Writing For Pleasure with my class under lockdown
There are decades where nothing happens; then there are weeks where whole decades happen. Out of tragedy, a truth has emerged: we are not bondless and atomised. Humans are social beings who thrive in communities where it is not every man for himself and the devil takes care of the hindmost. There is such a thing as society and this crisis has, perhaps, created an opportunity to reimagine it into a new form with a human face.
The same could be said of education; is the grim dictatorship of the prevailing neoliberal orthodoxy on the ropes? The GERM (Global Educational Reform Movement), as coined by Pasi Sahlberg the Finnish educator, which infects our schools through high-stakes assessment, league tables, Ofsted and performance-related pay, has never been necessary, and looks even less so now. Out of this moribund mire the new is struggling to be born.
In relation to writing this is particularly true: the limitations of the dominant pedagogies currently used in schools are laid bare before us as teachers ask children to write at home. But, have they been well equipped to do so? The answer is almost certainly no, because, unless schools have been teaching children how to be writers and how to enjoy the act of writing, then it will be impossible to replicate the schemes of work that many of them use.
However, if a Writing For Pleasure pedagogy has been developed, then it is my thesis that the children will be much better prepared to write during this period of relative isolation. I have spent the last few years doing just that and I believe that the children have been thoroughly prepared to continue living a writerly life at home during this period. Not because they have to, but because they want to.
A Writing For Pleasure approach pays particular, explicit attention to what are known as the affective domains: motivation (I know why), agency (I have a say), volition (I want to), self-regulation (I know what to do and how to do it), self-efficacy (I can), writer identity (I am) and enjoyment and satisfaction (pride and happiness).
All of my recent teaching has been underpinned by placing them at the heart of everything we do in our writing classroom. In addition to that, fourteen principles have been used, which, over many decades and hundreds of pieces of research from all over the world, have been shown to be crucial to the effective teaching of writing.
I will outline how I see this approach encouraging writing away from the classroom by sharing a few of the principles and how they help create an intrinsic desire in children to engage in writerly behaviour.
Since pupil-conferencing has been conducted in a systematic way, I have been able to get to know all my pupils as writers and offer them advice, which can be applied to any piece of writing. This leaves them in a better position to work independently from home knowing that they have strategies in place to help them move through the writing processes and fix any issues they may be having with their writing.
My advice has always been given live using the context of a purposeful and authentic piece of writing, which the children have been crafting. This has an advantage over written feedback because of its dialogic nature and its immediacy. Additionally, it has given me the opportunity to listen to what the young writer is saying and address their needs rather than having to guess after the event. This focus on the writer, rather than on the writing, promotes the development of self-efficacy, self-regulation, a stronger writer identity and strengthens the writer’s ability to work confidently away from the classroom.
I would expect the children to miss these interactions while writing from home and they would be very hard to replicate remotely. However, the point here is that the conferencing has already done the hard work and laid the foundations for future success. It never attempts to ‘fix’ the child’s writing. Instead, I have been listening carefully and leaving tips and advice that can be universally applied so that each writer internalises the types of questions they should be asking themselves during their writing process. Writing at home is more likely if children feel motivated and are less likely to give up when they come to a hurdle. If we want children to write for pleasure at home, good conferencing at school is vital.
Making children explicitly aware of each stage of the writing process and allowing them to have agency over the approach they take is advantageous when looking to encourage children to continue to write for pleasure. Why? Since they have been developing a personalised approach to idea generation, planning, drafting, revising, editing and publishing throughout the year, they have a much stronger writer identity. They are much more likely to be able to take ‘the seed of an idea all the way through these stages and on to publication on their own’ (Young & Ferguson 2020). What were developing habits at the start of the academic year are, by this stage, ossifying into a supportive, highly personalised set of processes for the children to funnel their creativity and ideas through.
The truth is, many children are not used to being allowed to move at their own pace and in their own way through these processes. By enabling them to do so, I have helped them to understand both the recursive nature of the writing process and the confidence and satisfaction that can be gained by having agency over the way in which they approach their writing.
Ultimately, I want children to be able to reflect, share knowledge, show off their flair for writing, persuade, entertain and to make a record of something they don’t want to forget. We should demonstrate to children that they do lead rich and meaningful enough lives to have agency over their writing choices; they have a voice. Teaching children how to generate these ideas is arguably the most vital part of the whole process and I put a great deal of time early on in the year into including mini-lessons to deal with this. Engagement and motivation skyrocket once children realise they are not going to have to spend another year writing solely for someone else, through an inauthentic context, and about which they have a limited motivation or understanding.
This is perhaps the strongest principle in relation to home learning, and, arguably, the most direct way in which we can see examples of children developing their independence as writers. This year children were given a personal journal to use alongside their class exercise books. They were able to use it in their free time both in school and at home, and opportunities were created to use it daily once class projects had been completed. Because they had full autonomy over how they used it, many different and highly personalised approaches to the writing process emerged. There was sketching, jotting, doodling, dabbling, different types of drafting, ideas pages, evidence of planning, revising, editing. There were examples of mini-lessons I had taught being applied; conferences in which I had given out advice were being acted upon and crucially, a sense of pleasure dripped off every page.
In relation to continuing to live the writerly life away from school, the evidence was overwhelming. I was swamped with examples of children’s writing which they had composed at home. There was too much to read. The children had been given, perhaps for the first time, the opportunity to be in a state of constant composition; to write when the urge grabbed them and to have their ideas valued and celebrated. This agency over topic choice and approach to the writing process had unleashed the twin domains of motivation and volition.
Most evenings there would be ten to fifteen empty slots where the children’s personal journals should have been on the classroom wall. Not much can give you more satisfaction as a Writing For Pleasure teacher than seeing a child scamper back into class remembering to grab their journal because they wanted to continue with a piece when they got home.
For teachers, while working from home, there will be some time to further explore this approach to teaching writing and consider how to start transforming your teaching alongside the children’s experiences of writing. I have found a Writing For Pleasure approach to be a truly transformational pedagogy: once you begin, it is difficult to stop exploring and there is such a wealth of research and practice to discover.
It is a highly effective and affecting pedagogy; perfect for helping children to live a literate life. I am just getting started, and I hope this adumbration of my experiences has piqued your interest enough to go and explore some more of the principles, and the research behind them for yourself. If you are looking for a starting point, I would recommend reading the report, What is it ‘Writing For Pleasure’ teachers do that makes the difference? (Young 2019).
- Young, R., (2019) What is it ‘Writing For Pleasure’ teachers do that makes the difference? The Goldsmiths’ Company & The University Of Sussex UK [Online] Available at: writing4pleasure.com
- Young, R., Ferguson, F., (2020) Real-World Writers: a handbook for teaching writing with 7-11 year olds London: Routledge