Friday, 31 January 2014


I loved Anna Wilson’s recent post about the six year old boy bored by writing at his school. One he and his brother were, at home, given their own special notebooks for stories, they filled the paper.

I repeat, paper.

Often I come across paperless schools, places where a visiting writer’s request for a flip chart seems as incomprehensible as a request for a chisel and a tablet of rock.

If you want me to work on writing with children, I’m likely to need a flip-chart. I need it to collect ideas, to help to model the writing of a story together, to show the children how I - and they - can work.

Admittedly, writing in primary schools right now worries me. There's excellent stuff in all the technology, but occasional glimpses into KS2 literacy books still reminds me of the worksheets of olden times. What was useful about worksheets? They presented a specific, restricted learning task. They came in a set format. They were easy to mark – marking and measuring is SO important now! - and they took away the need for too much of that handwriting. 

However, back then, schoolchildren did have other opportunities to write, to explore, to try things out. Even the chance to draw and paint on paper. Do they have such paper space now?

I must say that, to this particular observer, the children’s experience of writing seems heavily structured and slightly joyless. The writing curriculum includes diaries, letters, reports, accounts, chronological and non-chronological writing and more. Fictitious letters to local mayors or suggestions to head teachers seem to frequent favourites. (One local school did address a real issue by writing to ask for Richard III’s body to be re-buried in York, but I’m not convinced it was that strong an issue for the children in question.)

Young children do  – oh, delight! –  encounter story writing, or genre specific writing, to be exact. During one half-term a year – yes, year – they are taught how to write a Myth or Legend, or a Quest story or an Adventure. Wow! An allowance of ONE WHOLE STORY a year, broken up into weekly tasks! Expression aplenty for the modern child, especially between the ages of seven and eleven, surely! Or possibly not?

I often wonder if the need for handwriting – and the need to write? – has been damaged by the wretched interactive whiteboard. 

The screen can be excellent – when it works - for downloading ready-prepared presentations and documents, for showing diagrams and text that can be circled or crossed out, for drawing lines from Thing A to Thing B, as well as for showing extracts of books and accompanying video clips, of course.  

(A reading of a whole book in class? Heaven forfend!)    

True, the set of the four inspiring “pens” - black, blue, red and green – lets you make marks but what you can’t do easily on such whiteboards is to  model writing properly. For a start, you can’t rest the side of your hand on the surface as you write. One touch messes up the system. Even the most fluent writers need to rest their hand at times, especially while thinking. These devices aren’t made for the loose collecting of ideas, or drafting a story together, or even writing on at any speed. (Write too much and the writing pages will probably need to be reset.)

Apologies if I seem to be ranting. I feel like ranting!  Having just done a month of “morning pages” as a way of kick-starting my own writing, I’m very sensitive about the need for pen and paper – or, at the very least, the option of paper and pen - to start the writer's voice speaking. 

Others may feel about these amazing screens differently - and if so, do let me know - but for now, you paperless places, I’m not sure whiteboards do good service to writing. 

And yes, I do work on a computer and use the internet and so on, but I'd never, ever want to be without the space of paper to write on.

Penny Dolan 

Finally, another person's thoughts about handwriting. Thank you, Michael Sull.


adele said...

A really wonderful post! Much needed. Bring back paper and real writing by hand necessary!

adele said...

A really wonderful post! Much needed. Bring back paper and real writing by hand necessary!

Sue Bursztynski said...

I carry pen and paper everywhere with me and when I've spoke to kids who wanted ideas about how to become a writer, I've held up pen and paper and said, "You'll need one of these and one of these." So I know where you're coming from.

But the world has changed since we were all at school. And in many ways it has changed for the better. When I was at school, you were marked for the neatness of your handwriting. Mine was, always has been, messy, so I'd have 99% for English, 4 out of 10 for my exercise book.(Only yesterday a child saw my heading on the whiteboard and pityingly wrote it himself in a much neater hand than mine, rubbing mine out!) It desn't matter if it's just for yourself, but when you're writing for the teacher or others, it can be embarrassing. And embarrassed students tend to avoid it. That's been my experience, even when I told the kids I didn't care about their handwriting as long as the work was clean and not squashed.

At least it's possible to edit on a computer. I have taken to carrying my iPad everywhere as I used to carry a notebook.

I know of those whiteboard programs you mention. They're limited, yes. But there are many other uses for the IWB. Next week, I'm going to use the one in my library to show the class some primary sources(don't ask!Curriculum) about Vikings. A quote from Ibn Fadlan about how filthy they were, then a picture of Viking grooming tools such as combs found on digs, showing that they did at least comb their hair, and ask their opinion. I could, of course, do it all on paper, which they will lose, and wipe out some more trees. But this is better for class discussion.

I will show them a very good BBC schools history game, inviting them to plan a Viking raid(I did that last week and got into huge trouble with my lord for stuffing it up!)

I use it to teach research skills, from how to use the library catalogue to useful web sites.

Not much to do with writing there, true. But there are ways to do that too, unless it's about handwriting.

And you should remember that teachers are presented with a curriculum, based on whatever the current government thnks will get it votes, and have to make the best of it. Out current Tory government wants to rewrite the history syllabus to include more conservative politicians! The last conservative PM wanted to get rid of the "black armband view of history." No point in blaming schools or teachers for this.

I've had writer guest speakers who all, without exception, wanted access to an IWB. They can show a large group of children what they want all at once.
Of course, a workshop is different. I haven't had the money to fund writer workshops, but I assume you would ask for simple pen and paper for those. :)

Sue Purkiss said...

Much to think about here. Thanks, Penny.

Penny Dolan said...

Due, thanks for your reply and for your full account of what you use your whiteboard for. I've often wished for a day or more in a school where I could just sit back and watch the teachers using the whiteboard for the many things it is wonderful for. Including the impressive powerpoint shows that authors create.

I do know the past wasn't perfect, and that many good things are made possible in classrooms and at home through IT and the internet.

I do understand about the curriculum rules teachers are obliged to live under. As an ex-primary teacher, I have sympathy with teachers and with the children.

Believe me, Sue, this post would have been far, far longer if I'd allowed myself to rant in full about all the things that worry me about the way that education is made to work today.

However, I do still feel that there is something about the physical act of writing by hand that is good for developing the writer's sense of their own voice - of them speaking - and a sense of the "making" of writing, even though word-processing is used later. Paper should not be un available. (In fact, I often take my own roll of flipchart paper, just in case.)

When I searched for images for this post, not one of the photographs showed a whiteboard used for creating WRITING. So is personal expressive writing or writing of any length assumed to be dead by now? (Sorry, Sue, this isn't meant as me attacking you and what you do.)

Just as confusingly,I see classes sitting at banks of computers but rarely see of them busy with programmes that will teach them the ease and fluency in word-processing they need if handwriting is no longer needed.
(And why were the children so worried about that not-neat heading? Was it wrong?)

Yes, it's all a puzzle - but one that worrries me.

Penny Dolan said...

ps. Yes, I meant SUE back there, not Due!

Thanks, Sue P and Adele.

Andrew said...

I still have my copy of 'The Artists Way' , from about 10 years ago. When I worked through it, the morning pages.., I realised that often the benefit initially hoped to be gained is not actually where the book, and your exercises actually take you.

Feeling angry? Good. It's working.

Penny Dolan said...

Andrew, today's post was very much a choice between this rant and musings on my own "3 pages a day" experiment. (I was in a state when any benefit would have been good, but the fact that I can write about being angry IS probably one of the effects.) I'll write about my green ink experience in a future post.

Dianne Hofmeyr said...

A wonderful post to start off the month! Thank you Penny.

Do any of you have difficulty signing your name? I'm convince its got nothing to do with old age but everything to do a lack of fluidity through not writing regularly. That touch of the pencil or pen flowing against the paper. We've forgotten how to write.

Oddly even though I write novels digitally, I never start a picture book story on my laptop... it has to be with pencil and paper. And even with novels when I'm stuck, out comes the paper and pencil again. Perhaps its because I grew up drawing. And drawing is just another way of telling a story.

Sue Bursztynski said...

I don't have trouble signing my name, Dianne, but it's never exactly the same, which causes the occasional trouble with official documents. :)

I think it's wonderful if a child can carry around a notebook and use it to write fiction or anything else they like. You can still buy diaries with little padlocks, so there must be children using them, though my own diary was an exercise book my mother prepared for me with pretty wrapping paper as a cover.

I just don't think it matters if handwriting is nice, as long as it's readable. Unfortunately, children can be self conscious about their handwriting and simply refuse to hand in work at all. It's great, though, that now you can just use it as first draft and type. In my first year as a teacher, I had a young man in my class with a medical condition that made his hands swollen so he could barely hold a large pencil let alone a pen. He took typing as a subject the next year, but if this had been now, he could have used the computer to type his work, making his life a lot easier.

I just can't feel sentimental about handwriting, sorry! :) Maybe it's because mine is not very good and teachers tend to be expected to have neat writing. We did once have a handwriting unit in our literacy classes and one boy in the class wrote ten times better than me and I was supposed to be teaching HIM how to do it?

I have no idea why the student wrote on the board, apart from his writing being better than mine, I don't know the class well as yet. I may let him do some of it for me in future to make him feel good. ;-)

Farah Mendlesohn said...

This is a nice post but really doesn't reflect the paper issue in the past.

My grandma learned on slates.
My mother had to buy her own notebooks.
I had books given to me in primary school but they were carefully guarded by the monitor and the notebooks checked to be sure you had actually filled one before another was given out. In secondary school we were expected to provide our own.

Paper has never been cheap. Teachers and schools account for every page.

On a slightly different note and a response to a comment you made: I am delighted that you enjoy writing by hand. But when you write "something about the physical act of writing by hand that is good for developing the writer's sense of their own voice" you join the legion of people who made my writing life a misery and hampered my enjoyment. I can't write well you see. One (lovely) teacher said my pages looked like a drunken spider had wandered its way home. A nastier teacher took a mark off every time I changed style. That it always hurt my hand to write was part of it, some of it was mild dyslexia (diagnosed only once I typed and bad writing wasn't concealing it).

In 1986 I was introduced to a computer and the keyboard was a liberation (and it is the keyboard, I'd rather use a manual than a pen). Words flowed.

There really is no right or wrong: everyone should be able to use a pen, but that doesn't mean it will be lovely for everyone.