A Light That Never Goes Out

This may or may not have happened.

He handed me his first piece of writing homework and, of course, it was illegible. ‘I’m not good at writing’, he’d told me. We’d been working on lists: Things I lost by the time I was ten or Things I’d been given by the time I was ten. He wanted to tell me about his hamster. He’d stayed behind to tell me all about it: how he lost it in his garden and feels sad about it; how he’d look after it more if he still had it. I told him to write it all down at home.

imageBeing ‘not good at writing’ wasn’t a surprise. The notes I’d been passed from the ASN team told me that. He would feel better if he was given a laptop to write his work, something his previous teacher echoed. He had great ideas but there’s no point in him writing it in his class book as you won’t be able to read it. Better to type it up. He’ll feel better about it and you won’t need to struggle to decipher his handwriting. And I thought to myself, ‘No. It’s time to stop this nonsense.’

He’s twelve and the most important thing he has learned so far in seven years of school is, ‘I’m not good at writing.’ And that’s not good enough, is it? We might dress that fact up by giving him a nice laptop to do his work. We might constantly remind him that his ideas are great and he can express himself very well at times. Perhaps that’s fine when you are twelve. His work nicely typed up, perhaps pinned on the class notice board. His teacher might tell the other pupils to read his work because it was one of the best in the class.

But what happens when he gets to fifteen, sixteen, twenty, twenty five? Who is there to tell him that his ideas are great; when he realises that his inability to write legibly will exclude him from any number of things that others can do? So when we condemn some children to a life of illiteracy because it is difficult – not for him, although it is, but for a system which can’t find the time to help him with his problems- we cannot absolve ourselves of responsibility when he enters society after he leaves us. ‘I’m not good at writing’ does not sound quite so cute from an adult who has been through twelve or thirteen of formal schooling, does it?

I spent perhaps five times as long deciphering his handwriting that night as anyone else’s in the class. I returned class books and explained the feedback process and that everyone had their own improvements to make. Then I sat down next to the boy who told me ‘I’m not good at writing’. I asked him why that was. He said it was something he’d never been able to do. I sat with him and looked him in the eye and told him that I would do everything I could for him to get better at writing. He wrote out one sentence in large rounded letters. He looked at me and smiled.

Remember, this may or may not have happened.

6 thoughts on “A Light That Never Goes Out

  1. Whilst writing is important, do we need to spend 7 years at primary, where pencil grip is so important, then maybe 3 or 4 years at high school , stressing if handwriting is good. There are so many other ways in which ideas can be expressed, just look at the ‘what is beauty’ vid your student produced, it was emotional, informative, thought provoking etc, and no handwriting. The youngster in your post does not appear to be ‘illeterate’ as your post indicates he can read, he is just not good at handwriting, so by primary 3 the boy should have been using microphones, videos, blogging and so on, not spending time stressing when his a’s go below a line or he has missed out a full stop, like my son, who daily, faces pressure from his school to improve his writing, he is 8, and I see his future as described by you above. It is clear though that you care, others may not.

    • Thanks for the comment, Jim.
      As for your first question, I would say yes we do need to do that. It’s not that handwriting especially needs to be good but it needs to be legible at least. That boy will one day be asked to write as an adult and whether we like it or not, it is humiliating to realise, too late, that he has been let down. It is well documented that the cognitive benefits of learning to write by hand – hand/eye co-ordination for one – are huge. there may well be some who never manage to do it but it surely can’t be because his teacher didn’t see it as important. I write about the importance of handwriting in this post.http://www.theguardian.com/teacher-network/2011/nov/02/handwriting-teaching-resources
      Thanks again

  2. Careful, Kenny. Whether it happened or not, you are in danger of challenging some of the nonsense that masquerades as “inclusion” or “pupil support” in our schools.

    Of course. OF COURSE, everyone should be able to write, even if it’s with their feet or the aid of technology, provided that the tech is enabling and not disabling. It’s a matter of professional judgement and sometimes, taking the approach that you (and I) have taken has greater effect on not only the child’s writing skills, but also their self-esteem.

  3. Writing is only one means of communicating ideas and making sense of the world we live in. How many jobs, trades, professions, workplaces either do not require handwritten communication or have alternative means of written communication than a pen/pencil and paper? It would be wonderful to imagine a 21st century world where everyone can effectively and efficiently wield a handwriting implement and express themselves fully in long hand. It would be wonderful to imagine a 21st century world where everyone reads written text, comprehends fully what they have read and thinks (perhaps even reflectively and deeply) about what they’ve read. It would be wonderful to imagine all these readers applying what they have learned from all that reading to their writing. I do understand what you are saying, but the world is not this way! It is frustrating. It would be wonderful to imagine a classroom where the child condemned as being “not good at writing” suddenly expresses him/herself in a written piece for us – but the world is not very often this way!

    I agree with the principle of what you are saying in my heart and think I have understood the point you are making. But the whole issue of handwriting is so complex, especially by the time secondary teachers have such pupils as you have portrayed in your blog sitting in their classrooms – condemned by the tag “not good at writing”. Not to oversimplify but, had other factors like motivation, self-determination, domestic environment, peer influence, self belief, relevance to aspirations, etc, been able to have an affect on the young persons’s life before, by the time a young teenager is sitting in your classroom, disengaged perhaps, convinced probably of his/her inability to write anything that anyone is going to read, convinced probably that no one cares, convinced probably that it is all irrelevant – let alone that anyone would find any merit in or value in their scrawled efforts – you’re dealing with a mindset (and teenagers can be so proud and stubborn) as well as probably dealing with physical obstacles such as impaired motor skills.

    Forgive this if you feel I have completely missed the point you are making. :-/

    • “Not to oversimplify but, had other factors like motivation, self-determination, domestic environment, peer influence, self belief, relevance to aspirations, etc, been able to have an affect on the young persons’s life before, by the time a young teenager is sitting in your classroom.”

      Yet for all those reasons the single biggest factor is whether they have been taught to in the first place. EYFS in England is atrociously ‘child-centred’ which basically means they play all day (which they could do at home) and that they do not correct anything the children do wrong (including pencil grip) as they think it will ‘traumatise’ them. Funny I don’t remember having any issues with pencil grip but I imagine that is because I was told how to hold it properly from the get go so have no recollection anymore.

      I have seriously been questioning the whole idea of ‘teaching reading and writing too young and it puts them off’ argument. Where is the evidence of this? Which children? Where? How many? I think it’s just an anecdote going around because those teachers don’t want to think about the real reason why some children become disengaged so quickly – i.e. that they are in the prime of their ability to learn gross and fine motor skills but no one is teaching them because its authoritarian.

      The only children I have seen put off writing and reading are those that have not been taught it early enough and whose problems (while identified) have not been subject to interventions when they are young. Yes I mean nursery and reception. Unless disability or extreme behaviour is involved – most children would get on with it and learn. The upset and trauma is not being experienced by the child except in the imagination of the teacher and the middle class fantasists who write books about this – let me point out that I have never come across any peer-reviewed and respected study to back this up. If someone has – I am happy to read it and change my mind. But I refuse to do so based on hear say.

      Discovery learning in primary school is an unbridled nonsense and does nothing to help children build up the knowledge they need to be able to study any subject further, hence the response has to be to dumb down each phase.

      When was the last time a university made a course harder because of the level their students were coming in at to them? That their first year courses were not extending them enough. My other main beef is skills over knowledge – all those fun experiments in science and yet no sign of any extra children taking it up. Numbers in all academic subjects that require a lot of prior knowledge – science, maths, history – has declined with the rise of progressive teaching. This is no coincidence.

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