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.  “

Godwits, meandering and a treasure trove of stories about journeys.

As I have been walking around Melbourne, then Hobart, and now Sydney, I’ve lost my bearings a few times. The GPS on my phone telling me to go east along a certain street is no use at all! I need a paper map to give me the bigger picture. Once I’ve walked for a while the points of the compass and landmarks start to settle a little better in my brain, meaning that I’ve been able to find my way home without the need of a map albeit with a few detours or, as I prefer to call them, meanderings.

So how do the godwits do it? What if their inbuilt GPS scrambled? What if they lost their bearings?

And how else have we as humans lost our bearings? A few things to ponder, alongside all of these other wonderful stories on the theme of journeys.

‘Scaffolding’ for Writing… from a writer perspective

Scaffolding is a temporary structure to keep workers safe while a building is being constructed. When the building is complete the scaffolding comes down. The more I learn as a writer the greater the disconnect I see between ‘school’ writing instruction and ‘writer’ writing instruction. For one thing, the way writing is ‘scaffolded’ is very different.

A lot of school writing instruction focuses on structure. The children are given a breakdown of the text type that the teacher has determined that they will be writing in. They are provided with steps, examples, expectations and rubrics. Teachers refer to this as ‘scaffolding’ and they hope that by providing prescriptive guidelines the children will feel safe and encouraged to write. I’ve tried this approach too but it never felt right to me. When it doesn’t work many teachers provide even more scaffolding such as “fill in the gaps” tasks – at least that way everyone something to show. This way of working is often counterproductive because when the scaffolding structure is removed the children feel abandoned.   When it comes to Year 12 NCEA, so I have been told by a number of English teachers, where innovation is required to gain Excellence, the most able students are anxious to venture outside of the ‘scaffold’! They want to be told what to do.

All of the ‘writer’ writing instruction I have experienced takes a very different approach. It starts with the writer’s ideas – sometimes ideas which are not fully realised until the writing is well underway. ( Yes, no planning!)  A writer, with tutor/ mentor support, then moulds the raw material of a first draft into a form that seems to suit it best. Writing tutors provide the support/ scaffolding their students need to develop ideas, skills and confidence until the work is completed.  This type of scaffolding may mean anything from questions, prompts, demonstration, editing assistance and proofreading.   A couple of classroom teachers have suggested to me that this is cheating, as the writing is no longer the child’s work alone. (Independence in writing complex text structures being something that is now expected of very young children in many schools.)

It’s important to remember that writers never go it alone! We have supporters, critique partners, mentors, advisers, editors and proofreaders. Why would we expect a six-year-old, or a twelve-year-old, to go it entirely alone? I only completed my last novel after amazing mentor support. Hells bells if I didn’t have editors I would be sunk – the mistakes I’ve made!

What I have seen happen for young writers who are open to this sort of support guidance is that they soon become ‘knowing’ writers. They need less and less support. The tutor can pull back or step in as needed as their student gains a level of independence.

Don’t the All Blacks still have a coach?


How Writing helps with Reading!

I’d always figured that I learned to write through reading. I’ve done a lot more reading that I have writing. Because of this I thought that was the natural order of things in teaching literacy as well, but over the last few months I have come across research that shows that the relationship goes the other way too. Children’s reading improves through positive writing experiences.

In one article ‘3 Keys to Teaching Kids to Write’ research is quoted that shows when writing time was increased by 15 minutes a day not only did writing quality increase but so too did reading comprehension. Bonus!

Then, into my inbox, came another piece of research that made my heart sing – as it does when research back ups your own beliefs especially so when you have been taught to doubt those beliefs. The Headline read “Landmark Study Finds Better Path to Reading Success.” and the byline:  “This study proves what exemplary teachers have been doing correctly for years.” I really liked the last bit! This wasn’t going to be something ‘new’ but something tried and tested.

So, what was it that this study found was “…a unique predictor of growth in early reading skills, over and above children’s alphabet knowledge and phonological awareness.” ?

Answer:  Invented spelling! But not that alone- it was what exemplary teachers do next that really makes the difference!

“Well-educated, exemplary beginning reading teachers know how to provide a conventional model enabling the inventive speller to fluently read back his or her own writing in conventional English without stifling the child’s creativity or desire to make meaning (Feldgus, Cardonick, & Gentry, 2017). Having the child read back his or her own writing in conventional English written by the teacher integrates the child’s invented spelling into a reading and fluency lesson.”

Now go and read the article: 

Featured Image from: Dancing With The Pen: the Learner as Writer, Ministry of Ed NZ, 1992

Why writing WITHOUT a plan works!

“Creativity is not a talent…. it is an ability to play for its own sake … curiosity for its own sake…… But… once we have made a decision we are efficient only if we go through  with it decisively. ”  John Cleese.  

Once you’ve read this then please watch the whole video below which is the one of best explanations of the creative process  I’ve heard. It also has lots of lightbulb jokes. 

For the last few weeks I’ve been working with a large number of young writers in schools and the one thing that they have all been responding with great enthusiasm to is NOT planning- just getting started (with a well-thought through prompt from me) and writing and playing with story elements,  as they do in imaginary play.

At one school, one of the teachers approached me with consternation during morning tea. Her pupils had rushed back to tell her with great excitement that they had already written three stories without any planning. She was puzzled by this because everything she’d been taught indicated how important planning and purpose are in the teaching of writing. I explained that we were at the ‘creative ideas’ end of the process, and that planning and purpose block that. She considered that this might work with the brighter kids but that the ‘others’ needed planning otherwise they have nothing to write about. This is a misunderstanding I hear often.  All children have minds full of stories and playfulness and curiosity which it is the teacher’s role to draw out. Why they are reluctant to write these down is a completely different matter! They are usually afraid of getting it ‘wrong’.

In another group, another school, there was one Year 5 boy who was uncomfortable at having been selected for the workshop. He claimed he was not a writer. The supervising teacher was also surprised that he has been included on the list. At the end of two days this ‘reluctant’ writer stood up to read his wonderful story, which started from a place of prompted play and then was followed through with decisive redrafting. We applauded and the principal (having the principal even call in is a rare occurrence so it was wonderful to have her there) asked, ” So tell me X, what did you learn about writing?”

X pondered for a moment before saying, “That you can write without planning and that’s what works best for me! But then you have to redraft!”

John Cleese again:  There are certain conditions that make creativity more likely: “You do need 1. space, 2. time, 3. time 4. confidence and 5………humour!”

How can we ensure these conditions for young writers in schools?