Tuesday, 29 July 2014

SCHOOL'S OUT! Or is it . . . ? by Anna Wilson

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.



Penny Dolan said...

Oh Anna! Yes, the heart sinks at this account - and probably, the boy being older, is also aware of the near impossibility of the task, which makes it all the more illogical an activity.

I had not heard of the quite good and useful "write for twenty minutes" idea being officially mis-used in this way but I am not surprised.

Joan Lennon said...

Oh dear ...

Susan Price said...

I remember English lessons being broken up. In some we had to study apostrophes and commas and all that. In other lessons, the teacher would say, 'Now I don't want you to bother about grammar and punctuation for today - just write a story however you like.'

That's the way to go, surely?

Katherine Langrish said...

Oh god, Anna, what a ghastly story. And how much better if the mother had just given the poor boy an exciting story to read. THAT way, he might, one day, be inspired to write one of his own.

Paeony Lewis said...

Good grief. I wonder how the children's teachers get on with this mum?
In schools I show children an initial VERY messy draft of a story and I explain that at this early stage I'm only interested in getting my first ideas down on paper.

Anonymous said...

Sounds like she may have been a teacher to me.

I'm a teacher with 17 years experience(currently in year 1) and I was recently told I had to be less creative and teach more spag (spelling grammar and punctuation).

I am currently plotting mys escape.

Heather Dyer said...

Yes! Teaching writing in primary schools (and secondary come to that) should be done the way we teach 'creative writing' - and the way writers actually work: free flow and creativity first and editing later. I know one deputy head who is trying to change things in her school, but this mother is describing exactly the way it's currently done in school.

Ann Turnbull said...

It's so awful when you see a child being bullied in this way and you can't intervene. I have never forgotten a time in the children's books area of a local library when I became aware of a boy of about ten who really wanted to take out a book he'd found. He was with his mother and an older man I assumed was his grandfather - a horrible bullying man who kept shouting at him that he couldn't have that book, he had to have something easier, one of these books for little kids; he couldn't read properly so it was no use taking that book out... etc. The mother was twittering ineffectively and clearly no match for the man, who just kept on about the boy not being able to read yet, and the boy just looked so crushed and hangdog. I just knew that if he could take out the book he was interested in, he would find a way to read it. He'll be long since grown-up. I often wonder how he got on.

A Wilson said...

Paeony, I too show messy drafts in school and explain that this is the only way I can write... Let's hope the message gets through!

Emma Barnes said...

I'm rather wickedly thinking that she's read the ALCS report on low writers' wages, and has decided that this is the best way to make sure her children DON'T become writers but something sensible and well paid instead!

I think Sue's absolutely right - English lessons need to be broken up into story writing and the nuts and bolts stuff. I'm guessing some teachers still do this. But it's very depressing when you look at a child's story and see "you could use a parachute clause here" written in the margin - reckon there's actually nothing more likely to ruin a good story. And it does amuse me to think how many great writers would have failed horribly according to these type of criteria.

Ann Turnbull said...

Good grief, what's a parachute clause? In fact, come to think of it, what's a wow word? And am I using enough of them in my writing? Oh dear...

C.J.Busby said...

Aaarghhh! How I hate the current teaching of English in primary schools - all of it! The writing but also the way they have to read - they are taught to look at setting and characters and context and blurbs and dialogue and all the things we used to leave till secondary school and apply to Jane Austen. The National Curriculum has made academic analysis explicit for younger and younger children and I think it's totally ruined reading for pleasure. And all this testing and emphasis on grades has created such anxiety among parents! I feel for this mother - so desperate to make sure her son does well for his sake, and yet contributing to making him feel inadequate... It's so sad.