In January I wrote about the joys of giving children notebooks and letting them run riot with their story ideas. Since then I have met many teachers and parents who have done just this. They have told me how wonderful it is to see this space being used. The freedom to write or draw whatever the child wants has fed into stories she or he has often then gone on to polish in class in structured writing time. (This has not, of course, always been a direct result of my post – many teachers and parents were already giving their children the chance to explore their writing in this way.)
I would not be blogging about this again, were it not for something I witnessed on a long train journey last week; something which had me thinking again about how constraining we can be in our approach to our children’s education and the damage that can be done when pleasure is forsaken in favour of ticking boxes and getting things ‘right’. And, perhaps more importantly, when this approach leaks into home life.
A mum got on the train with her two small daughters, whom I guessed to be about five and six, and her son, who, I thought, looked about eight. They settled into their seats and the mother brought out some pens and pencils, paper and notebooks.
The little girls immediately clamoured, ‘I want my notebook!’ ‘I am going to write you a story!’
How lovely! I thought. What a great way to spend a few hours on the train.
‘Yes,’ said the mother. ‘You each have twenty minutes to write a beautiful story, and then I will read it and check it. Now – remember I want to see “wow” words, good punctuation, proper spelling, neat handwriting and lots of interesting verbs and adjectives—’
The boy groaned loudly (or was it me?) and put his head in his hands. ‘I don’t WANT to write a story!’ he complained. ‘I don’t like writing stories and I am no good at them.’
His mother placated him with promises of chocolate biscuits if he would only ‘be good like the girls and write for twenty minutes without making a fuss’. His sisters were indeed already scribbling away and reading aloud what they had written, eager to share it with their mother. She praised them and told them to keep going for the full twenty minutes.
What is it with this twenty minutes thing? I thought. Maybe she is desperate for a bit of peace and quiet. Don’t judge! You were in this situation not so long ago yourself: long train journeys with young children are tiresome and they have to have things to do otherwise you go crazy and so do they.
The boy then handed over his story. His mother, glancing at it, said, ‘Well, that’s not very interesting, is it? You haven’t used good connectives, there are no “wow” words, your handwriting is messy and you just haven’t made an effort.’
Pretty harsh, I thought.
Then came the killer blow.
‘You really have got to start making an effort with your writing, you know,’ the mother went on. ‘Next year you will have to write for twenty minutes and put all these things into your stories. You have been on holiday for a week already and you have done no writing. You must promise you’ll concentrate on this for another twenty minutes, or you will be no good at this next year.’
I must confess that, at the time, I wanted to lean across and engage the boy in conversation. I wanted to ask him if he liked reading and, if so, what kind of stories did he like best? What about his favourite films? I wanted to get him chatting about his likes and dislikes and encourage him to scribble them down, to use this precious ‘writing time’ as a chance to let his brain go wild. I wanted to tell him that it was OK to do that, and that afterwards he could go back over his story and concentrate on the connectives and the punctuation and the neat handwriting. I wanted to say that all those things his mother was talking about were indeed important, but that perhaps the reason he hated writing so much was that he was struggling with remembering the rules; that if he could forget the rules to start with, he would then perhaps find he loved writing stories, and that he had piles and piles of them to tell. I might perhaps have added that, as a published writer, I would be paralysed if I had to write a clean first draft from the off which obeyed all the rules of Standard English . . .
Of course I didn’t. I did not want to upset his mother – after all, it was none of my business. In any case, on reflection, it was not her behaviour with her children that upset me the most, rather the fact that she clearly felt anxious that her son was not up to scratch with his English. Indeed, she was so anxious that he improve that she was insisting he work on it over the summer holidays, and work on it in the exact same way he is required to at school. She was armed to the hilt with educational jargon and was turning this terrifying arsenal on her weary son.
I was an editor before I was fortunate enough to develop my career as a writer. I know as well as anyone the importance of good grammar and correct punctuation. I appreciate clean, clear writing and a well-structured plot. I know good dialogue when I see it. My own children will roll their eyes and tell you that I am the first person to howl at the misuse of the apostrophe on a street sign or restaurant menu. Of course I can see why we have to teach these things and why parents should care about their children’s level of competence in English.
However, it makes me extremely upset that an obsession with such technicalities has the potential to wreck a child’s love of their own language. When you are as young as that little lad, creative writing should be fun, shouldn’t it? Leaving aside the dubious value in making your child work over the summer holidays in such a joyless way, I found it heartbreaking that the mother seemed not to see the potential for fun in giving her son a notebook and letting him run riot with his imagination before giving him guidance and advice on how to hone his ideas. Even more heartbreaking, though, was the thought of how anxious the woman seemed to feel about her son attaining certain targets in the academic year to come. She cannot be alone in feeling this.
I only hope that, come September, her son will find himself fortunate to have one of the many inspirational teachers we have in this country who are still in love enough with their subject to occasionally throw out the rulebook and teach from the heart instead.