Friday, December 16, 2005

The neglected power of language


Why write?
Who cares

Teacher sharing student's writing. And in a room that celebrates student creativity Posted by Picasa

Until students realize that telling stories, and writing them out, is about power and personal identity, why should they bother? It is just too much like hard work!

As a result today too many students really like to write for writings sake. It is something they only do if the teachers ask (or really makes) them do. And I can’t blame them, as writing is at best, a laborious job - that is, unless you get something out of it. No wonder we have so many students who do poorly at reading and possibly worse at writing.

This is a shame because all students have countless stories to tell and love sharing them – that is until they realize that the teacher is not really interested. All too often writing is just a task given to students while others read. And, as a result, many students lose the opportunity to appreciate the power of their ‘voice’, and the importance of their own experience. As a result the stories they hold in their heads about themselves, that make them special, are lost.

When teachers really value the thoughts and feeling of young children they then unleash an amazing source of power. Such teachers teach students that their ideas ‘count’ and that they are unique.

And , as a result, students, who profess to be non writers, become ‘born again’ writers. And they are soon keen to learn, with a little help from a sensitive teacher, how to make their writing even more expressive.

For young children thoughts can be ‘scribed’ out for them by adults who need to do their best to capture the feelings the children are expressing. Often, with reluctant writers, a few guiding question help students develop more powerful ideas. With experience, they soon want to write their own stories by hand, or to use the word processor, and because it is their work, they learn to appreciate the need to sort out spelling and grammar. As a bonus their vocabulary expands tremendously as they learn to love the sound of words.

And, of course, they want to read their own writing to enjoy the attentiveness and appreciation of their peers. Sharing writing with parents makes it even more powerful and, if placed on the school website, it is available for everyone to read. At this point students also become aware of aesthetic design and see the need to include their very best hand drawn illustrations to make their writing even more impressive. They, with encouragement, will soon become connoisseurs of the illustrations in children’s books and school journals.

And as for reading, once they see their own lives celebrated, and see the connection between their writing and that of ‘real’ authors, reading is just something people do.

Now there is nothing new in all of this, but it is more than ‘whole language’, or ‘child centred learning’ – it is ‘personalized’ learning. Teachers are not ‘teaching’ reading, writing and spelling through ‘themes’ but are focused entirely on helping each learner to realize their potential as an authentic writer, reader – and proof reader.

As mentioned, there is nothing new in such personalized learning but with the current obsession with reading achievement it is time to reintroduce it again. The work of Elwyn Richardson and Sylvia Ashton Warner led the way in New Zealand in the 50s. Creative teachers have since continued their focus haven’t fallen into the trap of low level centres of interest, or teaching reading divorced from the need to write, or worse still phonics.

There are several articles on our site which elaborate the process.


Anonymous said...

Hi Bruce seems that you are having a big burst of writing. Our kids had two really significant teachers in primary school who were able to encourage our kids to write or publish as it was called. This enthusiasm for writng and reading has continued. they were bringing home up to 25 bboks from the library!We still look at some of the early efforts of their publishing which we have around and have great fun re-reading them. One of our kids had a teacher who counldn't teach like this. We got a message home to say she was concerned about our daughters inabilty to write imaginative stories. We found out that the teacher was askng the class to write a story that was "in their head" Our daughter had been reading goldilocks many times and so thought this was what was being asked for. Just shows how simple mistakes can impact on education!!

Anonymous said...

You are right. There are still many teachers that don't understand what learning is all about and the importance of the voice and identity of the learner. I have had many conversations with teachers who seem hung up on curriculum objectives and checklists without ever considering the essential purposes of writing, and learning for that matter.

Bruce said...

You are right 'anons'.I'm having a big burst on writing, or really the basis of education.

Is education about ensuring students learn what 'we' think they ought to know - giving teachers the impossibe problem of assessing and recording what each individual 'knows'; or is it, doing our best to help children make sense of their experiences.

If it is the latter, then the teachers role is one of taking advantage of what attracts students curiosity, or creating learning situations that challenge them. In this approach the assessment relates to the attitudes the students develop, and by what they can do, demonstrate, show, or perform. There is no need for all the current checklists which waste both teacher's and student's time.

It is far more important for students to do fewer things well and to continually aim for personal excellence. Quality of the experience and resulting expression rather than quantity of objectives covered.

And creative teaching, or what is currenty being called, 'personalized learning', is also more fun!

Tom said...

Hopefully the link above will take you to our class blog where we have been writing this year.

All writing has been own choice and participation in blogging has been optional this year.

One key aspect is about finding their own voice and another is audience. We have parents and other children reading these blogs.

We have had a real blast this year and I'll keep blogging from now on.

richnz said...

Hi Bruce
The rush for 'exemplars' has new/young teachers encouraged to rate writing based on all separate factors, but nothing about motivation and the desire to write... Its my view that there can be too much writing!! Or really writing when there is no clear purpose... Just another chore/story. All these children having to write a "story" every day (ready or not). Often the motivation is simply not there! Then you get the repetitive same old 'story'.
Best books on writing! Harry Hood Left to Write and Left to Write too..These are gems.
PS don't think your writing link from the blog is working

richnz said...
This comment has been removed by a blog administrator.
Bruce said...

You are right Rich - If there is no desire why bother. Doing things because you have to is a worry - unless it turns out worthwhile, then the learner will forgive you.

And you are also right about the use of exemplars - the focus should aways be on helping a learner express what he, or she, wants to say, and working from there.

Harry Hood is great - always a breathe of sensible fresh air in the confusing world of imposed ideas from educational contract workers!

The deleted comment above was a double up!

I think I fixed the link - poor spelling!

Anonymous said...

It would seem that there is a good case for teacher education in this area, or a good topic for a book. It seems that many teachers don't know what genuine quality is in children's writing. There should be nothing more embarassing to a teacher than children's writing that lacks sincerity.

Bruce said...

Teachers need to be educated to reflect what is the point of education - is it to turn out students with the necessary achievement levels to assist the economy - or is it to ensure all students leave with their talents developed and their 'voice ' intact?

Currently schools fail on both counts.