When I was an English teacher, I struggled to get my learners writing. They would all groan when I set an essay – “How many words, Miss?” “Is it ‘for marks’”? And I would see them later counting words, trying to add more to get to the required amount. Then when they got their essays back they would only have eyes for the marks, and be either delighted or disappointed. If I had corrected their mistakes, they would wince at all the red pen. I don’t think they looked to see where they had gone wrong.
Is this really what writing is about?
Out in the ‘real’ world, writing is about meaning and communication. About sharing ideas, or creating stories. About sharing what’s in our hearts and minds. So how can you bring that into the classroom, where writing has turned into a chore and a test?
One of the small ways I discovered was just choosing the right topic for learners to write about. ‘My holiday’ held little interest. But when I asked them about their neighbours, or about their attitude to language, then suddenly they would get carried away by their stories and ideas, and have things that they wanted to say. Everyone had a funny story about a neighbour, or an anecdote about how people used language in different situations.
And that is another thing – I always got the best writing if we had all discussed something first. I used to be worried that learners would ‘steal’ each other’s ideas if they talked before starting on writing. I later realised that was a ridiculous attitude. For when we talk, we learn from each other, and develop our own ideas even more fully, based on our own unique experiences.
Alongside this is the importance of linking reading to writing. Often examples of good writing are excellent ways of stimulating learners. How will learners know what good writing is if they never read it? We are not born knowing what an essay looks like, or how to write a CV – or how to write a good story. So why do we expect our learners to be able to do write these if they have never read any? The more different good examples they get to read, and think about, the more they will be able to draw on when it comes to their own writing. Again, this was something I learnt. There was an example of an essay in a textbook – Religion and me. I asked the learners to write their own, and here too I was concerned that the example would limit them as they followed the structure of the original. But actually, I got some of their best work, as it gave them ideas rather than constrained them.
As I was an aspiring writer myself, I started reading other writers to notice the techniques they used. I tried to encourage my learners to ‘read like a writer’ and get ideas for ways to start a story, or to describe a character, or present an idea. They liked the idea too that they were apprentice writers, learning from the experts.
In the ‘real’ world writers also need to plan their work carefully. I tried hard to help my learners with this. I wanted to change their attitude, so that they saw my comments and corrections as helpful suggestions, not as marking something ‘wrong’. Eventually I replaced my red pen with a green one, and also tried to have short meetings with learners about their essays to suggest ways they could improve their work.
I was lucky – I did not have big classes. For teachers with classes of 50 or more, that is impossible. But not everything learners write has to be read by a teacher. Freewriting can be a useful technique in the classroom, and I was sorry I only discovered the end of my teaching years. The learners would first groan at having to write non-stop, but for the first time they were freed from judging their work themselves, or feeling that it would be judged. Many learners loved it, and the more they did it, the more comfortable the process became. And it was easy to do because I would not have to mark it. Learners loved having their special journals to write in.
It was also only towards the end of my time in the classroom that I was introduced to an approach to writing by an American colleague, the Writing Workshop, where a whole two weeks or so is all about producing a text step by step. Together the learners discuss, comment and support each other’s work. At the end of the two weeks teachers and parents were invited in to read the finished stories about family that were beautifully exhibited in the classroom. So writing was taught as a careful process, with collaboration and sharing, and with the final product being read by many. This felt like a lovely way to make writing ‘more real’ in the classroom, with the focus being on the final product being shared and enjoyed, not marked and filed away. It effectively brought together all the things that I had tried to do in my own classroom.
Now I work at FunDza, and it is a great joy never to have to ‘mark’ readers’ work, but just help to edit it lightly so it is the best it can be. It is also fulfilling to see people enjoying each other’s work as they can read it on this mobi site, and get to an audience far wider than even their classmates. The FunDza platform is truly about writing for meaning, and celebrating all of our voices. I wish there had been a platform like FunDza for my learners when I was a teacher!