Over summer I read this blog by the very talented Chris Curtis. I magpie a lot of ideas from a lot of blogs, but this one has had the biggest impact on my department. I promised Chris I’d let him know how my little project went so that’s what this blog is all about.
Teaching writing is hard. Most English teachers are guilty of reducing writing to a clever mnemonic or a tick list of features to include. We all know that good writers are readers, but for those kids who don’t read, or don’t read enough, this tick list approach has been our life-raft for creating adequate writing, but nothing more.
I have taught persuasive writing for the past 9 years using that awful AFOREST approach. I’ve told countless students to start with a rhetorical question. And end with one too! I’ve shared excellent pieces of persuasive non fiction with classes and then reduced it down to “highlight the persuasive techniques everyone” often not stopping to discuss the real impact of the writing. Why? Because I know no other way. Most of us know no other way.
My young nieces and nephews all enjoy writing. I remember being stuck in dire M6 traffic with two of them and knew they were getting bored. Fortunately, being a teacher, I’m never far from a notepad and pen and within minutes they were busy writing stories about fantasy worlds and talking cats. Not once did they complain that their hands hurt, or that they didn’t know how to start, or asked whether this was being levelled. They wrote for a good half an hour and took great pleasure in reading to me afterwards.
I sat wondering why I couldn’t make this happen at school? Did my nieces come from a home of writers and prolific readers? Not really. Was it because my students were older? Maybe… but I wasn’t convinced. It lay in how I’d set the challenge. My nieces got to choose what they were writing. There was no assessment. No expectation other than to please themselves and, to a lesser extent me.
It would be wonderful if we could harness pupils’ early enjoyment of writing and reading throughout high school and into their later lives (I know that not all children do enjoy these activities but I’m starting from the perhaps naïve assumption that they don’t all hate it at first). Sometimes a piece of work will have to be assessed. Sometimes they won’t get a choice of topic and will have to answer a dry exam question. But… but. That’s only sometimes. We’ve let this occasional need to assess and limit their writing bleed into our daily teaching practise. My challenge was to change this.
After reading Chris’s blog I decided to pitch the idea of Writing Workshops to the English department. This was my first year as HoD and I didn’t want to make too many dramatic changes, but I hoped I could get people on board with this. Like all changes, I knew I’d have to have a clear idea of the challenges and questions the team would ask.
The Writing Workshop lesson would be once a week, where pupils would be given a writing prompt and then they would write. That’s it. Write, all lesson. The teacher would lead some class discussion to start with, share some ideas etc. But then they just write. The teacher will have time to move around the room live marking and giving instant feedback.
We needed to begin from a new starting point and rearrange our expectations. Children know how to persuade and argue. Ask your class to tell you why they should be allowed first into lunch next week. You will see an impressive range of persuasive skills on show. They know how to explain and inform. Listen to them helping a friend with their homework. They know how to describe, how to explain, how to make something dramatic, emotive, funny – they are experts at funny!
The challenge from my team was not about lots of extra marking, as I’d expected. The concerns were mostly that, given this new approach, I had made the gamble to remove all ‘writing units of work’ from our remodelled curriculum. I’ve put that statement into inverted commas because, as far as I’m concerned, all units of work in English are writing units. I’m fed up of spending 6 weeks on teaching the nuances of gothic writing to a Y8 class, only for them to produce a mediocre piece of horror writing which strongly resembles the plot of The Conjuring at the end of it. People were understandably unsure about how we would teach writing without a 6 week scheme of work to back it up. I asked them to trust the pupils and trust themselves, the feedback they give and the skills they can share.
The Story So Far
I’m very lucky to lead an enthusiastic team of talented English teachers who all want opportunities to add more to the school and show off their skills. In this instance I was pleased when one of the team approached me asking if she could lead on the Writing Workshops. She wanted to put together a schedule of topics to be covered – she rightly felt it made sense to have a focus each half term and she wanted to put together a bank of writing prompts for everyone to use. If this was going to be long term, it needed organising so that classes don’t repeat all the same tasks next year. I was more than happy to let her take this on.
Once the lessons began we faced a couple of teething problems, namely the Writing Workshops not happening! People felt the lessons could be expendable if a little extra time was needed on the Animal Farm unit or or if a lesson was missed because of Eid. Cue a department meeting agenda item – Writing Workshops are not an add on, they are as important as our units of work.
The second issue was just breaking old habits. When you’re used to teaching writing through a breakdown of a persuasive text, followed by a card sort, followed by highlighting techniques, it’s hard to do something different. Especially when that new something requires you to leave the pupils to their own devices for most of the lesson. No one likes to feel redundant and some of us like the sound of our own voices a little too much (me included, I think I’m hilarious!).
After a few more feedback sessions in department meetings to iron out these issues, and getting people to share great examples to prove it can be done, we seem to be on the right track. The whole project might die on its proverbial backside before the year is out, and I’ve no solid data yet to prove it’s making a significant difference to pupil progress. But its early days and I’m optimistic, as are my department. That’s half the battle.