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Monday, 25 February 2013

Having Fun (And Attaining High Standards In Literacy)

Whenever I go into schools to run workshops I establish three rules at the outset:

 - Respect
 - Give It A Go
 - Have Fun

I always explicitly designate the last of these rules as the most important. I want the pupils to enjoy the process of writing and manipulating ideas, and I want them to leave with positive memories of me and my visit.

Once I have established these rules the pupils are divested of any notion that I am there to ‘judge’ or to ‘inspect’ them and their work. As a consequence they are often less inhibited when it comes to exploring ideas and getting some words down on the page. It is often the case that previously reluctant pupils find it within themselves to write and perform things that maybe they wouldn’t otherwise have, but my emphasis on having fun can, occasionally, have an unintended consequence: pupils are so busy laughing and being likeably silly that they forget to come up with quality work. Sure they’ve enjoyed the process, but no teacher would want to show their finished product to an Ofsted inspector!

It is never my purpose to grind such work out of pupils, so on the one hand this doesn’t bother me too much: able pupils can come up with ‘quality work’ anyway and are given an excuse for the moment to let their hair down, and for less able pupils freedom and fun are surely the first steps on the road to producing quality work. But on the other hand it does raise something of a dilemma. Of course I want pupils to have fun with me, but I also emphatically do want them to produce work that they and their teachers can be proud of. I want pupils to write with a sense of liberation from expectations, but I want their work to have lots of lovely examples of simile, metaphor, alliteration, personification, onomatopoeia and the like. Similarly, I want pupils to find their own voice, but I do not want them to come up with stuff that is infantile, platitudinous or nonsensical. I’m sure a lot of visiting authors would claim to find themselves in a similar position.

I haven’t researched any of this; I haven’t read the relevant articles in the relevant journals or anything like that, but I suspect that, like so many other things when it comes to the classroom, it is all about striking a balance. How might one do this? Well, it seems obvious yet crucial to note that visiting authors are not teachers (they may well be qualified to teach, but they do not tend to visit schools in that capacity). Given this, it is to be expected that the general tone of the session is different to that of a normal school lesson. As I mentioned earlier, I set the tone explicitly at the beginning of each workshop. Once one has established a certain atmosphere by explicitly emphasising the important of having fun, then the rest of the session takes place against this backdrop. Steps can then be taken to direct pupils towards a satisfactory outcome. Perhaps these steps look a bit like what teachers would tell pupils in a normal literacy lesson: use at least two similes, use at least two instances of alliteration, or whatever. The issue may not be the content of the workshop so much as the tone with which it is conducted.

But it must be admitted that something about this continues to grate with me. If I am telling pupils how to write their poems, then are they really giving a part of themselves in their writing? If not, then surely the whole beauty and point of poetry is lost. Perhaps the thing to do is to make suggestions rather than give orders. And perhaps one also needs clearly to identify the purpose of the visit. Is the visit intended to promote poetry/writing as catharsis, or is it intended to raise standards in literacy? If the former, then perhaps no prescriptions or limits need be set at all; if the latter then maybe they do. In all likelihood schools will simply invite a poet in to run poetry workshops, having no more explicit expectations than this. The onus then falls on the poet to decide what sort of workshop leader they want to be, and in turn how they want to market themselves. Speaking for myself, I want to be someone who promotes both fun and high literacy standards; I want to have my cake and eat it too (of course I would never encourage a pupil to use a cliché such as this in their writing!). As I develop and grow, perhaps I will get close to achieving this aim. 

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