which the students took at random as they came in. I then gave out Monopoly notes according to which colour they’d taken. The £5 (blue) people could devise 5 rules that the £1 (yellow) people must obey, and the £10 (orange) people could make up 10 rules for everyone. It could have been chaotic, but they were fascinated. The writing about their feelings, their reactions, their suggestions for what could happen next was the best they ever did, expressive, individually voiced, aware of their audience and exploratory. I expect it would come under PHSE now, not English, if you were allowed to do it at all, but in those days there was very little curriculum planning.
Later, in a class of English for adults, I helped students write about coming to live in England. Whether from Romania, Sri Lanka, Egypt or Thailand, they discovered shared experiences and hopes. Every lesson we did some grammar, but it was their free flowing work that kept them coming.
One mantra for aspiring professional writers is: “Write about what you know”. Well then, make sure you’re open to expanding what you know. Then, your work will have imagination and empathy, and all the rest can follow. I really do think this applies equally whether you are 3 or 99, whether you’re just starting out or even if you’re a bestselling author. But that may be a discussion for another day.
© Jessica Norrie 2016