I am… but what about our children? … what about our teachers?

For a long time I have been a teacher. Now I am a writer and a teacher. I claim the title of writer because it is something I love to do and I spend a bit of time actually doing it. Some people are runners but that doesn’t mean they have to compete at the Olympics. Some people make music in their bedroom and can still be called musicians. It’s actually not that hard to be a writer – you just have to write! You may need something to write with, an idea or two and some knowledge of words and how to use them, but essentially it’s a very easy thing to be. And yet many of the young people I work with do not see themselves as writers. Very, very few of the teachers I work with see themselves as writers. In fact, mention to teachers that they are going to be doing a bit of writing in a writing workshop and the fear is palpable!

Where has this fear come from? I only noticed it, gnawing away at the edges of my classroom, about seven years ago. Before that the majority of kids arriving in my  Year 7 and 8 class were pretty confident that they were writers.  I know that correlation isn’t always causation but that all happened about the same time as the GERM hit us here in Aotearoa in the guise of National Standards. Any teacher who has attended my PD sessions will have no doubt of where I stand on that insidious policy!

When National Standards first came in, after initial resistance proved futile and even dangerous for ones’ career as some discovered, I know of many teachers who attempted a  policy of “least harm”. We swore it wouldn’t affect the way we taught. New Zealand teachers did not teach to the test! But we could not withstand the relentless onslaught and so the standards become the pseudo curriculum in many schools. If your school escaped unscathed then you must thank your management team profusely!  The damage this imposed policy has inflicted on education in New Zealand has been immense, and the teaching of writing was one of the most seriously affected learning areas.

While other learning areas were sidelined, the teaching of writing took prominence as it was one of the standards. Writing became a set of rights and wrongs. The ‘rights’ are mostly very very wrong from a writers’ perspective! I discovered a great disconnect between what I did  in my own writing and what I was being told was ‘best practice ‘ in the classroom.

‘School writing’ –  based on text types, structure and a series of steps – has resulted in a generation of young people  never experiencing the joy of their individual authorial voice, and a generation of teachers who don’t know how to recognise voice and sincerity in children’s writing.

Most of the systems of writing instruction that have been presented to teachers with the claim that they will ” lift achievement”  are based neither on sound educational practice nor on what we know about child development. They are also not  based on the ways in which writers work. They only lift achievement in relation to the rubric or test on which they are based.  Sadly, this ‘write for the test’ mentality  has predominated for many years and it will take a while for writing education to get on the right page.

First, we need to get the joy and excitement back into writing, so that children and their teachers can claim “I am a writer”. It’s really not that hard. You just need something to write with, an idea or two and some knowledge of words and how to use them.

I am looking forward to a new educational direction that is based on educators ( and the people who create curriculum and policy) knowing the learner, knowing teaching, and knowing the learning area being taught.

“Great things are done by a series of small things brought together.” Vincent Van Gogh

A parcel arrived on Saturday, delivered to the door by a man in yellow and red. Inside were my much awaited copies of  The Best Small Fictions, 2017. As I am sure even more experienced authors than I do, I turned straight to the page with my story ( Page 40 in case you were wondering) before going back to the index and scanning the list of names of writing heroes and role models.  There was my name not too far from that of Amy Hempl (editor)..

oh wow, I only just realised, Amy Hempl read my story and picked it!!  I need to figure out how to insert a gif of a wildly beating heart, so just imagine it for now.

… Tara Laskowski, Kathy Fish, Stuart Dybeck, Frankie McMillan, Sherrie Flick, Robert Scotellaro, all writers I have read and loved and studied for my thesis, alongside other names I am sure I should and will come to recognise!

When I wrote my tiny story ‘Sisters’ I tried to make it longer, gave up and at the very last minute, and by that I mean maybe with a two hour window – I HATE leaving things to the real last minute– submitted it for a micro edition of Flash Frontier because I didn’t have anything to lose. It went online and I gave it not a second thought. However, thanks to the wonderful Michelle Elvy of Flash Frontier fame  it took on a second life. Without my knowing it made its way to the pile of thousands of submissions for BSF 2017, then to the long list of 105 and from there it was selected by Amy Hempl for this incredibly amazingly prestigious collection.  The  53 writers in the collection come from the West Indies, New Zealand ( two of us and both from Christchurch!), Canada, England, Germany, Japan and the United States. I feel so proud seeing New Zealand there on the page!

So there it is, on page 40, an odd 98 word story about notes between the keys and dysfunction and seeking solace in books. Not something I laboured over, just an oddity that spilled on the page and seemed to be quite happy with itself. Not at all great but thank goodness it does not have to survive alone, it is surrounded by other stories which come together to make a truly great collection.

I double checked and yes Vincent Van Gogh did write in a letter to his brother, “Great things are done by a series of small things brought together.” So often quotes on the InterWeb are misattributed.

You can order your copy from https://www.amazon.com/Best-Small-Fictions-2017/dp/0998966711

THE BEST SMALL FICTIONS 2017 offers readers 55 exceptional small fictions by 53 authors. This acclaimed new annual series, hailed as a “milestone for the short story,” continues to honor contemporary masters and emerging writers of short-short and hybrid forms from across the globe. Guest editor Amy Hempel chose the winners from a pool of 105 finalists: “They conjure and seduce, they startle and haunt, they are funny and searing, short and shorter.”

Frankie and I will have a (small) function and share our small stories with the supportive Christchurch flash community very soon.


te wiki o te reo Māori and writing with kids in Turanganui a Kiwa.

Firstly I have to thank Sunny Bush and her team at Aurora Education Foundation for making it possible for me to visit Gisborne earlier this week. It was a remarkable experience for me, being immersed during te wiki o te reo Māori in a place where the reo is valued and used regularly. I was also delighted that the reo I learned many long years ago as part of my university studies and my early teaching in Murihiki came trippingly on the tongue! Trippingly meaning both lightly and easily at times, and at others stumbling dreadfully but stumbling nonetheless.

Eighteen Year 6 and 7 young writers were gathered from almost as many schools across the region. We were treated first to a tour, and glorious heartfelt storytelling from our guide Todd who related history to the two sites we visited; a history that  at one site lies buried beneath industry and silenced by the sound of trucks and machinery, – something the children were quick to notice. We then returned to write and what wonderful writing! I hope to share it soon!

The young writers used the stories of navigation and landing, of first encounters and terrible mistakes made, of lost history and silenced voices to craft stories and poems, incorporating te reo Māori when we could under the careful guidance of taonga and teacher aide, Kelly.

A teacher who was observing  for the full two days noted, more than once, that each child interpreted and reflected the experiences and writing prompts in such individual ways. At the end we heard eighteen diverse voices loud and clear. I was glad to hear this until I realised that this was a surprising thing to this teacher whose only experience of a writing programme seemed to be one that valued conformity of teaching, process and outcome.

This week I have seen yet another programme of writing published for teachers in Aotearoa that is based not on what we know about child development, nor on a writer’s writing process, but on practises that are outcome-focussed rather than child/writer centred. There are good messages within this programme but when examples are provided that do not relate to the innate desire of children to tell stories and relate experiences, but to artificial constructs of what writing is  ( e.g: write a narrative with three characters in which a problem is solved) then I do not give it chances to succeed in the long term. The children may pass the test, but they will not become writers.

For a wider view of this problem in education, read this article : Networkonnet

Book Launch in USA today!

“I believe The Best Small Fictions . . . is an extraordinarily important literary event.” —Robert Olen Butler .  

Me too! 

Frankie and I will be holding a very small celebration, here in Christchurch New Zealand, once our copies arrive . I’ll let you know where and when. It is wonderful to be able to share this with another local writer!

You can order your copies here:  Amazonhttps://www.amazon.com/dp/0998966711  

The Best Small Fictions 2017

Guest Edited by Amy Hempel Series Editor Tara L. Masih

The Best Small Fictions 2017 offers readers 55 exceptional small fictions by 53 authors. This acclaimed new annual series, hailed as a “milestone for the short story,” continues to honor contemporary masters and emerging writers of short-short and hybrid forms from across the globe. Guest editor Amy Hempel chose the winners from a pool of 105 finalists: “They conjure and seduce, they startle and haunt, they are funny and searing, short and shorter.” The 2017 volume includes Pamela Painter, Brian Doyle, Ian Seed, Frankie McMillan, Karen Bren- nan, Stuart Dybek, and W. Todd Kaneko, and spotlights Joy Williams and SmokeLong Quarterly.

“I believe The Best Small Fictions . . . is an extraordinarily important literary event.” —Robert Olen Butler

Featuring small fictions by

Nick Admussen ~ Nick Almeida ~ Lydia Armstrong ~ Matthew Baker Amy Sayre Baptista ~ Karen Brennan ~ Larry Brown ~ Randall Brown Erin Calabria ~ Marci Calabretta Cancio-Bello ~ Carrie Cooperider Emily Corwin ~ Christopher DeWan ~ Brian Doyle ~ Stuart Dybek Kathy Fish ~ Sherrie Flick ~ Scott Garson ~ Jesse Goolsby
Michael Hammerle ~ Hannah Harlow ~ Allegra Hyde ~ W. Todd Kaneko Joy Katz ~ Jen Knox ~ Len Kuntz ~ Tara Laskowski ~ Oscar Mancinas Ras Mashramani ~ Frankie McMillan ~ Heather McQuillan ~ Cole Meyer Eugenie Montague ~ Pamela Painter ~ Alvin Park ~ Kimberly King Parsons Gen Del Raye ~ Mona Leigh Rose ~ Na’amen Gobert Tilahun Cameron Quincy Todd ~ Matt Sailor ~ Rebecca Schi ~ Robert Scotellaro Ian Seed ~ Alex Simand ~ Julia Slavin ~ Michael C. Smith
Phillip Sterling ~ Anne Valente ~ Harriot West ~ Joy Williams
Keith Woodru ~ William Wool tt


The shoe on the other foot

For the last week the roles have reversed and, instead of being the teacher, I have been a learner observing the skill of the teachers I have been under! During the week I was at my university contact course and today I attended a poetry workshop as part of the Arts Festival. Each of the writing teachers I encountered came with a great understanding of both the topic they were teaching, in both a wider and specialist sense, as well as an understanding of where their students were at. They adjusted and adapted their approach but with the same aim, to help their students/ workshop participants think more deeply about what they are doing in their writing. At the Saturday afternoon workshop this was gentle and encouraging with the odd prod to refine and tweak.  At the university course it was more challenging, sometimes uncomfortably so, as it should be. The students in both courses came with diverse interests, needs, and levels of experience but each one was invited to participate, was drawn out, their writing respected , their individual voice encouraged. Knowing the learner and knowing the subject being taught are paramount to great teaching, alongside knowing the craft of teaching, the ‘how’ and ‘when’ to use different approaches.

The week before last I was with a large group of teachers who admitted they they felt unsure of what writing was really all about, they had no confidence in their own ability or identity as writers. This is not an unusual situation. In the US, a 2016 study (Troia and Graham), found that fewer than half of the teachers surveyed had taken a college class that devoted significant time to the teaching of writing, while fewer than a third had taken a class solely devoted to how children learn to write. It’s not surprising that only 55% of the teachers said they enjoyed teaching writing. It would be interesting to see a similar study done in New Zealand. I suggest it would be similar.

This week I am revisiting a school where the teachers have been working to improve their teaching of writing, freeing up the programme so that their children are excited to write. They have had great success. When I suggested that, as part of our ‘next steps’ professional development day, they could experience the writing process as writers, by putting the shoe on the other foot, they balked at the idea. Fear set in! They opted to observe me working with a group of children instead. Little do they know my cunning plan…. don’t tell them but I am not letting them off that lightly! Being in the position of learner is good for every teacher.

p.s Next year I hope to be running some writing workshops especially designed for teachers as writers. The plan is to have a laugh, (drink wine) and write. Sound like your sort of PLD?  If you are interested get in touch! I’m looking for a host school!

First, do no harm. Primum non nocere.

What are the current teaching fads and standards-based regimes doing to our youngest writers? I have heard tales that send shivers up my spine: of five-year-olds being instructed to write a whole story, with a beginning, middle and end no less – Aristotle is so 320sBC! – or sequence a “recount” following the structure given, or write a series of similes when they are still at the very early stages of writing and in possession of a pre-operational ( Piaget) brain!

In response to Piaget’s stages, Slavin (2005) points out that we must “de-emphaise practices aimed at making children adult like in their thinking” and that trying to speed up and accelerate children’s process through the stages could be worse than no teaching at all!

I’ll tell you what the current teaching fads and standards-based regime are doing to our youngest writers! This top down approach, pressuring teachers to fast-track small minds, means that they miss vital stages in the process and are told a “right and a wrong way” so when things fall apart, they have no belief in themselves as learners or writers.They don’t get to grow their writing out of drawing. They don’t get to create independently meaningful text. The joy is sucked out of writing. It becomes a “school thing” rather than a means to communicate. Their individual voices are shut down- they never get to hear their writer voice – what they have to say and how they want to say it is unvalued.  They learn “a way”, a recipe, to pass ‘the test’ which is based on misconceptions about what quality writing is and what writing is for.

Children who come to literacy when they are ready, catch up with and overtake their peers.  Read here

Children who do not believe in themselves as learners, fall behind.  Listen here

First we must do no harm! Junior classroom teachers must be allowed to respond to the children they have in front of them, and guide them through the naturally progressing stages of learning and literacy. It is time to reclaim the classroom, for the sake of our children.

Thank you to the teachers who attended my  presentation last Friday. It was great to see your wise heads nodding and hear your stories afterwards. Be strong. Be advocates for your children. 

Writing with Joy

I have been using the word JOY as a basis for the writing programmes that I run with children, and in the talks I give to teachers. How joyful I was then to discover a whole book dedicated to this concept! My copy is on order.

Here is a snippet from Ralph Fletcher’s book, “Joy Write”.

“In recent years the writing workshop has come under intense pressure: state writing tests, Common Core State Standards, various commercial programs. Writing workshop as we once knew it has been “developed.” Many old-growth trees have been cut down. A great deal of curricular land has been cleared, parceled off, and subdivided. It’s harder and harder to find the essential wildness—the unique intelligence found whenever children freely express themselves—that once infused the workshop. In this book I’m proposing a new concept: greenbelt writing. Writing that is raw, unmanicured, uncurated. I’m talking about informal writing. Writing that is wild, like the pungent skunk cabbage that sprouts haphazardly along the edge of a swamp. I’m talking about low-stakes writing, the kind of comfortable composing kids do when they know there’s no one looking over their shoulder. Some educators would insist that writing workshop must continue in its more developed, academic form. “The reality of schools . . .” I don’t agree—but that’s a battle for another day. If, for argument sake, I do concede this, I would add that it’s essential to supplement it with a greenbelt, a wild territory where kids can rediscover the power of writing that is: • personal • passionate • joyful • whimsical • playful • infused with choice, humor, and voice • reflective of the quirkiness of childhood. “

Ralph will be keynote speaker at the NZLA One Day Conference Roadshow.  Power of Words.

Teaching Logophiles!

“Vocabulary is not a task or a thing, it is a literacy practice. Not so much a skill, but a habit that readers, writers, and thinkers cultivate.” Sarah Brown Wessling, National Teacher of the Year, 2010 ( US)

During a Young Writers’ workshop this week, a student made an observation after hearing a couple of her classmates share their first drafts.

” I need to work on my vocabulary,” she said.

What a fabulous moment of self realisation and learning.

In the article referenced below there are some great hints for classroom teachers to help children become logophiles. (I loved the title of a lesson titled “How to Use a Thesaurus & Avoid Sounding Ridiculous”.)

“What do real logophiles do?

  1. They look up words they don’t know.
  2. They actively seek out new words to use in conversation and writing.
  3. They try on new words in their writing and speaking, even if they’re not 100% sure how to use them.
  4. They literally surround themselves with words: they read, they collect words in notebooks and Pinterest boards, they talk about words.
  5. They learn how to say words in other languages.
  6. They research the origins of words.
  7. They subscribe to mailing lists or follow Twitter handles that dole out words and their meanings daily.
  8. They have favorite words.
  9. They say words out loud because they love their sounds.
  10. They write & they read… a lot.  “