With the launch of yet another new system for assessing writing, Penny Slater reflects on how to ensure that children’s writing tasks remain purposeful and meaningful at times of change.
September is such a significant time of the year for anyone involved in teaching: a new school perhaps; a new class most probably; new colleagues most likely….but most notably, new energy. You finish the academic year requiring a Herculean effort to dredge the last few drops of energy from an already depleted barrel, and then you flop into the holiday season in a daze of physical and mental exhaustion. August brings with it some respite (hopefully) and a chance to recharge the batteries. During this heady month, the day-to-day challenges of your teaching role – the incessant display rota; the forthcoming class assembly; the looming parent’s evening – seem to fade and instead time and space is made to reflect on the bigger picture.
This year I found that I needed this time for reflection more than ever. Like most teachers – albeit I am one that now finds themselves talking mostly to teachers, rather than children – this year, I had suffered a severe case of ‘ITAF-ication’. I consider this to a form of creative suffocation, whereby your appreciation of the writing process and why we get children to engage with it has been warped and re-shaped to such an extent that, to coin a phrase, you can no longer see the wood for the trees. I had spent so many sessions over the year working with teachers to unpick what those prescriptive yet tenuous, slippery ITAF statements actually meant that I could almost recite many off by heart – tragic, I know! Needless to say, I needed the summer to regroup.
When the euphoria of early August began to pass, I vowed that I would use some of my new-found leisure time to ‘get real’ again; to re-discover that passion for teaching writing that had slowly been chipped away at over the last year or so. I began by thinking back to those memorable writing experiences that I had shared with my pupils; the ones that had left us all feeling energised and creatively fulfilled – and thankfully there were many that, with the luxury of time and space, I could bring forth to my creativity-starved brain. I was helped in this task by the fact that I spent much of the summer enclosed in the muggy heat of my loft! (We had anticipated moving house over the summer break. A very naïve thought looking back! I now know that all solicitors take the whole of August off, so any hopes of moving at a teacher-convenient time are ridiculous!) Anyway, the loft needed sorting. The upside of this laborious task was that many of my treasured pieces of pupil’s work were re-discovered. It was such a joy to look back those these special pieces. Like most teachers I imagine, I don’t keep many pieces of children’s work – you just don’t have the space. So, you have to be picky. You have to select the pieces that are really special; the pieces that you know you could use with a future class to fire and inspire. What was most interesting for me, when I began to consider the range of pieces that I had deemed most worthy of retaining, were that they all had something in common, namely the purpose for writing.
In my loft, I discovered three beautiful hand-made books filled with autobiographical stories from each pupil from the last three classes that I had taught. I spent longer than I should have flicking through these stories and in doing so I was instantly taken back to the moment when each child had written their tale. I recalled through reading Alex’s wince-inducing recount of his fractured leg, how desperately sad he had been to not be able to join us on the annual Isle of Wight school trip. I laughed as I read Connor’s recount of the trick that he and his best mate Harry had played on their Year 3 teacher. Predictably, it involved a whoopee cushion. Fairly standard fare for the seasoned teacher, but Connor had perfectly captured the sheer delight that he had experienced during the event and thus I was laughing along with him when the stunt was pulled off so successfully. And so it went on…Whilst reading Jodie’s tale, I was immersed in the sense of joy that she had felt the day that a new girl joined the school and she had known instantly that she had made a friend-for-life. Max had me on tenterhooks wondering if he had done enough during a crucial football match to award him ‘man of the match’. And, I am not ashamed to say I was in floods of tears as Amy recounted the excitement that she had felt when meeting her baby sister for the first time!
This lucky find was what I needed to help me get back on the write path (excuse the pun). It reminded me of what I had known all along, but of what I had forgotten in the ITAF-induced fog of 2016: that the true purpose for writing is to empower the writer to allow them to say what they want to say; to express themselves in a way that allows them to give a voice to the things that really matter to them; to provide them with the words to allow them to reflect on their unique experiences so that they become embedded in their understanding of self; to voice their hopes, dreams and fears in a way that makes their young voices heard. Because, I reflected, one day they might need their voice to be heard. I thought then of Malala and how she had had the words that she needed to be heard, and in using them so eloquently, she had made a difference, both to herself and others. I got a bit deep then…but like I said…it was August and I had time to go deep!
During my reverie, I was reminded of how much the children had loved the autobiography unit that we indulged in every year – not strictly part of the long term plan but it always produced such exquisite writing, and created such empathy and compassion within the class, that it became a staple unit. Every year I would begin by sharing a story or two about an event in my life that mattered. I tried to avoid being twee, or picking the big, obvious things that involved such complex emotions that even I would have struggled to articulate them (parents’ divorce, loss of a beloved grandparent etc). Instead, I went for something that I knew I could recall in bright, techni-colour detail and something that mattered hugely to me as a child…and so that is how the children came to know about my burning ambition to beat Claire Leake (my long-standing foe) in the sports day Year 6 100m sprint. I really went to town with my recount – easy really as the emotions were as vivid as if it had happened yesterday! I talked about my meticulous preparations leading up to the event, the advice that I had sought from my patient non-sporty parents and the enormous tension on the start line, until every child in the class was staring me eagerly in the eye. By the end of the recount, they cared as much about my epic sports day battle as I had!
Then, the stage was set. I wanted to know about an event that had happened to them that mattered…really mattered. I urged them to move on from the cliche stuff e.g. getting an X-Box for Christmas etc. Instead, I wanted them to focus on the seemingly small things, the bits that others might think were not noteworthy at all, but actually meant the world to them. I recall reminding them time and time again, that the more the event truly mattered to them, the easier they would be able to write about it. All the while I shared little snippets of events that had mattered to me, and that evoked particular emotions, for example, how my grandfather used to covertly slip a 50 pence piece into my hand every time I left his house on our monthly visits and how this small gesture made me feel like the most important person in his world; about the time my playful uncle snuck upstairs before me and placed his hairy hand over the light switch so that when I went to turn it on, I screamed the house down – the kids loved that one! We talked about the things that really made us laugh…cry…try. Then we set about the task of gathering words to help us convey those feelings in a meaningful way to our reader. My reminder all the while was that we wanted the reader to ‘feel’ something as a result of reading our recounts. We read widely, gathering words and phrases at every opportunity. We sorted those that we had gathered into hierarchies: those words and phrases that really helped us to encapsulate the hurt/tension/joy that we had felt, and those that were good, but less powerful. Then we wrote. Whilst writing, we reflected constantly: does that word/phrase really convey the excitement that you felt as you held the trophy aloft? Does that sequence of sentences really help the reader to experience the sense of growing anticipation that you felt whilst waiting to receive your certificate? The results were superb. Hence why they still occupy a space in my loft to this day. They really did the job.
After the success of several autobiographical writing units, I ensured that all my units – where possible –had the intended purpose of allowing the children to gather the words and phrases needed to reflect on their own lives. So our study of how Malorie Blackman created a sense of panic in the opening pages of Pig Heart Boy was always followed in turn by inviting the children to reflect deeply on a time when they felt trapped/close to the edge/unsure where to turn, and to add a narrative voice to recount this event. I found some of these well-hidden gems in my loft too. Wow, they still packed a punch!
To my amusement – I just could not help myself – I asked myself if these newly re-discovered pieces still constituted ‘good’ writing. I mean, would they, by today’s standard, meet the grade? Were they 2017 ITAF-worthy? My fears were allayed. Of course they were. My pupils and I had aimed to move people through our words and to get them to experience the highs, or lows, that we had felt so deeply. You can’t do that with shoddy writing skills. You need not just the words, but the order of the words to be just right. This means that the clauses needed to be well-considered (I recall that we had talked a lot of about well-placed subordinate clauses/conjunctions to extend and explain all without detriment to the authenticity of the writing purpose, and long before they were so crudely stated on a non-negotiable ticklist). By jove, we’d even used dashes! Of course, we’d had to in order to add that sneaky aside to our reader at just the right moment. Ok, so I didn’t spot a single hyphenated word – not one, so on that count they may have missed the grade (an issue with the ITAF I suggest, rather than the writing). My point is that we had done all of those things because we needed to in order to achieve our purpose, not because we wanted to create a writing-by-numbers piece of evidence that showcased all of the many writing skills listed on the ITAF document. When I hit upon this point – all whilst still sitting amongst piles of life’s debris in my loft – my thinking crystallised to this understanding: if the purpose for writing is clear, well thought-out and most importantly, authentic, the skills will follow.
Even today, I realise that I still stick to this proven path of writing success. When planning a unit based on the book, Zeraffa Giraffa, to be shared at a teacher training course aimed at securing tecaher’s confidence in shared writing, I opened the session by clearly stating the intended outcome of the unit: for the children to write about a time when they experienced a sense of anticipation, just like those people in Paris who waited with feverish excitement for the arrival of Zeraffa in the 1800s. Why else would we immerse children in the intensity of that text, which so clearly encapsulates the escalating excitement of the growing crowds, if we don’t then use that to allow the children to breathe life and words into an experience that mirrors that emotion from their own lives?
And so, with August over, and my time for reflection cut short by a burgeoning ‘to do’ list, my new (academic) year’s resolution is to stay grounded; to remember that ITAFs come and go; times change and education fads are one of the few guarantees of our profession; but a true purpose for writing will always keep our children’s writing authentic, rewarding, and in my experience, able to withstand the scrutiny of any writing criteria.