If reading is the key to learning, then writing is the lock.
Or rather, writing is the medium through which we unlock potential and empower children (and adults). We still depend on writing as the largest indicator of success and progress in learning. Therefore, it should have just as much emphasis as reading in school. For example, if we are Reading for Pleasure daily, should we not also be Writing for Pleasure daily too? If we are explicitly teaching children how to read, are we explicitly modelling the writing process to them too?
“Students can go a lifetime and never see another person write, much less show them how to write. Yet, it would be unheard of for an artist not to show her students how to use oils by painting on her own canvas, or for a ceramist not to demonstrate how to throw clay on a wheel and shape the material himself. Writing is a craft.”
(Graves, A Fresh Look at Writing, 1994)
Here, Donald Graves reflects on his own life as a writer-teacher:
Cremin and Myhill (Writing Voices: Creating Communities of Writers, 2012) state that the roles a writing-teacher needs to adopt are:
- an engaged and reflective reader
- an authentic demonstrator of writing
- a scribe for class compositions
- a fellow writer, alongside younger learners
- a response partner
- an editor, co-editor and adviser
- a publisher of their own work and their students’ work
- a writer in their everyday lives
As part of a year-long CPD project, Raising Attainment in Writing (CLPE), I took some time to reflect on myself as a teacher-writer. This can be a useful exercise for all teachers and could involve the following:
- Have you viewed yourself as a writer at different stages throughout your life? At which points? Do you still consider yourself a writer now?
- Are you a reader? In what ways has reading influenced your writing?
- What kinds of writing do you engage in and which do you enjoy? (diaries, notes, social media, reports, articles etc.) It’s also worth considering writing that you don’t enjoy!
- How important were your own teachers in your learning to write? What did you learn from them? What did they do that inspired you?
- Have you ever worked with professional writers? What did you learn from them?
- What are your routines for writing? How do you feel about it throughout the different parts of the writing process?
- How would you describe your style of teaching writing? What are your guiding principles or values? Is it your specialism or do you lack confidence? Can you think of examples where you’ve encouraged children to make progress in writing?
My personal history of writing
There have been many stages of my life where I have considered myself to be a writer. At school, I loved writing poetry and fictional stories. I was lucky enough to have many inspirational teachers throughout my years at primary (Mrs. Jackson, Mrs. Robertson-Ewart) and secondary school (Mrs. Matheison, Mr. Crump and Mrs. Ross) who inspired and engaged and indulged my passion for writing. I can still vividly remember many lessons and writing projects throughout my time at school: performing Greek scripts (with our own accompanying music), writing war-diaries on tea-stained paper, reciting Shakespeare and poetry by heart. I can recall a poetry lesson where we had to emulate the voice of a young child, I still remember the feeling of enormous pride when my teacher commented on my use of the word ‘tree-cher’ (it was supposed to be a mis-heard word by the small child, who thought they were called ‘tree-cher’ due to the fact they were as tall as a tree). The fact I can remember in such detail is astonishing. Anyone who knows me, knows that I have a terrible memory! I wish I had a copy of that poem now. Their enthusiasm as teachers was infectious.
As a teenager, I’d pour over lyrics by Eminem and Jay-Z (in the days when lyrics were printed on the sleeves of CDs), I kept a diary and I wrote notes to friends daily. I actually used to write a funny poem inside each birthday card for friends, it became a bit of a ‘thing’ and they almost looked forward to the personalised poem more than the present! I think this idea originated from my mum, who writes poems sometimes too. Most recently, she scribed a poem inside a book she gave me at Christmas. I always enjoyed reading her poems so much. It obviously inspired me to pass that joy onto others!
I went on to pursue a career in communications and completed a masters degree in International Public Relations, where I honed my academic writing style (although not my preference!). I also used to hand-write letters and postcards to family members throughout my years at university and have always loved receiving post.
Just a few years after graduating, I progressed to marketing manager at Rick Stein’s where I found myself writing press releases, news articles, features, leaflets, website copy, emails and newsletters. I also wrote in my own time as a food and drink blogger during this period of my life and often reviewed cookery courses, restaurants and recipes. I was eventually shortlisted for the Carol Trewin Young Food Writers’ Award.
As a teacher, I now write for work (lesson plans, twitter chats, modelling to children, writing with children, writing letters, cards and notes to children, emails…) and for pleasure (such as messages and emails to long distance friends, this blog!). I am constantly writing notes in numerous notebooks and more recently using my iPhone notes or my laptop to quickly get ideas down. I even keep a notebook in my bedside table for ‘middle-of-the-night’ thoughts.
I suppose I have always considered myself to be a writer and I’ve always taken pleasure in writing.
Personal Routines for Writing
I do see writing as a process, but the elements that are most important for me personally are the pre-writing stages. I need time to read, scribble threads of ideas and notes, time to think and play and rearrange and adjust, I need time to explore vocabulary and time to plan. If I am faced with a blank piece of paper, with little input or inspiration to write, I can become easily frustrated and lack ideas. I need something to spark my imagination or provoke thought before I can put pen to paper (or finger to keyboard).
I also love the opportunity to publish and share my writing with others, if it’s a person or group I know well (I’m much more timid in front of strangers!). My first drafts are always messy and, if I don’t feel it’s ‘ready’, I hate reading my drafts aloud.
The process itself can vary dependent on the genre. Poetry often seems to flow out of me much easier than anything else. I love the fact that there are no rules! In fact, here’s a poem I wrote for my class on National Writing Day earlier this year (based on The Staffroom by James Cole). This is the published version which I wrote for inclusion in our National Writing Day Poetry book, which is still sitting in our book corner:
I definitely think my own personal experiences of writing affect the way I teach. I am always looking for exciting ways to engage the children in writing and as a result I do tend to give more time to the pre-writing part of the process. I’ve realised that perhaps I don’t place enough importance on (or give enough time to) redrafting and editing. I hope that my enthusiasm rubs off on the children in the same way that my own teachers’ enthusiasm did!
I try to always explicitly teach the writing process to children in my class and to give them authentic purpose and audiences for their writing. We have published and celebrated their writing in numerous ways, from performances, to publishing books on Amazon or handmade books in our class library, to sending letters and publishing a school magazine. I believe that if children can see the point of the writing, the end goal, they are more likely to engage in (and be excited by) writing. Publishing written work also highlights the importance of revising and editing – something we are working on!
For more details on my personal philosophies and strategies for teaching literacy, you might like to read previous blogs on publishing, getting to grips with grammar, spelling in a reading rich curriculum, inspiring writing with quality texts, writing for pleasure (or free writing), engaging ways to teach or build vocab, as well as ways to use working walls to inspire writing and, most recently, widening our reading repertoires.
Points for personal development
Reflecting on my writing practice and personal history has made me think about choice. I think I need to start giving children more choice about what they write and how they write it. At the moment, I use this technique for some, but not all, units of work. I can see that children enjoy writing when it is something they have chosen to write, rather than something they’ve been instructed to write. I am going to look at revising plans and units of work to incorporate more choice for the children.
As a result of this reflection, I would also love to spend more time writing with the children (although this isn’t always feasible!) as I know this shows them that I value what they are doing. I also know that they love hearing and reading what I’ve written. It also allows me to personally experience each task as a writer (so I can see how difficult it might be) and verbalise the process for the children (e.g. “I’m really struggling to think of a way to describe X, how could I generate some ideas?”). It also allows them to see that it’s ok to make mistakes and it’s ok to have a messy first draft!
Further reading which may be useful:
- Teachers as Writers: A report for Arts Council England on the value of writers’ engagement with teachers to improve outcomes for all pupils
- Are you a teacher-writer or a writing-teacher and why does it matter? An article by #writingrocks
- National Writing Day Resources, including the original poem by James Cole
- Writing for Pleasure? Article by Teresa Cremin, Professor of Literacy in Education, The Open University
- D. Graves, A Fresh Look at Writing (1994)
- Cremin and Myhill, Writing Voices: Creating Communities of Writers (2012)