Tuesday, 20 August 2013

'"Big" is a Banned Word in Our Classroom...' Musings on Creative Writing and SATs - Cecilia Busby

I'm butting in here, slightly, as someone who's not normally a regular contributor to ABBA. But there are some things that have been brewing in my head for a while to do with writing in schools. The recent controversies over Michael Gove's new reforms, pushing yet more formal grammar down the throats of the nations primary school children, has caused them to boil over into a blog post. Luckily ABBA was at hand to give me an outlet!

When I was at primary school (a long time ago it seems now!) teachers regularly read stories to their class - lots and lots of stories - picture books, short stories, fairy tales, longer books over a week or more. Children learned the many ways of creative story-telling by listening to and living in these stories. And then they were encouraged to write their own, whatever and however they wanted – just stories. Glorious, creative, fun, mad, rambling stories, meant to be simply enjoyed.

One amazing afternoon, when I was eleven, the teacher from the other, companion class to ours read us the whole of Paul Gallico’s Snow Goose, start to finish. He had a soft Scottish accent and a wonderful reading voice, and the whole class spent that afternoon in a completely magical other place, of snow and bleak landscapes and tears. Every single girl in the class instantly fell in love with him, and I bet no one there has ever forgotten it.

We were not expected to critique these stories – we were never asked to identify the genre, or discuss the foibles of the main character, or identify the metaphors being used in the passage we’d just been read. That particular ruination of stories lay in the future, at secondary school. We were just allowed to enjoy them, absorb them, be inspired by them – and slowly learn how stories worked and what they did by listening and reading.

Gradually, children, as they read more, as teachers gently pointed out the need for full stops and capital letters, and encouraged correct spelling, produced more coherent, grammatical sentences, more sophisticated descriptions, richer vocabulary. But they did this at their own pace, in relation to the kinds of books they were reading, and as their own story dictated. My best friend and I went through an intensely poetical phase in the third year of junior school in which our writing was essentially nothing but strings of adjectives, each of us out-doing the other in flights of fancy (‘the white, pale, glittering diamond snow drifts gently, mounds of sparkling coldness heaped in silvery piles’…) 

My teacher was always nice about them. She was still nice when I became obsessed with Biggles, and everyone in my stories started ‘observing wryly’ or ‘laughing carelessly’ instead of ‘saying’ anything. She let me develop a writing style at my own pace, and in relation to what I wanted to say, and just enjoyed the roller-coaster ride – and as a result what I never, ever felt was judged against any kind of externally imposed standard. We were praised for the creativity we showed, for making the teacher laugh, for the ideas in our stories. We weren't told that our story had achieved a level 4A or 3B, and what we needed to do to get the next highest level was use more 'interesting words' and include several similes. At eleven I wouldn't have recognised a simile if it had come up and hit me on the head (and that's a personification of a simile, by the way, and so a kind of metaphor, as most eleven-year-olds would now be expected to tell you...) But I'm sure I used them, all the time - not consciously, to impress examiners, but joyously, because they enabled me to describe what I had in my head in exactly the right way.

What has happened in the intervening years is a kind of madness sparked off by an increasing tendency for the bureaucratic state to value surveillance over trust. Instead of assuming that professionals could be trusted,  the state started to ask for evidence that its practitioners were providing 'value for money' and the only evidence that seemed to 'count' was numbers. In education, this meant the National Curriculum, imposed standards, testing, and league tables. I have watched my children go through the primary system, one after the other, and for a while I trained to become a primary teacher myself. I now go into schools as an author. All those experiences have left me increasingly sad and angry at the effect that these changes have had on children's relationship to literature and writing.

To take writing. In the attempt to codify and externalise the standards that children could be judged by, academics and policy-makers took the processes that happen as children develop their writing skills (development of wider vocabulary, greater use of figurative language, more accurate grammar, better spelling) and made them explicit teaching goals which were then  tested. Inevitably, with schools and children then judged by these tests/standards, teachers were forced to make explicit to their pupils the grounds on which they had succeeded or 'failed' to reach certain levels; to drill them in the 'right' techniques to do well in the tests. This is even considered by Ofsted to be good teaching practice - woe betide a teacher who doesn't put the 'learning goal' clearly on the board for each lesson, or whose pupils don't know exactly what level they are working at and how to get to the next rung of the ladder.

The example that really brought this process home to me happened when I was visiting a year 6 class in a small village primary in Devon a few months ago. Talking about the characters in my book, Frogspell, I read out a description of Sir Bertram Pendragon, 'a gruff, burly knight with a deep voice and a large moustache' who also happens to enjoy whacking his enemies with his 'big sword'. 'Can I just stop you there?' said the teacher. 'The word "big" is one of the banned words in our classroom. What do you think of that?'

I was temporarily speechless. I recovered enough to make it quite clear that I didn't think any word should be banned, and that sometimes 'big' was exactly the right word for the job you wanted it to do, but it made me think anew about the results of a testing regime that gives higher marks to the use of more complex vocabulary. The inevitable end point is that children are told not to use the word 'big' if they can possibly shoehorn in 'enormous', 'gigantic', extraordinarily excessive' or 'mountainous'.

The result is that writing, for children in primary schools - especially at the upper levels - is now a very much more conscious activity. Their heads are full of instructions: use 'interesting' words; use similes and metaphors and personification; use commas and semi-colons if you can; never, ever use the word 'big'. That they manage to find any joy at all in writing in the face of these multiple goals to aspire to and pitfalls to be avoided is a tribute to their irrepressible creativity and passion.

I recently read a lovely piece about writing by a fellow social anthropologist, Tim Ingold.
The full text is here: http://www.dur.ac.uk/writingacrossboundaries/writingonwriting/timingold/

Ingold bemoans the universal use of the computer for university students' essays, and writes about how he encourages his students to put pen to paper, and feel the flow of writing as a flow, from brain to hand. Writing is not a technical fitting together of ready made bits and pieces in a way that will gain approval from an examiner/teacher, it is a craft. It's more akin to carving a knotted piece of wood than putting together an IKEA flatpack. Ingold likens it to hunting - you don't go from A to B in a straight line: 'To hunt you have to be alert for clues and ready to follow trails wherever they may lead. Thoughtful writers need to be good hunters.'

Introduce the computer, and its associated cut-and-paste techniques, Ingold argues, and immediately 'students are introduced to the idea that academic writing is a game whose primary object is to generate novelty through the juxtaposition and recombination of materials from prescribed sources'. This is word-processing rather than writing, and, as he says, it 'is a travesty of the writer's craft.'

The National Curriculum, and SAT tests, seem to me to have done the same thing to primary children's writing. They are being taught that writing is a process of exemplifying one's mastery of certain 'techniques', juggling and fitting together approved words and phrases like a puzzle (like a pre-designed Lego set). That we are teaching youngsters at this boundlessly creative age that writing is a kind of engineering makes me want to weep.

Of course, there are still many, many great teachers out there, who inspire and encourage their pupils, and read to them, just as I was encouraged, inspired and read to. But they do it not against a background where their judgement is key, but against one where they themselves are judged and tested, and often found wanting. Gove's 'reforms' look set to exacerbate this problem, and increase the number of demoralised teachers found wanting because they haven't drilled their pupils sufficiently in the recognition of gerunds and participles, or made it sufficiently clear that 'big' is a banned word.

I'd like to end with a suggestion. There' a great scheme out there, called Patrons of Reading. The website is here:
The idea is that a local author links with a primary school and makes a relationship with them over a year, encouraging reading, encouraging writing, and generally being a kind of 'reading mascot'. I think it's a brilliant way to bring the experience of real writers into schools in a more long-term way than  just a single 'author visit'. I'm currently touting my services to my local primaries. And maybe if it takes off, there'll be a few more people out there giving children permission to use the word 'big', if the word big fits the bill.

Cecilia Busby was trained as a social anthropologist; she now writes for children as C.J. Busby.

http://www.frogspell.co.uk/ ("Great fun!" - Diana Wynne Jones; "packed with humour" - The Bookseller)

Twitter: https://twitter.com/ceciliabusby

Facebook: https://www.facebook.com/pages/CJBusby/509258069106074?ref=hl

Thanks to Joan Lennon for letting me take her ABBA slot for my musings!


sensibilia said...

A very interesting post. Do you not feel, though, that, increasingly, children's books are also written to a formula? There is a lack of feeling in many of the books I sample. Instead, there is a focus on a forced story arc following a prescribed pattern, interspersed with hysterically over-the-top adjectives and actions, plus vampires, aliens, pirates etc .

Karen Langtree said...

Cecily, I wholeheartedly agree with this blog post. I used to be a primary school teacher and am now an author too. The joy of stories has been stolen and children, in upper key stage two especially, are being brow beaten with formulas and the need to analyse a text as we might have done at O level. I despair. Another banned word of course is 'said.' And yet as authors we know that too many flowery alternatives can interrupt the flow for the reader. Thanks for expressing this so well Cecily. I love your idea of authors working with a primary school more intensly than just one visit. I too do author visits. I love just injecting the fun and creativity back into the process. My website is www.karenlangtree.com

Elen C said...

As devil's advocate for a moment, can I suggest that while free-form teaching is great for children who already have aptitude for writing, for others, who perhaps are better at maths, or the sciences, codification of learning helps?
I also think that we are now so much better at spotting and intervening when children are having difficulties - special educational needs teaching was non-existant outside special schools when I was in primary. Having expectations of achievement is key to spotting struggling students, no?

Elen C said...

p.s. genuine questions, not necessarily a declaration of beliefs - I have little contact with schools outside of visits.

Sue Purkiss said...

I agree with a great deal of what you say, Celia, but I also think Elen has a point - I certainly think it's true that teachers have much more sensitive antennae now when it comes to special needs. But there's nothing like that hush that comes when a class is engrossed in a story, and from what I gather, the space for that has certainly lessened - especially in secondary schools.

Sue Bursztynski said...

I see Elen's point - we have to look after ALL students, not just those who can handle it - but oh, this sounds so familiar! We're just going to a national curriculum here and we have to go through all those things on the list and at my school, we've been ordered to write a "learning intention" on the board at the start of the lesson. I'm working in the secondary system.

That said, it doesn't all go on the report and we don't use idiotic words like "pedagogy" to the kids. I don't mind dying, "Today we're gong to..." and, where time, asking individual kids,"What's one thing you learned okay?"

C.J.Busby said...

Thanks for all your comments - I agree, there are certainly some things teachers do focus on better now, and it's true that often a 'scaffold' (to use the teaching term!) for children that are struggling to see what they need to do, is really helpful. I also think some teachers work brilliantly around the National Curriculum. But it's too easy for a head in a school where they want to get good league-table results to put pressure on teachers to just make sure the kids tick as many of the boxes as possible, rather than learn to enjoy books and writing....

C.J.Busby said...

Also, to pick up on Sensibilia's point - I agree there are some terribly formulaic shouty vampire and goo/snot/burp books out there! My daughter hates them, but a lot of kids do seem to like them...

Jon Biddle said...
This comment has been removed by the author.
Jon Biddle said...

Absolutely! Most of the joy has been taken away from writing as the kids are never able to build up any momentum. They have to stop every five minutes to look at their VCOP chart (vocabulary, connectives, openers, punctuation), self-assess against a 'key features' checklist, highlight parts they are most proud of, uplevel a friend's writing, contribute to a mini-plenary, etc. It's extremely regulated and very frustrating for teachers because 'that's what Ofsted are looking for'.

Anonymous said...

This just hits the spot in summing up primary schools really. As a headteacher it is increasingly difficult to 'steer your ship' through the increasingly prescriptive 'waters' of literacy especially when schools are intense pressure to achieve results. Many of the reasons behind why we went into teaching are being swallowed up into achieving the right DATA to be honest at the children's costs. Some of those structures to support less able writers do work actually but they need to be part of a much bigger culture of reading and writing for pleasure and ENJOYING STORIES and our imagination . The danger is when those 'formulae' on offer are delivered in isolation. What you say strikes a chord as I'm exploring a new venture to immerse children in stories and encouraging the schools I work in to read a book to their classes like I was lucky enough to enjoy when I was at school. In my last school we sat down for a story at 3 pm more or less every day-it was non negotiable!!! www.storyshack.org is for CHILDREN -young and old for all the reasons you have put so pertinently put.

Sarah Gallagher said...

PS I don't wish to be anonymous...I just couldn't work out how to be ME as Sarah Gallagher Iex headteacher and Story shack adventurer)