The challenges of writing

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:

writing-task-describe-the-writing-task

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).

writing-task-2

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.

Resources

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

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

The use of ICT to promote reading

A few days ago I received an email from my tutor with an invitation to edit a Google Doc. The message said:

Dear all

Please find attached a link that we will use in Thursday’s session. There is nothing that you need to do to prepare – just please don’t delete it before then!

Best wishes 

Its purpose was revealed in today’s lesson on Literacy and the teaching of reading, and it this theme that today’s post will explore. The class started with the tutor reading an excerpt from Harper Lee’s To Kill a Mockingbird where Scout is describing her first day at school and the confusion she faces when her teacher tells her that the fact she already knows how to read will prove useless to her and that she should forget everything that she knows. Of course, we all understand that this is counter-intuitive and ridiculous as what teacher in their right mind would not want their pupils to have taken the initiative to teach themselves how to read, right?
to_kill_a_mockingbird_render_by_buz_mavisi-d6io9aj
The day’s objectives were then outlined on the board:
To understand approaches to the teaching of literacy and the debates surrounding it;
to know about phonics teaching and to be aware of the issues;
to explore approaches to developing reading skills.
And this is where the email from my tutor came in. On each cluster of tables was a laptop and those in the class that had received the email from our tutor were to open the Google Doc and to work in groups of four to define the term ‘literacy’ and to add it to the document, identifying our group number. Here are the definitions that we all devised:

1. Literacy is an individual’s ability to not only read and write, but also to comprehend and construct meaning from texts; literacy deepens our understanding of our own culture and other cultures.

2. Literacy = Having the skills to unlock layers of meaning.

3. A literate person is able to produce written language as well as read, comprehend and interpret the written word. These are the skills they need to express themselves fully and participate within a community.

4. Literacy is, at its most basic, reading and writing. At its most developed, it allows people to have a profound and complex understanding of the word and the world. It enables them to express their understanding.

5. Literacy is the symbiotic relationship between reading, writing, speaking and listening and meaning making.

6. Literacy is the ability to construe and communicate information via the written word. It allows people to function within society at its most basic level, and learn to express themselves as they develop.

What this task had demonstrated was how ICT could be used in order to gain input from everyone in the class at the same time. Because the room was organised in a manner in which groups could cluster around the laptop at ease, everyone was able to participate in the task and the tutor was able to manage the class by making herself available to answer any queries. She could also monitor how the task was progressing because the Google Doc was connected to the white board, so everyone could see who was writing and editing at the same time. The task was a collaborative effort that required summarising as well as drafting and editing, skills outlined in the 2014 National Curriculum programmes of study at KS3 level (National Curriculum, 2014).
After a presentation on the government’s preferred method of teaching reading in primary schools, which centres on systematic synthetic phonics (SSP) “where sounds or phonemes identified with letters are learned in isolation and blended together” (Dymoke, 2013: 7). Despite heated debates about the efficacy of utilising such an approach, perhaps in part because due to the decontextualisation of the units of sounds from words and that 20% of the most commonly used English words do not follow the grapheme-phoneme correspondence rules, SSP “is viewed by the government as the prime strategy for teaching children to read” (Wyse et al. 2013: 164). If Harper Lee’s Scout had been educated in a primary school in England, it would have been government policy to very much forget everything that she knew about reading and to go back to basic units of sound, despite her love for reading.
We then returned to our groups of four and to a laptop or an iPad between each pair. Each group was assigned a reading, which discussed different ways that teachers can support pupils in accessing texts and assist their reading. We had half an hour to read our set text and summarise it in 100-150 words and then we were to add it to the Google Doc, identifying ourselves by our group number. My group had to read an article written in 2000 by McGuinn entitled ‘Electronic Communication and Under-achieving Boys: Some Issues in English in Education’. Initially we all read the text on the iPad or laptop and then we discussed our impressions before starting our collaborative summary. The basic thrust of the argument is suggesting that in general boys prefer using IT as a mode of expression in reading and writing thus its use should be encouraged more within the classroom. Here is our summary:
[The article] is highlighting the discrepancy between boys’ and girls’ attainment levels, where girls outperform boys in almost every subject. It has been observed that ‘planned opportunities’ for the use of IT boosts the achievement of boys. Boys prefer the form due to familiarity and the anonymity IT provides. It is suggested that boys are more reluctant to commit thoughts to paper because this presents more of an opportunity for a sense of failure. Technical competence and self-esteem are two main issues for young males at school. The multi-modality of electronic media is hard to navigate and can be seen as a form of distraction. Furthermore, it may confine boys even more because their exposure to other forms of text written and read, are limited.
One of our main concerns, as was also discussed in the slightly dated article, was the isolation experienced when using a computer, versus other forms of reading and learning. And then it dawned on me, that the very task we were involved in was refuting this and demonstrating how reading, writing and discussion were all taking place via the medium of IT. Sharing ideas via the the web, whether it be forums, social media or Google Docs did not have to mean an isolated ‘reading’ experience, but could be shared and exploited collaboratively. If boys are underachieving in almost every subject versus girls in their GCSEs (Shivlock and Ingram, 2012: 317) and the research we summarised points to the use of IT as one method of seeking to overcome this gap, then it is a medium I am very keen to learn more about and its effective implementation in the classroom.
Our tutor outlined the approach she would suggest in order to ensure its intended outcomes, which included sending the initial invitation to edit to trusted members of the class (so I guess I am one of them then). She said it could be a task that was adapted for numerous purposes, for example during reading a class novel, groups could write about a character each or they could write a summary of a chapter. This document could then be photocopied and provided to everyone in the class and used as revision notes or the basis of future class discussions. Apart from the few technical issues we experienced, everyone enjoyed this task and we all now have access to excellent summaries which we can draw on for our assignments. A win-win situation!
Resources
Dymoke, S. 2013. Teaching English Texts 11-18. London: Bloomsbury
McGuinn, N (2000) Electronic Communication and Under-achieving Boys: Some Issues in English in Education, vol.34,no.1, pp 50-57
National curriculum in England: English programmes of study
Shivlock, K & Ingram, J. 2012. ‘Schooling and gender’ in Brooks, V, Abbott, I & Huddleston, P (eds). Preparing to Teach in Secondary Schools: A student teacher’s guide to professional issues in secondary education (3rd ed.). Maidenhead: Open University Press
Wyse, D, Jones, R, Bradford, H & Wolpert, M. A. 2013. Teaching English, Language and Literacy (3rd ed.). London: Routledge