Saturday, 13 May 2017

Being A Writing Teacher: 6 Reasons Why Teachers Should Write


"No one would say 'I can't read', so why do people say 'I can't do maths'?" We've probably all heard that frustration expressed before, and it's a point worth making. But, where primary school teachers are concerned, it doesn't make a difference if they say they can't, they have to anyway. As in, they will teach concepts by modelling them and will solve problems at least in order to work out what the right answers are. They can do maths despite what they say.

But this isn't about maths. This is about writing. And what you will never hear is 'I can't write.' And that's not because they can write and they do write. It's because they think they can't write, know they don't write, and are perhaps are bit ashamed of that. And I'm not even talking about writing for pleasure in their own time, I'm talking about modelling writing in the classroom. I know that there are teachers out there who will avoid writing if they can help it.

It's understandable - good writers are revered, and rightly so. Writing has become the preserve of a select few - those who have truly mastered our language and appear to effortlessly produce flowing prose. Writing isn't for everyone... except for every single child in the education system! We expect them to write, yet many of us teachers have opted out of being writers, having done our time during our own schooling. 

I've said before that teachers should all be readers and actually that's an easy pill to swallow compared to this: all teachers should be writers. Primary teachers should at least be able to write at the level expected of the most able writers in the school. This of course means that secondary teachers should be even more proficient.

How can we teach children to write well if we don't write at all? Even if you are fairly confident in modelling writing in class, ask yourself how good it really is. If you only ever write for those few minutes every now and then in class, are you really honing your skills? Would you benefit from writing for pleasure a little more? This is as much a challenge to myself as it is to anyone who may be reading this - I do not claim to be an expert writer and I know I could do better.

These thoughts have been whirring round my head for some time now, at least since the beginning of the year when I encouraged people to join the #WeeklyBlogChallenge. In fact, on further reflection, I've been acutely aware of the need for teachers to be writers since giving some training where, actually, I think I encountered some fairly reluctant writers.

The benefits of striving to be a proficient writer are, as you can imagine, many fold. I'd suggest six main benefits, though:

1) You will understand the pressure that children feel when you present them with a cold task, or even a task that they are well-prepared for. And when you've experienced that feeling of having a mind as blank as the page in front of you, then your writing lessons will get a whole lot better. If you are someone experienced in seeking inspiration, then you will become a teacher who is better at providing helpful stimuli.

2) Your modelled writing will inspire the children: sometimes all they need is a few words from a good example of writing to get them going. For this reason, many resources (such as the excellent Pobble 365 website) provide exemplar paragraphs and openers, but there is power in the children experiencing the writing created in front of them...

3) The act of modelling writing will inspire the children. I've noticed many times that when a teacher joins in an activity, be it Art, PE or an assault course on residential, that children respond more enthusiastically too. I know not of the pedagogical reasons behind this, only that it is what I've observed to be true.

4) You will feel more confident to share your writing. If you write regularly, even if progress is slow-going, words, sentences and paragraphs will come more naturally to you. If this is the case then you will feel far better prepared to stand up and 'perform' a piece of writing. You'll also find it easier to complete shared pieces of writing as you will know how to weave the pupils' words and ideas into a great piece of text.

5) You will be able to model the editing and revising process more realistically. Children at the top of the primary age range are expected to choose words for meaning and to understand the impact that the chosen words might have on the reader. Often, teachers model editing and revision as an exercise in word swapping, but with very little purpose. Someone with a little more  experience of writing will more naturally model a process where choices are made for a reason, and they will be able to verbalise those reasons too. 

6) You will give more effective feedback to the children about their writing. No matter how your policy dictates you provide feedback, it remains that someone with more experience as a writer is better placed to identify strengths and weaknesses in another's work. Based on your own experience of writing, you will be able to work out exactly what it is a child needs to do next to improve their written work.

The act of writing is an act of creativity, and there are many other benefits to self that being creative brings. There is a sense of great achievement to be had from writing something, whether that's something that helps one to explore one's own thoughts, feelings or ideas, or something that can be shared with others. And achievement is enjoyable: if you begin to enjoy the creative process of writing then this will no doubt translate into an enthusiasm for teaching writing - and enthusiasm is infectious. 

Here's the challenge, teachers: become a writer and begin to infect your pupils with a love of producing the written word. Will you accept?

Read the Arvon/University of Exeter/Open University research 'Teachers as Writers' here: http://www.teachersaswriters.org/wp-content/uploads/2017/05/Arvon-Teachers-as-Writers.pdf

6 comments:

  1. I couldn't agree more with this post - particularly the six points at the end. Number 1 is the most important if we want to see significant change in the way we teach writing and how children become life-long writers.

    We have set up #WritingRocks_17 on twitter. This is a community of writer-teachers from all across the world. We should encourage people to join!

    At LiteracyForPleasure, we also have our 'Genre Centre'. This is where teachers can come and learn about what goes into certain pieces of writing and how to write a good one for themselves. There is also opportunity to share your writing on the site so that other teachers and children could learn from it as a mentor text. Come take a look!

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    1. On Twitter is there scope for a regular writing stimulus for teachers to join in with? Might go down well?

      The Genre Centre sounds brilliant! I love writing WAGOLLs!

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  2. Totally agree with number 3. From my experience it builds credibility. I have put myself on the same road i expect them to travel,

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    1. Totally unscientific but I notice that if I set them off with a writing task then turn my back and write my own on the board the writing they produce seems to be a lot better!

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  3. Enjoyed this, Aidan - thanks.

    I was a secondary English teacher, and one of the salutary experiences of my English career was going on a teaching poetry course in 1986 and they got us to write some poetry of our own - I think I managed 9 lines in three days (and it wasn't very good...)

    Years later, as a deputy head, I taught a small sixth form general interest creative writing class, and decided that every task I asked them to do I would also tackle myself. It was fascinating and helpful!

    I have huge admiration for primary specialists and how they have to turn their hand to so many different curricular areas.

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    1. Thanks for the comment once again!

      After writing this one and the reading one it has got me thinking about how far this can go - do we expect primary teachers to practice science, geography, history etc as part of their professional development?

      I also think that writing comes into all other subjects so in that sense every teacher, regardless of stage/subject might benefit from being a more confident writer.

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