The ideas in this blog post are inspired from reading Storycraft by Martin Griffin and Teach Like a Writer by Jennifer Webb.
Teaching writing is somewhat of a dreaded phrase in my English department. We are all Literature lovers and doubt our ability to successfully break down and build back up the components of writing to teach students the step by step approach needed to really improve their skills. Teaching in a secondary school in an inner city with high levels of socio and economic deprivation, plus EAL learners presents us with a variety of challenges to overcome in students’ writing.
Overcome the barriers
However, the biggest barrier I think our students face is themselves. As many teenagers are; they are delightfully opinionated and outspoken, full of creativity and life, but when it comes to putting pen to paper; they freeze. They struggle starting a piece of writing, become plagued by self doubt and give up, decide it’s ‘wrong’ and cross it all out, or write a paragraph and think that’s ‘enough’. This year I have decided it IS enough – prior to lockdown I was determined this was the year I was going to crack writing – so here is my (at this stage purely theoretical) plan to overcome these barriers and to create confident, enthusiastic writers.
The programme of study this year is designed to encourage students to focus more on their own writing voice and expressing their opinions. We will be using starters and plenaries to encourage quick judgment making, supporting opinions with reasons and critiquing others’ viewpoints verbally. We will only teach writing alongside reading, this is not a new idea BUT what is new is the amount of work we’re going to expect students to produce.
Teach like a writer
We would usually plan to an assessment calendar – what students need to produce so that we can mark it in line with the school calendar and policy. This year the headteacher has given us permission to try out a technique championed in Jennifer Webb’s Teach Like a Writer and we will NOT be marking students writing – rather we will be reading it and giving whole class feedback. This is the first attempt we will be making to give students greater ownership over their writing and higher accountability for finding and correcting their own grammar and punctuation mistakes (with some guidance).
Rather than producing several extended pieces of writing per SOW moving from Newspaper articles one week to descriptive paragraphs the next, we will spend the whole half term working on one piece of writing and planning of individual lessons looking at quality examples will support the crafting and techniques needed to do this.
Students will learn the commitment needed and build their resilience by returning again and again to the one piece of writing. We will repeatedly ask students to select something they are proud of in their work and build a treasure trove of their ‘best bits’ for them to return to when inspiration is lacking.
Celebrate the creative process
In Storycraft by Martin Griffin and Jon Mayhew the author’s explore the virtues of a creative manifesto. Basically the idea that we should establish a classroom culture that celebrates the creative process including its failures and successes and an openness to sharing work to help inspire each other. This will be created in cohesion with the students and referred back to when the going gets tough.
To further help develop resilience we will be using Storycraft’s plea for generating ‘micro ideas’; using creative activities to play around with characters, settings and plot points and judging and critiquing our ideas before refining, planning and finally writing.
Both books advocate for moving away from a ‘taught’ structure as the rigidity it creates – although meant to enable creativity in expression – is actually stifling. We will endeavor to encourage students to play with structure whilst returning to the basic premise of a beginning, middle and end in different variations: person, place, problem; character, situation, resolution etc.
Removing the rigidity of a ‘plan’ and structure sits uncomfortably with me as I know the students (and we as teachers) cling to the hope we can provide students with a security blanket that they can fall back on in the exam.However, when I think of why we teach English; the desire for students to be able to leave us able to communicate their own ideas confidently and clearly; I know this is the right move to enable them to develop lifelong skills, not pass an exam.
Sarah Eggleton is Assistant Headteacher and Head of English at Stretford High School.