Alan is a teacher who writes himself and runs a writing club outside school. When I visited him in his classroom on Monday 8th of October, he described to me, with some feeling, two formative incidents from his own ‘writing history’. When he was 9 years old, his teacher dismissed his story for its technical errors, ignoring the content. Five years later another teacher engaged with his ideas and offered, therefore, to help him master the technical errors which impeded them. That second teacher’s response transformed his writing progress – and these memories inform his current practice with young writers.
Now he is passionate about empowering all children as authors. He encourages his class to ‘free write’ every Friday in their own journals – sometimes in response to suggestions, sometimes taking a sideways or second look at earlier experience, sometimes entirely according to their own inclinations. Their journals are kept in the classroom and the children are free to access them whenever they wish. Their confidence is impressive: they speak seriously about writing, with pleasure and understanding.
Alan encourages the children to learn ‘from the inside out’ and to trust their own voices. Later in the process, in more instructional lessons on certain genres, when studying those facilitating structures, tropes, tenors and voices, the children recognise them - or the lack of them – not just from the teacher’s description, but by comparison to choices they made in their earlier writing. Having first experienced the need for these features, the children can now grasp them critically: they are already immersed in function. How much thinner, less creative and less inclusive learning is when the process is reversed - when these ‘devices’ are front-loaded and children are told to emulate and include them before their purposes have been felt and realised.
I spoke with five young writers from Alan's classes in years 4 and 5. They chose to read some of their writing to me. It revealed experimental, playful and shifting voices in narrative. A desire to write science fiction, for example, showed one boy’s interest in learning and wondering about the future. Another EAL writer had accommodated such expressions as 'many moons ago' in her personal writing - and was not afraid, when she stumbled over accidental repetitions, to identify her own 'mistakes'. From the affirmation they received from a teacher who wrote and shared alongside them, the children drew strength, much preferring their teacher’s constructive criticism to their parents’ blunt praise.
Their own reflections of what helped them develop writing confidence were instructive:
- Sit where you like (floor cushions are popular)
- Choose your own pens
- Have freedom to write what you want as you want
- Take time to write, develop and check
- Share your writing with a friend (but you don’t have to take their advice)
These young writers appreciated and valued the freedom to explore their ideas and they all seemed to be growing braver, stronger and more thoughtful. Those seem immeasurable gains - gains in confidence, resilience, collaboration, reflection. These resemble the qualities sought from education by Paul Drechsler, President of the CBI. His report calls for '... an education for developing thoughts, questions, creativity and team-working' -(read his report here). It's a vision somewhat beyond the test requirements of the DfE.
I asked Alan how he managed to balance teaching structures and conventions while at the same time preserving freedom and enthusiasm. His answer was simple: 'You have to be creative."
This wasn't a statement just about being tactical or pragmatic; this was about moral obligation, social responsibility and professionalism. We have to be creative, because all our futures depend on it.
NWP outreach director