Recently, my 8-year-old told me he hates writing.
Two years ago, in Kindy, his teacher reported that each time she said it was time for writing, he’d pump his little fist and hiss, ‘Yesssssss!’.
Now in Year 2, what’s changed? He tells me he has to write more. And he has to write about ‘stupid’ topics. And he doesn’t know what to say.
My son’s newfound hate, and the current media around NSW schools and writing, have got me thinking about my decade-long career as a high school English teacher and why I left.
Firstly, as a contracted teacher I felt pressured to ensure my students did well in standardised tests. Which led to scaffolds. Which meant I was largely writing the text for the student. Which became soul-destroying.
Secondly, there was a demand to be ever innovative: to utilise technology; to encourage self-directed learning; to develop project-based learning programs; and the list went on. And all the while, there was a little voice in my head chirping: is this better? These ‘innovative teaching practices’ often left little time for the nuts and bolts of English teaching: Reading, discussion, debate and writing.
My favourite times in the classroom were based around teaching practices that are considered highly outdated. Reading a book, cover to cover, as a class. Free choice writing. Getting students to have a go at Shakespeare. (As in, the words written by Shakespeare over 400 years ago. Not a graphic novel or a modern-day re-write. Or a tweet.)
The last school I worked at still allowed teachers to read a novel as a class. This eventually caused a lot of raised eye-brows when the Head Teacher retired, a replacement was found, and a new position was created: Head of Teaching and Learning. (‘Half a term of lessons just reading? We need to flip the classroom and get them to read the novel at home, surely!’ the new staff members cried.)
However, it couldn’t be denied that students enjoyed the novel unit. The teacher generally read. The sun streamed through the Friday afternoon classroom window. The scent of blossom and freshly-mown grass promised good times for the weekend. Students would listen and comment when asked. And they could be insightful.
How to put these ideas into writing though? How to make the students' ideas fit the scaffold but remain authentic? Often, by the time the ideas were on paper, the students' voices had been excised, and a sameness oozed over everyone’s work.
I spent my first year of teaching in the UK, at a gigantic Sports Academy in Harlowe, Essex. It became very clear, very quickly, that our purpose was to drive up the marks in standardised tests. My Head Teacher took me aside and fed me this tidbit: ‘Get the students to jot a little table at the top of their paper, with a colon, semi-colon, apostrophe and a comma. As they use each, they can cross them off. Using these will boost their results.’
I returned to Australia to work in the Penrith area. NAPLAN, the (now obsolete) Year 10 School Certificate, and the HSC were like Macbeth’s three witches brewing in their chamber, a constant whine in the background, a pressure on my spine. And I could get the kids to get the marks. Head Teachers and the rest of the Executive would be impressed. My students were not.
After a decade, I was beaten. I decided to look for work elsewhere.
Now, I’m observing from a new angle as my son navigates writing in the classroom. Tucking him into bed tonight, I asked what he did for writing today (I confess, it has become something of an obsession).
‘We had a topic: what fruit or vegetable would you be?’
‘What did you write about?’
‘I said I’d be a mandarin. Because then I could squirt you in the eye.’
Well. That’s that then.