I am someone who relishes in writing, in particular writing as a cathartic experience. I particularly enjoy travel writing, where I fuse philosophy and photography into stories on my personal blog. From my dusty memories of secondary school, I think I could even say I was a fairly good writer from a young age. Many forms of writing, such as reviews, letters, reportage and the occasional poem, are sources of freedom and opportunity for me.However, looking around the classrooms of the school where I worked as a TA and literacy teacher, it became very apparent that writing was a source of great angst, frustration, shame, confusion and imprisonment. As an English teacher, this is something I would have to face alongside my students and find ways of compassionately inculcating in them not only the skills of writing but a sense of intrigue at the power of self-identification and expression through writing. Of course, I would also have to get them to pass their GCSEs!
On Friday, I got a sense of what the prison of writing really felt like. Our tutor placed a lollypop each on our tables. She asked us to write in the opposite hand than we normally write with. We opened our books and awkwardly held our pens. We were then asked to write what the object looked like, without instruction as to what form or style we wrote in. I had always wanted to be left-handed as I associated it with creativity and being different so at first the challenge of this alien experience was intriguing. After a few minutes of intense concentration on simply getting the words to a state of legibility we were then asked to touch the object and describe how it felt. Normally I would say I tinker on the edge of verbosity when I write but as it was such a laborious process, scant syntax hit the page. We followed the same procedure for what the lollypop sounded like as we unwrapped it and finally what it tasted like. Although I am rather embarrassed about the quality of what I wrote, I will share it with you in order to see how little I managed to say and the quality of my writing:
After completion of the first stage of the task, which was received with very mixed emotions, we discussed how this task could be used in school. The list of possibilities included writing a poem, a script, persuasive writing, a letter of complaint, narrative or reportage. This was definitely an activity I was very keen to use in my classroom, perhaps not with a sugar-laden lolly but a strange fruit or something more healthy. I would not ask the students to write in their other had though, because even though I had always been jealous of my left-handed friends, actually writing in that way had been a very tiring, laborious and difficult experience.
We were then given around ten minutes to choose whatever style of writing we wanted and to write, again with the hand we did not usually use drawing from the notes we had made through the sensory exploration of the object. There were four people on my table, and none of us were that attentive to the task. We were distracted by each other and laughed and talked about anything but the task. Writing had become a chore, a place of failure and exasperation for me and all I managed to come up with is a shoddy attempt at a poem (see below).
What did I learn from this experience? That for many, especially students with Special Educational Needs (SEN) and to some extent, depending on their fluency, English as an Additional Language (EAL) writing is a challenging activity. The difficulty of the physical element of writing, which I have not experienced since primary school and the occasional four-hour International Human Rights Law exam during my Masters, obfuscated my enjoyment of writing. My flow was similar to a river that had been clogged up by debris and had become a trickle rather than a rush. My thought process became wrapped up in how hard it was rather than what I wanted to say and I was nervous about whether our tutor would call on me to read my work out as I had nothing of any substance to disclose. A sense of shame imbued me as I had declared myself a writer and I had nothing to write.
One of my peers had said that his response to the task had meant he omitted all punctuation as he had found it too difficult, which meant his work was not only difficult to read but also incoherent. This highlighted another issue that SEN students may face when teachers ask them to redraft or edit their work and correct their spelling and grammar (SPAG) mistakes.
Interestingly, a few of my peers had had a very different experience. They had found that because they were impeded physically, that they thought more before they wrote. They edited in their head, took much more time over planning their words and their more economical approach meant that less was more, and the few words they had written were more effective in conveying meaning than if they had written tomes. This was, however, not the general consensus.
One of the roles of the teacher pertains to how to respond to a piece of writing submitted by a student. Anderson (2014) suggests that “in the first instance, you should always try to respond to the content and to what the pupil has achieved”(italics author’s own, p102). Therefore, when initially marking a pupil’s work, focus on what they “can do” (ibid), rather than dissecting their SPAG and covering their work in comments about its deficits. If there is one thing that I have learnt through this task is that it is no small feat to submit a piece of writing, which may have left a student feeling very exposed, stressed and vulnerable due to how taxing it can be. It becomes of even more paramount importance to take heed of Anderson’s advice, by paying particular attention to what has been achieved. I will then need to utilise methods (which I will discuss in the future) which provide those that find writing a challenge in order to help them overcome the seemingly insuperable.
Anderson, G. 2014. ‘Writing’ in Davison, J & Daly, C. (eds) Learning to Teach English in the Secondary School: A companion to school experience (4th edition). London: Routledge