Improving students’ writing about personal experiences
14 Jun 2019
“I don’t know what to write about.”
Ah, how familiar we English teachers are with the above adolescent lament. When it comes to writing about personal experiences, all of a sudden they have never left the darkened shelter of their rooms, never interacted with anyone and pursue absolutely no hobbies whatsoever. Their heads shake and they gaze wistfully off into the distance: “I don’t do anything”.
On that rather despondent opening note, some positives. I am week two into teaching in a Scottish school for the first time, doing a maternity cover until December in a delightful school near Edinburgh. For the first time in six years, I have no responsibility whatsoever, other than to teach. No data to analyse, no meetings to attend and best of all: no intervention to run (I am making a pledge for my future teaching career never to run lunch time intervention sessions again, ever.) The masters dissertation on teacher improvement in the first five years is also finally complete.
For the first time in a long time I can concentrate on both improving and enjoying my own teaching practice. Liberating indeed.
Even better is the fact I have my own classroom. The one downside of going down to four days this year and having a day a week in full father mode (enjoying the ingeniously named ‘Father Fridays’) was that I taught in a ridiculous amount of classrooms across the school. The sight of me comically sprinting across school, sending children flying in order to beat my next class was a familiar sight. It is amazing how much more relaxed and calm I have felt over the past fortnight, particularly now the minimalistic classroom approach has started to take shape.
Much like the narrative writing from GCSE (which I have blogged endlessly on in an attempt to get to the bottom of), my exam class this year (S4 – the equivalent of Year 10) need to do a piece of reflective writing. There are many similarities between the two styles, except the focus is more on reflecting on the impact of a particular event or circumstance on the individual’s life in the Scottish system. Another similarity with the English system is this group will also have to do lots of reading of non-fiction texts and respond to a range of questions in an examination. I am trying to combine both approaches over the next few weeks.
The initial few lessons we had on this topic were fairly unsuccessful, particularly in terms of them coming up with initial ideas to write about. So I decided to model a focus on more of a individual event that might have impacted them. The idea would be to get them to zoom in on something that had a profound impact on them, and to describe this in more detail This approach could be useful for the describe a life changing event in your life type task, or the narrative writing on titles.
The students walked in to this particular lesson with the below delightfully cheesy snap of the day after my wee boy was born last year. I was very tempted, but held back on the Heather Small ‘Proud’ soundtrack (“What have you done today to make you feel proud etc”. The students then had to come up with a range of words to describe how I might have been feeling at this point in time, encouraging them to connect with the piece of non-fiction reading we would be exploring later in the lesson.
I then did some suitably emotive rambling about this being the turning point in my own life, and encouraged them to think about key events and moments in their own lives that they would come back to later in the lesson.
Letter to Daniel
In the blind search that one often does when faced with teaching an unknown topic, I stumbled across this terrific letter that Fergal Keane (the BBC correspondent) wrote to his newborn son in 1996. It may have been the slightly disconcerting experience of moving across Britain, end of year tiredness, or indeed previously mentioned young chap’s nocturnal sleeping habits, but I found the letter extremely moving. It perfectly encapsulates that utter joy and sharp altering of perspective that parenthood brings, and his reflections on his relationship with his alcoholic father are profoundly moving.
I nearly completely embarrassed myself by choking up when reading it to the students – but then again perhaps glimpses of emotional fragility are important in the classroom. I was honest with them in terms of explaining how emotional I found the letter – they looked only mildly uncomfortable!
In terms of encouraging them to analyse and evaluate what make the writing effective, we looked in detail at first paragraph before reading the rest of the article:
My dear son, it is six o’clock in the morning on the island of Hong Kong. You are asleep cradled in my left arm and I am learning the art of one-handed typing. Your mother, more tired yet more happy than I’ve ever known her, is sound asleep in the room next door and there is a soft quiet in our apartment.
They have drafted openings for their pieces of writing with varying degrees of success, and without dampening their enthusiasm too much I have gently cajoled them to consider their reader and try to build on the engagement levels (the subtext being they are inordinately, savagely dull) We consider this opening carefully: the direct address, the interesting setting, the humour in “the art of one-handed typing” and the lovely description of “a soft quiet.” We talked about how he is giving us a sense of both his personality and the focus on fatherhood.
We then read the rest of the article and they had to respond to two questions. The first was basic retrieval: what do you learn about Fergal Keane from the article? The students had to number points the could identify about him as they read the article. This tracking of text and having a focus to consider during reading helps to sustain their focus on reading larger extracts. I could then ask them to hold up their extract after a second reading to make sure that they had identified their key points.
We then looked in more detail at a second question: How does Fergal Keane feel about becoming a father? This required a deeper reading, which I modelled in exploring the first two paragraphs. We discussed and unpicked a range of key quotations, looking at reading beyond the obvious.
Finally we had a general conversation, in which they made a mind-map about what makes it an effective piece of writing. We discussed the structure, the emotional vulnerability, the sense of reflection on his own life and experiences that dominates the writing. We also talked about taking their initial reflections on a journey, to encompass other experiences and how their temperaments may have been impacted.
Their own writing
Students then had to pick one moment from their lives, large of small, that has had an impact on them. They could only write about that event, and focus on zooming in to capture it in as much detail as they could. While there is still lots of work to do, it gave their writing that sense of something to hold onto – rather than generic and dull descriptions of aspects. One girl wrote about the first time she stepped on a netball court and linked that to how her life has developed (she now plays for the Scotland netball team).
It was another reminder for me to make the implicit, ie the skill of good reflective writing, as explicit as possible for students. As with most things, deconstructing excellent writing and making the various aspects crystal clear for students will help them in their own writing.
I have what feels like a thousand (very Scottish) names to learn, so I will leave it on this incredibly poignant close to Keane’s letter: “For if he could hear, he would recognize the distinct voice of family, the sound of hope and new beginnings that you and all your innocence and freshness have brought to the world.” Not a bad line to start a weekend with.
Thank you for reading.