My Dad always used to say, “ask the silly question, it’s the one everyone else in the room wants to ask”. I’ve always tried to do it and have sometimes made a fool of myself, I never thought that it would end up being a teaching strategy.
How many of you reading this post can say that you have tasked any of your classes to write you a letter to persuade you they could beat you in a fight or, to write an article that argues we pick ugly friends to make ourselves look better? Maybe it’s time?
I’m confident with my teaching of reading, I’ve worked with groups in the Local Authority on ways to improve it and how to break it down to what it means to be a reader. Writing though, has always been the far more difficult art to master. I met a colleague on one of these Authority groups a couple years ago who talked about writing journals, something that she had come across in research coming out of the states. Students are given a dedicated “journal” in which they write anything they want: a story, a diary, reflections on their day, anything as long as they’re writing.
This rang true with something that I have always felt about writing. It’s about muscle memory as much as it is about art and creativity. A programme shown on Channel 4 a few years ago about adult literacy showed adults who had never become literate drawing smooth waves and continuous zigzags from left to right across multiple pages just to get them acclimatised to the muscles required to be a writer, even in the completely functional sense of the word. This, in turn with the lack of extended writing required across the curriculum, worries me with respect to the job that is often left to English teachers of making students into writers.
But the journal itself isn’t enough. Students need to be engaged in their writing in order for it to work. There needs to be a magic bullet of some sort to get them actually caring about what they write.
I had a couple of early forays with writing journals using “free writing” as a starting point and quickly hitting a brick wall. “Free writing”, filling a blank page with something, is difficult enough for adults to do who have a clear idea of what “good” looks like never mind for teenagers who are self critical at the best of times, particularly where creative efforts come in. So I made the task the thing.
I began creating tasks that were out of the left field for an English lesson. Moving from the old favourites like, describe a place you know well when it is deserted and then busy to, describe what Hell is like or, if you were the Devil, describe what you would make Hell like for teachers. It became fun to create the task and sharing the writing even more so. (Click here for a pdf copy of what I came up with Writing Warmups)
As students entered my room, there was one PowerPoint slide frozen on the board. A different task each lesson, not every lesson but most, conveying the idea that they had to be engaged in their learning the moment they entered the room but also that they would write in almost every English lesson. Each task had a list of non-negotiables, features that had to be included. Each student was given an A5 card and told basically to write until I told them not to, however, the card physically created a small expectation. After about ten minutes we sampled the writing through random feedback (lollipop sticks), comparing it to the list of features to include and filed them in exercise books, held together by a treasury tag so that students could track back and see where they made progress.
I assured them that I may read them but would not physically mark them as it was their writing to try and encourage less self editing and get the creative juices flowing. I was most concerned about making writing an integral part of what we were doing every day. (I have since been asked after an observation why I hadn’t marked them and the answer didn’t seen to be acceptable in an Ofsted sense – an aspect I’m still trying to get around)
I began this exercise with a mid set Year 10 to a very encouraging outcome. Their writing became more fluent and the volume definitely increased. They began to expect the task and asked fewer questions about parameters the more we did it. It definitely made an impact in Controlled Assessments but it has fallen away as we have had to dedicate more time to Lit texts. However, it still works when integrated into Lit teaching. Asking my now Year 11s to write a short story where all of the characters were animals, and that explicitly taught the reader something about friendship, really made the discussion of “Lord of the Flies” as a fable far easier.
I’m convinced of the usefulness of this strategy and, this year, am far more organised in gauging the impact. I have ordered smaller exercise books in which students will stick a “disclaimer” about the purpose of the journal, I will check rather than mark the work and will record reading levels and grades before, during and after in order to truly see where it takes students’ writing.
Little did I know, when I started putting this together, that there may even be some grounding in science for what I was up to.
If you haven’t read Jonah Lehrer’s book “Imagine: How Creativity Works”, read it and read it now. It’s excellent and a must read for teachers of all kinds I’d say. In it he explores a huge range of creative processes and, interestingly links it to brain chemistry and neurology.
Lehrer refers to Picasso’s famous quote, “Every child is an artist. The problem is how to remain an artist once we grow up”, and links it to the naturally occurring and evolving inhibitory mechanisms of the brain. The area of the brain (the dorso lateral prefrontal cortex or DLPFC) that develops last is also the area which allows us to be self conscious and worry about saying the wrong thing. Neurologists can demonstrate the development of this brain area with a slump in creativity, a time when students stop wanting to create or improvise. In fact, experiments show that, when asked to imagine that one is a seven year old when completing tasks, it does increase scores in creative tasks tackled after.
The lesson seems to be that we can recover our creativity, we can resist the temptation to self edit and worry about expression, we just have to pretend we’re kids.
So, when asking questions, consider how to make them engaging, engage the DLPFC and engage the creativity and flow of your students.