This article is based on, and written in relation to, the findings of educational research and writing on the subject of writing. The tenor of this article is to allow the reader to reflect on children’s writing and is in no way a criticism of any school(s) policy or teachers’ practice.
We can’t give children rich lives, but we can give them the lens to appreciate the richness that is already there – Lucy Calkins (1991)
As teachers, our job is to help children claim more control over their own lives. One of the ways people most lack control over their own lives is through lacking control over words. Especially written words. – Peter Elbow (1998)
Think about it. Is there any lower expectation than thinking children will have nothing to write about?
No teacher ever comes out and actually says it. They skirt around the issue. They bring up the ghost – the myth – of the so called ‘deprived child’. This is usually some stereotyped view of a ‘pupil-premium’ child’s life that has no basis in reality (Dyson, 2003; Grainger et al, 2003). We often hear things like: they only ever sit at home and play on the computer or they won’t be able to think of anything. The worst we have heard is that supposedly some children don’t have a single positive thing which they could write about because their lives are seen as so arid.
These are the sorts of excuses that some teachers give when rejecting the idea of allowing children (regardless of background or circumstance) to choose their own writing topics. There is the assumption that these pupils are impoverished, lazy or come from solely violent or disturbed homes (Dyson, 2003; Grainger et al, 2003). I often wonder how these teachers come to know these features of children’s home lives? According o research (Grainger et al 2003, 2005, Fisher, 2006), they actually don’t and in terms of writing they really don’t want to find out either. And, as a result, they believe that only they can and should decide what is good for children and what they should write about. These children don’t deserve a choice in the matter. After all, they are not like us – they are culturally deprived and need saving.
When we assign topics we create a welfare system, putting children, our students on to writers’ welfare – Donald Graves (1982)
To diminish the potential for individual meaningfulness in students’ work is a denial of their basic humanity – Willinsky (1990)
To not affirm and respect student voices is both morally wrong, because it disparages who students are and what they know, and strategically a mistake, because students will resist becoming active partners in teaching and learning. – Lensmire (2000)
Writing assignments without a background of discussion and shared experience are unlikely to elicit much response from many children. – Dixon (1966)
Research findings indicate that composition is impaired if a writer lacks sufficient background knowledge about topics and ideas. – Heller (1999)
Youngsters, supposedly verbally deprived, are expert story-tellers Labov (1972 cited in Rosen 1985)
The reality is these children actually have the same basic vocabulary, possess the same capacity for conceptual learning and can use the same logic as anyone else who learns to write (Rosen, 1972). Research also suggests that even pre-schoolers have the ability to choose their own writing topics with ease (Dyson, 2003, Krees, 1997) and only lose it once it has been extinguished by the dominant writing pedagogies used in schools.
They won’t have anything to write about – This kind of suggestion is dangerous. Dangerous because it diverts those teachers away from exploring the real problems with their writing pedagogy and instead focuses them on the imagined defects of ‘culturally neglected’ children (Dyson, 2003, Grainger et al, 2003). What teachers really mean when they say things like ‘they won’t have anything to write about’ is – they won’t write about things I think are legitimate or relevant. They won’t write about things I can control or they won’t write about things I have a reference to. This of course will be true if you don’t show children how they can ‘mine’ their lives for interesting ideas for which they could write about.
‘Most of my classmates came from low-income families, and many grew up in broken homes, lived with relatives or in foster care. We defined ourselves as a class of writers. I relished our classroom culture and told anyone who would listen [about it].’ – Jacky
(Leung & Hicks, 2014)
The fact is teachers’ perceptions of legitimate writing are the dominant culture in classrooms and are often over-valued while children’s cultures are persistently and systematically undervalued (Grainger et al 2003). This is actually nothing more than the linguistic oppression of school children and, according to research (Cummins, 2011, Dockrell et al, 2015, Edelsky, 2006, Grainger et al 2003, 2005, Fisher, 2006, Flint & Fisher, 2014, Samway, 2006) it’s a far more wide-spread notion amongst teachers than we dare to think. You can see it in the way many teachers set up their classrooms.
Because of the nature of the National Curriculum, much, if not all, of the writing opportunities afforded to children are transmitted to them; placed upon them and they are simply subjected to it. It’s artificial writing. For example, the National Curriculum makes no mention of the fact that children should be taught and given opportunity to generate an original idea. This is a whole aspect of the writing process which is completely missing from the curriculum. It comes before even the planning stage of writing (which the curriculum does attend to).
In his review of 100 years of literacy research, Hillocks (2011) forcefully stated, “We know from a very wide variety of studies in English and out of it, that students who are authentically engaged with the tasks of their learning are likely to learn much more than those who are not” (p. 189).
Bodies of knowledge – about life, about books, about words – are among the products of their work. It is possible to regard these bodies of knowledge as the ‘content’ for a writing lesson – though not everyone would be happy with this view (John Dixon, p.74)
The children are often happy because they know no different, and this enjoyment seems to validate the teacher’s choice of choosing and controlling the artificial writing stimulus. The use of artificial writing such as: whole-class book topics, writing-exercises, replicating a piece of writing, and the use of pictures and films means that children are not given any say or control in learning how to create a sense of self or how to act out on the world through writing. Instead, they quickly learn the life lesson that writing is to be consumed or imitated at best. They will leave school mystified, intimidated and believing that writing is immutable – certainly by them. Due to this linguistic oppression, children are being brought up to live in a ‘culture of silence’. As teachers, we need to accept and embrace that children acquire all different kinds of cultural identity and have different responses to it (Dyson, 2003, Grainger, 2013). They should be given the opportunity to find the relevance and power in understanding themselves, others and the world in their writing. We discuss this in more detail in this article.
You either learn your way towards writing your own script in life, or you unwittingly become an actor in someone else’s script. – John Taylor Gatto
There is always the danger of a closed, behaviourist solution. By the teacher giving the writing topic as well as the general or specific expressions that should be used, children may learn at once a style of seeing and feeling. And the writing will for a time appear good to us (the teachers), though somehow less varied and personal. There is a sense of limitation, falseness, a restrictiveness that all of us who care for imaginative and life-long uses of the written language must be concerned about (Dixon, 1966).
We don’t believe children are lacking in anything (Rosen, 1972). It is our belief that children should first be taught how to identify their writing urges, passions and interests and then place them successfully into the dominant genres of our day. A significant factor in school genre teaching is that they emphasize a power relationship
between the teacher and the writer, with the teacher:
- Knowing the conventions of the genre,
- Often acting as the determiner of the title and content,
- Being the arbiter of the finished piece of writing.
We believe in making available the conventions of a genre and providing substantial time for children to engage and practice these genres through the use of our use of Genre-Booklets.
By providing the children with the Genre tools, teaching them how they can use their cultural reference points and by giving them extended and regular periods in which to practise the writing of them means that children whose home background hasn’t socioculturally prepared them for production of these written genres are not at a disadvantage (Myhill, 2005).
‘Our best guides are the things pupils come up and talk about – their individual and group interests rather than an external ‘stimuli’ or book (which necessarily cannot know their particular circumstances or desires)…[therefore what is needed is] a questing exploratory atmosphere in a writing classroom.’ John Dixon (p.86)
It’s about teaching children how they can take their values and their cultural reference points and use them in the typical genres used by society to create changes for themselves and others – for now and for their futures.
Gerald Gregory, for example, in 1984 described the emergence of a small ‘community publishing’ movement among working class groups in Britain who have taken up the writing, editing and publishing of voices otherwise unheard. Although there is just as great a temptation to romanticise the writing of workers as there is with apprentice writers, Gregory speaks of the factors that motivate this writing and publishing as deeply felt and highly communal:
“Passionate conviction about the intrinsic value of working-class culture, especially those solitaries that underpin its outstanding and unique achievements (e.g. trade union, political and mutual help associations); a determined refusal to stay marginalised; indignation and impatience at being represented, misrepresented, patronised and abused by outsiders; these have fulled the drive to write rather than be written about (or not), publish rather than be published (or not) and, increasingly, to theorise rather than be theorised” – Gregory (1984, pp.222-23)
Finally then, through our Real-World Literacy approach, it has been amazing to watch children go from writing which is almost zero in terms of social and personal significance to children writing on their own chosen topic and seeing them all of a sudden become highly articulate and motivated to write.
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