Wednesday, 29 January 2014

Space to be Me - Anna Wilson

A couple of weeks ago, I was chatting with a friend about how to encourage children to write creatively. The topic came up because she was concerned that her seven-year-old son had been put off writing stories at school.

Her SEVEN-YEAR OLD son . . .

I was pretty horrified to hear her say this, not only because at the tender age of seven a child is coming home and declaring that “English is boring” and “I hate writing stories”, but also because I have known this child since he was a baby, and the minute he could string a couple of words together he was telling stories. He has the gift of the gab and a way with words that has always astonished me. At three years old he was already telling long and involved stories which kept me hanging on his every word, wondering what on earth he would come up with next, and making me laugh a lot along the way. So when I heard that this child no longer enjoyed storytelling, I had to ask why.

“He finds it paralyzing to have to remember where to put the finger spaces, full stops and commas,” my friend said. “And he hates the fact that joined-up writing is more highly prized than the content of the story he wants to tell. By the time he has struggled through following all the rules, he has forgotten what he wanted to write in the first place or has lost interest altogether.”

Of course he has!

“Take him to Paperchase, buy him a notebook of his choice and a really nice pen or pencil and tell him, ‘This is your own private writer’s book. It's your space to be you! You can write exactly what you like in it, draw pictures, whatever. I promise no one will correct your spelling or tell you to join up your handwriting or argue over commas. Just go for it.’ And tell him it's what I do and that I wish him good luck with his writing!”


A couple of days later I received the following email, which my friend has agreed I can share with you. I felt a little tearful when I read it.

“Just wanted to say that I gave both my sons a notebook, inspired by what you had said about writing. They both used to write lots of stories, but I realized that they hadn't for a while and that X in particular had been getting upset about how hard he found joined-up writing. When I said to him that he could write whatever he wanted in it, and he didn't have to write neatly or properly he literally danced round the room! He did his disco moves in excitement! That night he wrote two stories, one entitled "My Mum is growing..... round the middle", about a Mum who got too fat (she got obsessed with special offers) and exploded in the Prime Minister's house. The other was about an alien who visited two boys in class to help them with their hard Maths questions, then they let him stay and took him round school. It was quite a revelation, so thanks for the lovely idea. You are now a superhero in the eyes of my 7-year-old nutter!!”

When I asked if I could use this email as the basis for my next blog post, my friend replied:

“Quote away! I have never seen a little boy so chuffed! He did a new disco move as he said "no capital letters" one disco move, "no joined up writing" another disco move "no full stops" another disco move, it was hilarious! Apparently finger spaces are worth having though. He was so excited he told his dad all about it when he got home, saying, ‘It's amazing Daddy! I can write what I like and it doesn't matter if it's messy etc.’ Thanks for inspiring me!”

I feel as though these emails should be included in a manifesto of some kind . . .

Hurrah for notebooks and the space to be me! (And as for that story about the Mum who was obsessed with special offers, I might just ask if I can "borrow" that . . . )


Find me on the web at http://www.annawilson.co.uk

17 comments:

Heather Dyer said...

Lovely. And sad, too.

Pippa Goodhart said...

Wonderful that such a simple idea can work as the anti-dote to the writing correctly poison! Well done, you!

Stroppy Author said...

Wonderful. But terrible that we have to unpick the damage schools do to children

Joan Lennon said...

You ARE a superhero!

Anonymous said...

I too know an able six year old who decided the same. It must be a sad and a common story, given the way that writing in schools has to meet fixed and easily marked targets.

But st least this one does have a happy end. Hooray for the inspiration of your advice, Anna, and for theirs. Exploding mums?

Penny Dolan said...

ps. Not anonymous. Just cross with the way that Google grabs everything.
Penny

John Dougherty said...

Well done, Anna, and thanks for sharing this. That's a genius solution to an all-too-common - yet entirely unnecessary - problem.

I'm constantly angered by the way that people who understand very little about children (and about how they learn) damage them with the imposition of rigid and unhelpful rules.

"he hates the fact that joined-up writing is more highly prized than the content of the story he wants to tell"

This is it exactly, isn't it? The medium becomes more important than what it contains; the measurement is prized over what is being measured. Aaargh!

Sue Purkiss said...

Brilliant - but just to say that many teachers hate having to insist on all this just as much as you do - they don't have a choice. I've come across an awful lot of really enthusiastic and creative primary school teachers who work their socks off - they are not the villains here.

John Dougherty said...

I agree with you completely, Sue - and for a bit more clarity, my reference to "people who understand very little about children" wasn't a reference to teachers!

A Wilson said...

I agree with Sue too! My beef is not with the teachers at all, more that they have these restrictions and many others imposed upon them. One teacher I know said that she went into school and suggested they use this idea in the classroom and was told "we don't have time for that". Another told me that she let her class have ideas books and one child came back with a letter from home saying "why haven't you corrected my child's mistakes?" !! So you win some, you lose some… But we can still try.

A Wilson said...

Thank you, everyone, for your comments!

Nick Green said...

He sounds eerily similar to my eldest, who's 8. And the interesting thing is that my son's writing actually gets neater and neater the more he writes his own stories at home. Yet in homework he often struggles to force out a single sentence.

Fleur Hitchcock said...

Yay Anna, all we can hope to do as writers is bring the joy of writing back into the classroom. Poor teachers, I don't think they like having this effect, and I don't blame them, but fingers up to a system that destroys rather than encourages.

Emma Barnes said...

I'm with you. Though there are also children who struggle with an empty page, and need to know exactly what they have to do. It can be tricky to keep both groups happy.

C.J.Busby said...

Lovely post - and the stories sound amazing! My daughter's teacher recently went on a course and came back inspired by the idea that children should have more say in what they write rather than writing to a whole class 'plan' as so many schools do now - and the relief from the children! They were so excited - 'you mean we can write whatever we like?!' They got one instruction (it has a monster in it) and then they were let off the leash. She is enjoying writing so much more now.

Kate said...

My mother used to be a primary school teacher (retired 17 years ago) and she had two types of English lesson - one where spelling and grammar took priority and one for creative writing, where the story mattered more! More freedom in those days to teach ...
My own two teenagers have been frozen up at school by the endless requirement to Plan before daring to put pen to paper. Thankfully they come home and write. My daughter said to me cheerfully only last night, 'I have lots of beginnings but not many endings because when I get an idea, I just write it down!'

caroljchristie said...

I think we are luckier in Scotland as teachers are not so restrained by the curriculum, but I have shared this post with my fellow student primary school teachers as a cautionary tale. As a writer, going into schools my slogan is "let your imagination soar" - as a prospective teacher, I think this is a good starting point for a learning intention for a creative writing lesson. Turning off your internal critic to write creatively is hard enough without worrying that your teacher is going to be picking you up on every point of punctuation.