Friday, 18 July 2008

Where's the Story? by Penny Dolan

Like many other children’s authors, I do school visits to keep food in the cupboard. A wolf at the door? He’d probably get eaten!

However, I can’t help worrying, during writing workshops, about many children’s relationship with writing, especially stories. Here’s two examples that happen when I’m talking to a class about writing in a general low-key way. We've already chatted about cats, or the strange noises the school boiler makes, and suchlike. Ready?

Me: “I wonder…. What was the last story you wrote? Can you remember the last thing you enjoyed writing?”
Helpful Child. “ I think we did one once about . . about . . about . . .”
Butter-inners: “A magic key.” “No, we didn’t!” “Yes, we did!” etcetera
Scornful mutters about how that was in Mrs Smith’s class. Mrs Smith’s class was at least two years ago. Nothing since.

Me, a bit later. “ I wonder what you think is important when you’re doing writing?
Sweet eager child, swiftly. “Knowing where to put the full stops.”
Helpful child. “And capital letters. And those – erm erm – exclamation marks.”
Others: “Speech marks.” “Doing Planning.” “Handwriting.”
Enjoyment? The sense of making something? A good read? Low down on the list, if at all.

Now I am aware (remember, this is primary school!) they “do” persuasive writing, the adapt-a-traditional tale, the rewrite-a-myth, the account, the recount, the report, the letter, the diary, the extended story writing, the poetry models, writing-in-role as a character met during the study of a short extract from a book not fully read, and the rest. Plus, in the brief pause, before we move on, at least one adult has re-assured me about the range of writing their children do, quite firmly.

However, I can’t help worrying what this easily-markable writing diet is like for the children - though not quite so easily markable this very week, it seems. Why do primary children have this haziness about when they last enjoyed writing? Why doesn’t the experience matter to them? Where do they find their own voice in their writing, learn that writing is a kind of speaking, a kind of thinking?

Of course, lots of good teachers do encourage children. There’s Roz Wilson & Co promoting “The Big Write”, plus candle and music. There’s Pie Corbett promoting traditional tale-telling as a precursor to writing. There’s plenty of enthusiasts and encouragers, struggling to find space and time for writing. But, but, but . . . (sigh!)

I recall Anne Fine, talking at a long ago conference, saying she learned to write at school, during the first hour of Monday morning. The class teacher, faced with children, register, dinner money to collect, count & total in old money (plus the effects of a weekend’s liquid consolation, perhaps) would chalk a weekly writing task up on the blackboard – and the young Anne knew she had the freedom of an hour in which to muse, daydream and write her new story. Each week. Each month. Each term.

Not just once, long ago, back in Mrs Smith’s class. Not ideal. But something to ponder. End of rant.


Jess said...

I couldn't agree more. I learnt to write in 'Picture stories' one whole afternoon a week where we got to pick a picture form a box and tell a story. I also benefitted from the brief laissz faire period after the demise of the eleven plus when no one cared too much what I did. I read under the desk most of the day, every day and did no maths for a year!( I ought to add that my teacher thought I was thick and so not worth worrying about)

Penny said...

Exactly,Jess. I worry that children's experience of writing is too strictly codified, rather than time to try things out and to daydream with words. The process seems remote from the way that I, as a writer, work, with writing is a kind of MAKING, like art. Also, as you have mentioned, a child's writing is fed by a child's reading. And that's another matter.