Brett Healey is a Literacy Coach at Victoria Shanghai Academy in Hong Kong. He specialises in the teaching of writing which led him to complete a master’s degree by research and is now working on his PhD which extends this thinking into children’s metalinguistic understanding of writing. This research translates into classroom writing strategies. Follow Brett on Twitter @MrBWHealey.
To children, writing is like any other primary school ritual. They play along with it as they’re expected to. Yet, if you ask authors, creative writing is a tangible and meaningful act, the pride and bane of their profession. Knowing how students experience writing assists teachers in bridging the gap between their own perspective and that of their students. We know a lot about authors’ writing experiences, but how do children in the classroom experience it? To find out, I conducted a study of experience with a group of Year Six children for my master’s thesis.
I discovered that creative writing in the classroom is like a constant tug of war of consciousness between school and the imagination. Tugging from the school end are things like the teacher’s expectations, grades, writing topics, and formality. Tugging from the imagination end are mental images of the writing ideas. Stuck in the middle is the writer, dragged from end to end: sometimes sitting in their classroom desk, sometimes adrift in the imagination.
The writing world
The imagination end – what I call the writing world – is a place where children like to be. In this mental space, the physical world fades away, as well as all consciousness of the school-ness of the task. One student, Kathleen (pseudonym), described it eloquently:
“I feel like I’m in that place, another world, another zone. So, I get into that place where I’m writing, I take my characters to this place, this large meadow or something. When I come back I’m like, where’s the meadow gone?”
It is like sitting in a private movie theatre where the setting and characters play out in front. Idea after idea, image after image flow in and so the writing evolves on the page as it appears in the mind. We may call this something like intense concentration or a “state of flow”, but to the children, it’s like watching a world of its own, an escape from the classroom. Interestingly, all awareness of words is nonexistent here, a point I shall return to.
The school end of the experience – what I call schooled writing – is a little more sobering. The writing ideas are no longer the focus. Instead, the focus is the thought of achieving. Some students described this as a feeling of parents or teachers in their head telling them what to do. One student, Joe (pseudonym), described schooled writing like this:
“My mind is stuck inside a perfect writing thing. It’s like all those sections where all my thoughts have been have to be caged up. I just need to put away the good ideas; they’re not up to what I need. And then I think of what would give me an A.”
This quote echoes the experience of other students, showing how the purpose of writing switches from expressing ideas (writing world) to achieving results (schooled writing). Students who can “cage up” their thoughts (because such ideas are not “up to what they need”) feel as though they need to survive the types of writing done at school. Indeed, many students talked about how their writing piece is not their story, but their standard.
The third major experience of writing is the emotion – what I call the self. Emotions change depending on whether the student is experiencing their writing world or schooled writing. In their writing world, the student has a sense of agency, a feeling of purpose. Marie (pseudonym) said:
“You’re free to write anything you want. Like you’re free. There could be a city over there and a town over there.”
In the schooled writing experience, the students feel a sense of adequacy (or inadequacy) as a writer. David (pseudonym) said:
“I am obsessed so much on if I am doing it good or if someone’s going to like it.”
Joe drew this picture to explain what writing is like for him. You can see his mind expanding with all the things that weave in and out of consciousness when he writes. Capitalised at the top are his ideas, his writing world, which come from his ‘life story and personal experience’. In here, he separates his useful ones (for the given task) from his ‘not useful ones’ (the ‘caged up’ ideas), which are then fed onto a ‘conveyor belt’ into his mind. This separation is dependent on ‘my standard’ which allow him to select appropriate words that ‘transform’ his ideas as they appear on the page. For Joe, the thought of readers (‘people’) affects his choice of ideas, especially his parents, as seen written in capitals. This illustration further demonstrates the complex, and often conflicting, consciousness comprising the world of children as they sit writing at their desks.
Ending the tug-of-war
Given this experiential view of writing, it may seem as though school inevitably dooms creative writing. But this is not true. Teachers can teach so that children experience writing like authors do. Authors experience words as a crafting tool for expression. Nowhere in these children’s experience did words appear like this. When swept up in their imagination, ideas write themselves onto the page unconsciously, and students lack metacognition. When thinking about school, words are tools of perceived achievement (e.g. ineffective similes). And so, children don’t seem to enjoy the playful author experience of words.
Instead, teachers can show children what it’s like to play with words as crafting tools. This makes the classroom desk inviting, a workbench to sharpen tools that carve pathways through the writing world. Here is where a teacher’s deep knowledge of the writing craft matters in the classroom. This means teachers, being writers themselves, should share their experiences of words with their students, which has been shown to profoundly impact student writing. They can show them how words uncage ideas.
My next research, for my PhD, narrows this experiential view down to the construction of the sentence. How do children conceptualise syntax manipulation as a way of generating meaning? Specifically, if we talk about shaping sentences, does it change consciousness?
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