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Teaching the Unteachable

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An article on the Guardian website yesterday claimed that, in the United Kingdom, children are being taught creative writing skills in a detrimental manner. Classrooms up and down the country echo the mantra, “Don’t say said!”, and helpful posters list “banned words” like badgoodbig and and.

The net result, argue critics, is that students are being rewarded for producing flowery, unreadable wordvomit, and penalised for actually writing in a reasonable fashion.

From the ages of four to fourteen, pupils are discouraged from using short words where a longer one would do the job, and this is actively reflected in the grades their teachers are constrained into giving them. Mark schemes are absolute; if a piece isn’t riddled with synonyms, it won’t make the grade.

Most worryingly of all, from my perspective, is that the system was already very much in place when I was in school. Which means we have an entire generation of people who were conditioned into favouring purple prose.

Purple prose, for those who have not come across the term before, is the catch-all for writing which is so obtrusively ornate that it effectively hinders reading. Therefore, we have on our hands a generation of writers who will, by habit, be unreadable.

A targets-based educational system has ushered in a Dark Age in British literature.

Personally, I fear for my own writing. I have always thought of myself as “good”, but now I see that I was looking at myself through the lens of a system which valued the atrocious. I could be atrocious.

Then again, from a young age, I despised the “said is bad” dogma, because I knew flat out that it just wasn’t true. Plenty of the books I read used the word “said” in spades, and it never once got dull. The word “got” was also exiled from the classroom for no good reason, and it riled me beyond belief. I would spend minutes trying to replace this bit of fluff, this insignificant filler word. It destroyed the flow of my writing. And for what?

It never once became dull. It never once grew dull. It never once developed the property of being dull.

That’s what happens. Very quickly, one runs out of synonyms for these perfectly adequate words and has to resort to a feat of violent contortion. The word “got”, like “said” is essentially invisible to a reader. It very deliberately adds nothing at all to a sentence, because quite often there is nothing more to be said. In real life, people do not whisper or bellow or mumble or exclaim half as much as they say, say, say and say.

To really put all this hideousness into perspective, I’m going to include an excerpt from My Immortal, a piece of Harry Potter fanfiction widely touted as the worst thing ever written:

‘”Why did you do such a thing, you mediocre dunces?” asked Professor McGonagall.

“How dare you?” demanded Professor Snape.

And then Draco shrieked. “BECAUSE I LOVE HER!”‘

Apart from everything else, what is utterly jarring about these lines is the way the writer has inflicted significance on the manner in which every line is said.

Yet, according to the syllabus, this is not obnoxious, cloying, violently unreadable tripe, but 10 out of 10, full marks, top of the class.

So- what’s the solution? I think the trouble with trying to grade creative writing is that reading is personal. Charles Dickens is widely regarded to be one of the greatest writers ever to have lived, and yet I would rather spend four hours proofreading My Immortal-calibre fanfiction than endure Great Expectations again. If I was a primary school teacher, and Dickens was in my charge, I’d have him writing lines every break and lunchtime: “I will not use twenty words where one would suffice.”

The mark scheme, then, is a necessary evil. But I challenge you to tell me what should be on it.

I have another solution. Why did I, as a child, know that “said” was good, and “good” was fine, and “and” could actually be quite a pleasant device if I used it properly? It’s because I read.

I didn’t read, as the curriculum instructs, to derive meaning about the intentions of characters. I didn’t read in a way that was assessable or useful to my teachers. I read for the sheer pleasure of it.

Reward children for reading. Give them a wide selection of books (and audiobooks!) to choose from. Encourage them to share what they enjoyed about books. Make them write less. And when they do, don’t grade them. Show them to their peers. Ask what they liked about them.

I don’t know if it would work. But surely it’s better?

What are your thoughts? How should we teach children to write?

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Back on Track: An Attempt

So, the last anyone heard of me, I was moving to Manchester to train as a teacher. That was over four months ago now, and I should really explain why I went from posting daily to simply dropping off the face of the Earth.

It’s going to take a lot of doing. Things have, unsurprisingly, changed. I did move to Manchester to begin my PGCE (a teacher training qualification). I moved into a flat in the centre of the city with an old school friend. We had no internet for a month and a half.

By the time we had rejoined the 21st century, I was commuting daily to a school in Stockport. I was up at 4am every morning and in bed at 10pm. By the end, I was so tired I no longer knew how to cry.

My writing has suffered. By which I mean I have, utterly against my will, stopped writing. I never noticed it happening, but then it did. First went the novel, then the blog, then the poems, then the idle notes on throwaway scraps. I had no words left.

To say I was anything other than miserable would be a lie. But I remember why I’m doing it.

I’m doing it for the child who came back from three consecutive suspensions and never gave me a bad lesson.
I’m doing it for the quiet child who had struggled, but found the confidence to teach the rest of the class about something she finally understood.
I’m doing it for the child who struggled to trust new adults, and who ran away from my lessons, who eventually managed to look me in the eye and smile.
I’m doing it for the lowest attaining child in a top set, who managed to impress an inspector so much they thought he was Gifted and Talented.
I’m doing it for the child who was kept separate in primary school Numeracy lessons, who got into a number of fights from the ages of 11 to 14, who was so disruptive in Science lessons that from the ages of 11 to 16 they were either excluded from them or able to leave as they wished– who went on to get a degree in Physics.

Yes, that last one was me. Because no matter how much some teachers (Hanley, Smith, McKenzie) neglected to veil their disgust in me, there were others (Sanders, Bell, Pothecary) who were actually the making of me.

I’ve already made an impact on some students. I’m not even a good teacher. But I was there when one boy, who’d just calmed down after becoming distraught said, “I don’t know if they’ve told you about me; I’m autistic.” I was there to smile and say, “me too,” and watch the grin on his face as he got to see an actual adult who could do things and have AS.

Representation, as we know, matters. If I’d known that real, functioning, happy people could have AS, I might not have been so frightened. If I’d known that boring people like me could be transgender, that might have saved a lot of stress as well.

I’m not out at work. Mostly because, as it’s not “work”, I don’t have any rights. I’m not going to tell anyone older than 11 that I have AS either (though considering how stressed I’ve been lately, it’s frankly been obvious). The UK is still transphobic, homophobic and ableist and there’s no point in denying it.

I went for a job interview while still living in Liverpool where I admitted to being transgender. I didn’t much care for the job in the long-term, and thought it would be a good idea to try and see what attitudes were like.

She frowned at me and asked me to explain further. She got me to stand up, smooth down my shirt so she could see my body better, see what I had done to it. Asked me to turn around. Frowned, said she would have to speak to her business partner, “to see if it would be alright”.

I never heard from her again- nor did I want to.

I was humiliated.

So, in the classroom, I endure being called “Miss”, and fail to notice when they call me “Sir”. They’re kids, and they’ve been told to behave a certain way on pain of detention. It’s all fine.

Grown adults, meanwhile, should learn to find out someone’s name.

But there’s another reason why going back into the closet (again) doesn’t hurt so much.

I’ll tell you about it tomorrow.