Is There Something Wrong With How We Teach Children To Write?

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The idea for this post came to me at 10:35am whilst I was boarding a train at Amsterdam Centraal.  We were heading to Cologne to check out the Christmas markets. I spent the entire two-hour journey scribbling down the idea on a piece of paper my husband had been using as a bookmark. (I normally carry a notebook but on this occasion, had left it at home to make more room for Cologne Christmas purchases.) My notes were messy and incoherent as I rushed to get everything down:

notes

The next day I sat at my desk and transferred my notes into a first draft. It was still incoherent: just a list of points I wanted to make that needed to be fleshed out into full sentences. During the drafting stage I am always comforted by Hemingway’s claim that, “the first draft of everything is shit.” I used to have this quote written on a post-it and stuck to my laptop as a reminder for those “this is so crap and you’re deluded if you think anyone will ever read it” days.

That draft was written about a month ago and since then I’ve been editing and rewriting. The idea that had come so suddenly and easily proved to be harder to write than I’d thought.  But I liked the idea so I stayed with it. Yesterday I had 1,700 words in a sort of coherent structure but still wasn’t happy; I dropped the laptop into my husband’s lap and said, “Can you work out why this is so rubbish?” I just couldn’t get it right – I had been so enthusiastic about the initial idea it was as if any attempt to create the post didn’t do the idea justice. Once he’d read it he commented how ironic it was, given the subject matter of the post, that I was struggling with it so much.

Then last night, as I was getting into bed, it clicked; I realised what I’d been doing wrong. I grabbed my notebook and quickly scribbled out a new plan ready to be typed up the next day. And here it is- you’re reading it which means I’m finally happy enough with it to post it – hooray!

You’ll notice I haven’t actually mentioned the idea that came to me on the train to Cologne – so far this has just been a blog about blogging (meta-blogging?) The idea itself is something that I was always slightly aware of as a teacher but has been highlighted since I started writing professionally:

Why is there such disconnect between how we as adults write and the processes we ask pupils in schools to follow?

It starts with asking children to generate ideas on demand. Yes, we provide plenty of discussion and stimulus but essentially a child can walk into a classroom and be told that in that hour they have to come up with an idea for a report/story/diary entry etc… That’s a big ask. Even when I’m pitching ideas to my editor they are ideas I’ve developed in my own time. Of course time is the main constraint here and generating ideas is just one part of writing (and the part that normally involves the least writing) so we can’t afford the luxury of allowing children endless time to generate ideas and develop them. Equally, if the objective is “To write a diary entry” there is no reason why you can’t provide the pupil with the idea just to get them writing.

Once they’ve had/been given the idea it is commonplace to ask children to complete some sort of plan. Google “KS1/KS2 planning formats” and you’ll be presented with dozens of versions of essentially the same document: a page of boxes for the children to complete.

 

In the early stages of their education, when children need to be taught HOW to plan, there is certainly a place for these but once they’ve learnt the process I would argue that these templates can be more of a hindrance than a help. On a practical level the boxes are small which means you have to think about keeping your handwriting neat to make sure your ideas fit in. It also limits the amount you can write which doesn’t allow for those ideas to lead to other ideas – there just isn’t the space for that!

My plans are messy and illegible to anyone else and that’s fine because nobody else needs to read them. What is the main barrier to children being allowed to plan their writing freely? I would argue it’s presentation policies and policies that state there should be a certain number of completed pieces of work in a book each week. I’m not saying children shouldn’t take care over their presentation and learn to underline the date etc… but it shouldn’t take priority over the learning. Children need a space where they can write freely without worrying about cursive script or drawing in a margin. Some schools have draft books or jotters for this purpose but I’ve heard of schools getting rid of these books because they were “messy” or hiding them when Ofsted turn up.

Once they’ve planned, children start their first draft. In the ideal world the children would have the option of typing a first draft because the process of editing and rewriting is laborious enough without having to do it by hand. If you’ve written a four-page draft that you want to edit and then rewrite, it means turning back and forth between pages and squashing notes into a margin or rewriting sentences in that little gap between the original sentence and the line. Once again, when you’re first teaching editing, it’s essential that children see the process modelled, either by watching you mark their work or editing a piece of work together as class. By upper KS2 children should be able to edit their own work with the support of a checklist of criteria and a dictionary. Their editing would need to be checked by the class teacher but most of it could be done independently. The problem with editing is that it takes time – time that schools don’t have. This post took weeks to edit but even when I’m on a deadline the process can take days and includes a cooling off period where I walk away from the piece for anything from an hour to a day.

Finally we ask children to write up their work. As in rewrite the whole piece again. By hand. For what could be the third or fourth time depending how many drafts they’ve done. Out come the line guides, paperclips and ruled margins which will end up being elaborately decorated. Had they been word processing from the beginning the final draft would be there waiting to print once they’d finished editing and even if that isn’t an option I question how valuable “copying up” lessons are. You could perhaps argue it is a handwriting exercise but there are other ways to teach handwriting. By the “copying up” stage only the keenest of children are still interested in this piece of writing.

Conversely, how often do children get to scrap their work and start again from the very beginning if they want to? I had a child ask to do exactly that when the rest of the class were on their final drafts and I said no because we only had one more lesson to spend on this and next week we’d be moving on to something new. That was the right answer. Children have to learn to meet deadlines and follow instructions and I’m not suggesting we abandon our plans every time a child changes their mind but I do wonder whether if I’d agreed that he could start again on the condition he’d have to work on it at home he might have produced a better piece.

Obviously we’re not teaching children to be “writers” any more than we’re teaching them to be astronauts, doctors or civil servants. We are teaching them to write which requires practising the basics over and over again. It means showing them how to construct complex sentences and how to use punctuation and grammar and giving them time to practise it. Writing is bloody hard work and learning to write even more so.

This post isn’t a criticism – just a general musing. I would love to hear about how different schools teach writing  – please get in touch. I’m also not suggesting that the way I write is how we should teach children to write – I’m not Michael Gove. It’s just that if we are serious about children mastering a “writer’s voice” we should, at least occasionally, allow them to behave like writers.

 

So, You Want To Start A Blog?

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It’s September. Fresh, energised and full of optimism, September sees teachers take up new instruments, join exercise classes and start diets – it is the real New Year. So it shouldn’t have come as such a surprise when, in the space of 6 days, I received four emails asking for advice about starting a blog.This is incredibly flattering as The Girl On The Piccadilly Line has only existed (at its current domain) for a year so I am no expert (and there are people out there who are experts in this sort of thing.) But, for what it’s worth, here is my advice for anyone, teacher or otherwise, thinking of venturing into the world of blogging.

1. Write about what you know/what you love

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A lot of bloggers will tell you to choose a niche and stick with it; become an expert in that field and you’ll have a ready made readership. That isn’t bad advice but I think the most important thing is that you write about what you know. For me that was education and politics but it doesn’t really matter what it is: coffee, insurance, tube stations with step free access or the best places to go for brunch. If you’re passionate about your subject that will come through in your writing. Trying to regularly produce interesting content on a subject you don’t care about is hard work and can be mind-numbingly dull – don’t do it to yourself. And if you write that blog about the best places for brunch send me the link.

2. Read

Any teacher will tell  you that the best writers are the ones who read widely. So read. Read articles, blogs, novels, non-fiction. Find a writer you love and study the way they weave their words together – learn from them. Struggling to put together a catchy opening paragraph or heading? Get reading. Interested in writing list-style posts? Get reading. Want to use your blog to share your short stories? Get reading. At the moment I’m reading a lot of blogs to try and learn the art of writing a decent closing paragraph. My posts tend to end abruptly or just fizzle out. You don’t know how much I wish every post could just end with, “That’s All Folks!”

3. “At the end of the day, the only thing that’s perfect is a blank sheet of paper – untouched with nothing on it. And if you’re questing for perfection then you’ll leave that paper blank.” – Neil Gaiman

I don’t really like the way I write. I often wish my writing sounded more academic; I’ve yet to master the art of being concise as opposed to just wittering on  (At this point it’s worth mentioning I am available for commissions…) When I first started blogging I used to agonise over posts. I would ask beg my husband to read everything I wrote before I published it, “Is it alright?” I’d ask nervously – I just didn’t believe anything I’d written could be any good. (Little tip – find someone in those early days to be your own personal editor/proofreader/cheerleader. You don’t have to marry them though.)

Over the last year I’ve learnt a valuable lesson: writing is to be read. If people want to read your writing then your writing is serving its purpose. I’ve accepted the way I write is readable and in the last few months people have actually started paying me money to write things for them (which I still can’t get my head around)) So I’ve come to the conclusion I can’t be that bad. Please don’t be like me – have confidence and just keep writing.Sure, you’re first few posts may only be read by your parents but that’s OK!

4. Use social media – not just to share your work.

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I love social media – it’s the fastest way to get your blog out there but it has other uses too. Use it to find other bloggers, join in with blog chats and interact directly with your readers. You get out what you put into the blogging community so get involved. Spend at least an hour a week reading other blogs, commenting on and sharing the things you really like. Invite guest bloggers to write for you – they’ll bring with them new readers.

Use hashtags to increase the visibility of your posts. There are dozens you can use – I tend to rely on:

#MondayBlogs

#WWWBlogs

#WeekendBlogHop

#SundayBlogShare

5. Enjoy it

The best thing about blogging is that there are no hard and fast rules about what it’s meant to look like. You can post once a month or every day. You can publish poems, lists, diaries, songs, photos, videos. The whole point is that you’re carving out your own corner of the internet. It can be whatever you want it to be (within legal limits.) If you find you’re not enjoying it take a break – don’t put too much pressure on yourself.

Erm…

That’s all folks!

 

 

 

 

The Art of Travel

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There have been many profound and inspiring things written about the importance of travel. From Samuel Johnson: “The use of travelling is to regulate imagination with reality, and instead of thinking of how things may be, see them as they are.” to my heroine (and one true love) Elizabeth Gilbert: “To travel is worth any cost or sacrifice.” It is a subject that provokes a response in all of us whether we’re fans of the “staycation”, weekend city breaks or trekking through the Amazon; taking time out of our lives, away from work leaves us able to reflect, recharge and other beneficial things that start with “re”.

I like to think I’m a decent travelling companion – over the years I have shared laughter, food and many, many books with my fellow travellers. I also hope that I am humble and down to earth as there is nothing more unbearable than travelling with someone who has developed the dreaded “Traveller Ego” – you know the type: they’ve seen it all, done it all and say things like “You haven’t LIVED until you’ve been to this cafe run by nuns in South Bulgaria”. I don’t say those sorts of things. I present to you: five things you’ll hear when travelling with me. It’s unlikely they’ll ever be quoted or written on one of those memes your Mum’s friend Linda likes to put on her Facebook page but that’s probably OK.

  1. “I’ll pick some up once I get there.”

My mother is a planned packer – she makes lists, then more lists and then spends the week before the trip purchasing and washing the things she needs. It makes sense really. I only realised recently I am almost the exact opposite of this. I think packing light was enforced on me by my many years of relying on budget airlines to get anywhere. After being faced with a smug airline attendant watch me frantically putting on all the clothes in my carry on case in order to board the flight (despite me trying to reason that the clothes themselves weigh the same whether they are in my bag or on my body) I decided that could never happen again. So I learnt the art of packing, what the magazines might call, a “capsule wardrobe” but I call “5 pairs of leggings and lots of t-shirts.” They don’t necessarily create perfectly stylish and coordinated outfits but they keep me comfortable. Obviously there is only so light one can pack for an around-the-world trip and, whilst packing my case last week, I had to make room for clothing that is suitable for Summer in Hawaii and Autumn in New York. In order to do this, I had to sacrifice other essentials that you might expect to find in my case like plug adapters and sun cream. It’s fine, I’ll pick some up once we get there. Globalisation has created a world that is less foreign. Costa Coffee in Moscow, KFC in Bangkok. Most of the thing you will need to make travelling through a country comfortable, will be available in that country.

  1. “I’ll have the cheese burger”

Don’t get me wrong – my main reason for going to any country is the food. I’m already planning what to have on my pizza in Chicago and I’m even considering breaking my “no ducks, rabbits or lambs” rule so I can have the Beijing specialty: peking duck. I very rarely turn down the chance to try a new cuisine. I’ve eaten crickets in Bangkok, borscht in Moscow, intestines in Rome and ostrich in Marrakesh. I’m not fussy, I’ll pretty much eat whatever I’m given – apart from marzipan – because marzipan is an abomination. However, I don’t insist on always eating the local cuisine if I don’t want to. When I’m at home I don’t only eat roast beef, cheese ploughman’s and fish and chip, as amazing as that would be. I eat a mix of home cooked meals, Italian food, Mexican, Thai etc… so why would my tastes be different in another country? I would be sad for anyone who went abroad and didn’t try the local cuisine at least once because you might find something you love but it is also your holiday, your break – eat what you enjoy. Which is why on the first day of our honeymoon, in Paris, I ordered a cheeseburger (with ketchup.) Sorry Paris.

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  1. “Let’s not do anything today”

This is an important one. There’s an overwhelming pressure when you are abroad to always be doing something: to go on an excursion every day or take in a new sight, the only exception is perhaps a beach holiday. In London I make sure that at least once a month I keep a weekend completely free to do very little and it’s exactly the same when I’m away. I decided the things I really want to see and do and make sure I fit them in but in between if I spend an afternoon/entire day reading in a park, or drinking beer and playing cards in a bar – that’s fine. I am writing this on the train from St. Petersburg to Moscow. The rain is hammering at the windows. I don’t write that to paint romantic picture – it is literally pouring – it sounds as if the train is being pelted with gravel. It has done this for hours and by all accounts is going to continue well into tomorrow. Which means for next 24 hours we will be playing cards and reading in cafes or maybe taking advantage of the hotel wifi and catching up with some blogging.* Of course we’ll see Red Square and the Kremlin and eat in a few local restaurants before we leave but there’s no pressure to spend every day “doing the stuff.” I need at least a day in the week where I don’t have to be up to catch a coach or train or queue for an attraction.

*UPDATE: What we actually did was have a long lunch in a local restaurant that turned into a long afternoon of drinking vodka. Sometimes it’s OK to spend the afternoon drinking vodka and talking shit with your husband rather than traipsing round in the rain trying to follow an, increasingly soggy, map from your Rough Guide. It might even be considered more Russian. Possibly.

Vodka

 

  1. “I’m happy to miss that”

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Florence is one of my favourite cities that I’ve ever been too. It is just so incredibly beautiful. Everything about it: the buildings, the parks and the food is a joy to behold. However, and I’m almost embarrassed to admit this, whilst in the home of the Renaissance I didn’t go to a single art gallery. I didn’t get to The Accademia or the Uffizi. Why? Because it was August and it was at least a 2-hour queue to get in, and in 30 degree heat I’d rather spend 2 hours walking around, eating gelato or doing pretty much anything other than queuing. Which is know is terribly un-British – queues are our best thing after all. On that same trip I did queue for 45 minutes for a pizza but it was bloody amazing pizza – it’s all about deciding what your priorities are. My best friend Lizzie shares my love of Florence firstly because of the food but also for the art which, for her, was a huge part of why she loved it and so it was important that she took the time to go and see those things. The point is neither way is the “correct way” of seeing Florence because there is no “correct way” to see Florence; the only thing that matters is that you enjoy your visit. Don’t worry about what you think you’re meant to see – your experience of a country or city is no less valid simply because you didn’t visit a particular building, statue or beach.

  1. “What’s that?”

The reason I am lost more often than I’m found whilst abroad is because, even if I manage to fathom out where I am on a map and by some miracle am able plot a route to where I want to go I, often get distracted. Something will catch my eye; it could be anything from a beautiful building to a cat (it’s often a cat) but somehow I end up straying from my carefully mapped out path. Occasionally this leads to me getting myself so lost I have to resign myself to not finding my way back and end up spending more money than I have to get a taxi back to wherever I’m staying but most of the time it leads to discovering something I may never have found otherwise: a quiet, shady garden, a beautiful fountain or an excellent place to eat pancakes. Don’t worry about just wandering. Once you’ve removed the pressure of having to see everything you are free to walk at leisure and take in your new surroundings. Although if like me you really struggle with reading maps travel with a patient friend who will do it for you.

“So I’m in my map…”

I would like to point out at this point that I’m not a complete philistine or even particularly disorganised. All my adventures have a planned itinerary and a spreadsheet of costs – which is perhaps slightly extreme. However once I’m away the planning stops and I don’t put pressure on my travels to be any particular sort of experience other than what I want them to be. Ultimately all that I urge is that whenever you go away, whether it’s for a day, a weekend or longer you do it the way you want to do it. Oh and order the cheeseburger. With ketchup.