If we want our boys to become better writers, teachers should stop marking their work (so much!)

Francis Gilbert's picture
Yesterday, I attended the British Library's conference for teachers called Writing: Our Place, which was held in partnership with LATE (London branch of the National Association for the Teaching of English). The keynote speaker was Simon Wrigley, a former chair of NATE (the National Association for the Teaching of English) and the founder of NATE's National Writing Project. His speech was truly inspiring because he talked about the success of the project in getting not only pupils to improve their writing, but also teachers. At the heart of the National Writing Project is the notion that when teachers start doing their own writing, then they are in a much better position to improve their pupils' writing. The project is very different in tone and approach to the National Strategies and the government's current thinking because it believes that when pupils are given more freedom to write what they want, in the way they want, without the teacher breathing down their neck every minute with the red pen handy, then you see them starting to really find out what writing can do and, as a consequence, significantly improve their writing. I managed to catch Simon Wrigley briefly during the busy conference and he very kindly offered his views to camera. The project has so far anecdotally shown that boys appear to benefit when teachers hold back from marking their work. I am hoping though to interview him more thoroughly at a future date and report back in more detail about this very exciting project.

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Rebecca Hanson's picture
Sun, 27/05/2012 - 19:57

This is really interesting, thank you Francis.

Of course it only works if we have teachers who are capable of handling whatever children write and that requires a highly skilled teachers.

As for teachers writing..... why would they write? If you write about reality you become unemployable and open to extreme abuse. You also start to look at stuff you can't face if you're still part of the system.

One thing I've been wondering is whether it may be possible to have a well managed teachers discussion forum where anonymity is managed and allowed. The unions could be the gatekeepers to membership and could organise the anonymity. But I don't think the unions understand cyberspace yet.

Janet Downs's picture
Mon, 28/05/2012 - 15:17

Writing journals - an interaction between teacher and pupil - do encourage pupils to write. However, they need to be part of a whole-school strategy. One English teacher going it alone might not get very far - pupils might be embarrassed or wonder why just this one teacher is encouraging pupils to write what they want in a journal. It might be considered intrusive if no other English teacher (or group tutor) is encouraging it.

Rebecca is correct - the strategy needs highly-skilled teachers who are fully prepared for what they might read, for example, if a child writes about being abused. Teachers are required to report such incidents and if a child has been told that what s/he writes is confidential, just between the pupil and teacher, then it could be seen as breaking this confidentiality if the teacher reports it (as s/he must by law).

Writing done by teachers in groups, or alone, doesn't have to be confined to what is topical. Teachers can practise the type of writing they demand from children - poetry, scripts, stories, letters, diaries and so on. For example, if a teacher asks pupils to write a limerick, then it's fun (and instructive) if the teacher joins in.

Lisa Hostick's picture
Tue, 29/05/2012 - 12:43

Francis, This is a lovely post to read after the event. I'm so glad that you enjoyed it so much and see the potential of what the NATE Writing Project is doing. I would like to briefly reply to the two comments you have so far if you don't mind?

Rebecca, I don't understand why you think teachers' experience abuse for writing? I have been a part of this project for 3 years now and never had anything but encouragement for being a writing teacher. I don't really tend to write about school, but about all aspects of my life and interests. Whether I share what I write with a group that I am comfortable with, or let the wider world read it, or decide not to share it at all, is entirely up to me. I know that a couple of my colleagues from the NWP have written openly and frankly about their teaching experiences and have been met with nothing but encouragement and praise.

As for 'highly skilled teachers' if the teacher is writing on their own terms then are they not inevitably becoming more 'skilled'? Yes, there is a need for awareness of what is, or isn't, appropriate or where the 'limits' should be, but this comes as a part of being a part of the NWP and discussing and talking with other teachers involved in the project.

Janet, the confidentiality of childrens' writing that is discussed here, is writing that only they write for themselves. The teacher only looks at whatever the child is prepared to share, none of the writing in journals or through writing sessions is marked (unless at some point they ask for the teacher's opinion). If they share their writing and it happens to be personal and what the teacher has a duty to share with others for their safety, then this is no different to a child who might confide verbally or within a piece of work they produce in class. We are to expect this possibility through any of our interactions with students if they trust us aren't we?

I think the power of this project lay in teachers becoming involved in it and experiencing it for themselves.

I have been the only teacher to take this on in my school, yet it has been met with enthusiasm by all students, parents and senior management that have taken part or experienced the outcomes of it. In fact, no one has had any 'awkward' experiences to it other than perhaps other English teachers who find it difficult to adjust their perspective on writing and teaching writing. Students are likely to remind me if I forget that we are to do creative writing that lesson as they love it so much.

Rebecca and Janet, I encourage you to get along to a NWP meeting or conference in the future, and then see how you feel about the project.

Thank you again Gilbert for your enthusiastic endorsement of the project. See you at the next conference perhaps?

Janet Downs's picture
Tue, 29/05/2012 - 15:28

Thanks, Lisa, for your comments. If I were still teaching I would accept your offer. I used to be a member of NATE when I was teaching and attended a NATE course in London (I think it was about teaching Shakespeare). I used to value the NATE magazine and remember following one of the suggestions which linked Keats's "Isabella and the Pot of Basil" with two pre-Raphaelite paintings on the same subject with a set 3 group. It was very successful.

Janet Downs's picture
Tue, 29/05/2012 - 16:22

Lisa - I tried writing journals once but it fizzled out. I now realise that the fault was probably mine. If I had allowed the pupils (mostly boys) to write about what they wanted I think I would have had more success. Where I went wrong was to ask them to write about their reading, TV programmes and films watched. This emphasis was too narrow.

Francis Gilbert's picture
Mon, 04/06/2012 - 15:46

Thanks for these comments. Rebecca's point about why teachers should write is a good one. My own PhD research has revealed for me the importance of "reciprocity" in teaching; when a teacher gives, pupils give back as well. There's an acknowledgement that teaching complex things like writing is best done in an "open" and "non-judgemental" atmosphere where the sharing of ideas, stories, thoughts is the name of the game...For me, this is a very important project because it's about "re-professionalising" a disempowered profession which has been told what to do far too much.

Rebecca Hanson's picture
Tue, 05/06/2012 - 13:56

Lisa it is difficult for teachers to express honest views in public. It's easier if they stay with in very strict non-controversial boundaries but this limits the power of what they can do.

Francis I don't know if it's a related topic but I was always aware how much intense learning was going on when I was at the board struggling to engage with a mathematical problem I couldn't do. I could see how much students were learning by my modelling for them the sophisticated strategies I used to cope with these situations which they could then adopt when they found themselves struggling with problems.

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