‘I Don’t Know What to Write!’

One topic = Eighteen topics

In the introduction to Nick Hornby’s ‘Fever Pitch’, the writer discusses the nature of the true football obsessive, while lying in bed with his wife and being asked that eternally dreaded question, ‘What are you thinking?’ Obsessives have no choice. They have to lie on these occasions. Well, when I was asked this question a while back, I lied too. I wasn’t thinking about Global warming or the Economic Crisis; Syria or Greece. I was thinking about how I could be a better teacher of writing. Now this post is not a confessional, nor am I using my Blog as a Psychiatrist’s chair. However, I was concerned about something. Let me explain…

Some of my greatest moments as an English teacher have come when reading through student writing; their imagination often takes the breath away, their reflective approach to very personal moments can be heart-breaking. Often, being an English teacher is the greatest privilege when young people feel confident enough to share very personal things with us; and therein lies the problem. Opening up in a very personal way is not so simple for others. And in writing, that can be more difficult for some. Perhaps this is why we often hear them cry, ‘I don’t know what to write!’

Reading ‘Write Like this’ by Kelly Gallagher, an American educator who wrote ‘Readicide’, a text which fundamentally changed me as a teacher, I came across some interesting strategies to improve the quality of the writing kids produce. He addresses those times when students reach a dead-end with writing and explains what can happen when ‘Football’ or ‘My Family’ or ‘My holiday to Florida’ are as far as it gets. The results were, in more ways than one, eye-opening.

Gallagher claims;

‘If I want my students to work toward becoming real-world writers, I need to shift the focus of my writing instruction toward real-world writing purposes.’

(Write Like This, page 9)

In class, with my most challenging students this year, we spent time looking at his six real world writing purposes: to express and reflect; to inform and explain; to evaluate and judge; to inquire and explore; to analyse and interpret; to take a stand/propose a solution. Time leisurely leafing through newspapers together to find examples of each was perhaps the most engaging lessons I had with them this year. (Incidentally, buying 15 copies of ‘The I’ newspaper at 20 pence a throw might have brought strange looks from the man in the corner shop but it is a cheap resource which can be used with two or three classes).

Gallagher is emphatic in his assertion that, if we want students to write, then we must do so ourselves, IN FRONT of them.

‘As the teacher in the room, each of us must become a mentor. As such, we must stand next to our students and show them how real writers write.’

(Write Like This, page 8)

It was a simple but obvious change in my strategy but I had never thought of writing my own piece at the same time as my students. Tackling the ‘football’ conundrum, which just about every boy arrives at very quickly, I chose to write about my beloved Partick Thistle. The sleeping giants of Scottish football. Not that I specifically wanted to, you understand, but I wanted to show those boys how even that topic can be developed into something special. Developing the six writing purposes, on the overhead projector (yes, I still use one), I came up with three possibilities for each.

There are thirty students in this class, almost all reluctant writers, for one reason or another, and they completed this exercise along with me. All of them did. All of them turned one topic into eighteen topics over the course of one lesson. We were ready to write.

And, yes, I did write alongside them, every step of the way. I wrote on acetate on OHP. I made mistakes – sometimes deliberate, sometimes not – and scored whole sentences out at times. I started again. I rewrote parts I felt were untidy. I added more descriptive words and expressions with ^ now and again. I did all of the things good writers do; and thirty students did it with me. The class did it with me.

What came out at the end, apart from some bizarre memories of my early teens, was often remarkable. The grumpy boy who said his topic would be his family and who was in it, blogged about his mother’s developing MS and how he has become a carer. I cried reading it. His football-obsessed friend wrote about how his relationship with his dad has developed as they go to games together. This was a class of very reluctant fifteen year-old writers; many had always avoided putting pen to paper. Everyone of them came up with something special. Not always lengthy but more focused, more open, more revealing.

It was a simple and effective series of lessons and there was little ICT involved until students decided they wanted to Blog at home. Teaching writing had always been the one part of my job which I have found challenging but Kelly Gallagher has opened up a new direction for me and I can’t wait to use this strategy with other classes.  So, the next time I’m asked ‘What are you thinking?’ I think I may not be so reluctant to admit my obsessions. Perhaps I’ll say I was thinking of Kelly Gallagher….

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