We want children to become writers whose voices radiate from paper, who can capture their ideas in cogent written statements, who understand both the constraints and possibilities of written language conventions, and who can organize and structure various kinds of texts, texts that serve multiple purposes – everything from a poem to celebrate the birth of a new sister to a business letter requesting information …
Sedgwick Writing to Learn (2000)
The voices and ideas of the teachers, academics, writers and children at PETAA’s ‘Professional Learning Intensive’ Writing the Future (Canberra University 19 & 20 October 2018) radiated from the ‘pages’ of their presentations.
Why do we write?
What is it in us as human beings that we need and want to communicate through the written word? As Dr Misty Adoniou said – ‘It is more than talk on paper; it is more magical than that’. We can build pictures and images, we can change the order of the words to change the meaning utterly; writing gives us the power over making meaning for the reader. And it can be magical.
We write to tell a story, to unmask injustice and cruelty, to hold up a mirror, to show a journey of change, to describe a way of life, to name terrible truths, to show that life is absurd. For these, and a thousand other purposes.
But it is learned. It does not come naturally to us.
Our syllabuses and curriculum documents and progressions and continuums have tried to capture the development of writing skills, the growth, the learning that happens so a child is able to write. These are the ‘how’ of writing. They are vital for our student to be able to understand the constraints, but not the possibilities of written language conventions. Our students need to be able to organize and structure various kinds of texts required by the range of subjects in the curriculum. But we must help them have the joy of doing this for their own purposes.
Here are some of the texts that students have to construct throughout their busy days in the classroom:
PLUS the complexities of engaging with specialised vocabulary in every subject, decoding the symbols of each subject, using different syntactic patterns for different subjects, coming to grips with familiar vocabulary used in different ways in different subjects, and so on. And that’s before we get to the intricacies of English grammar.
There’s not a lot of magic there.
We don’t ask our students to create such texts every day. But there is such a volume of determinedly purposeful texts that the idea of writing for the sheer joy of it is severely challenged.
It is easy for us to get so involved in getting our students to focus on the appropriate grammar for each of these, the accepted structures, the spelling and the punctuation, that we can lose sight of what writing is.
PETAA’s 2018 Authors in schools were all writers who know and practice their craft every day. They share their ideas and experiments with students in schools, and shared the results of their work with this project with attendees at the conference. They gave us a glimpse of some of the ideas they use to engage students in the magic of writing too. But these are special ideas, and they don’t necessarily belong with classroom teachers.
Louise Park, author of the ‘Star Girl’ and ‘Harriet Clare’ series, worked with one of the showcase schools. She has several techniques for getting students started in their writing, but each emphasised the richness of knowledge and understanding that was already in the children’s own imaginations. She does not stress the narrative structure at the beginning, but rather the character, the situation, the problem, the setting. Then these are linked into the story structure. This helps to keep the magic in the development of the narrative. He work begins with ideas.
Academics Bronwyn Parkin and Helen Harper presented their project on working with digital text to develop students’ academic language in science and history. Their focus was using dialogue to build knowledge of purpose, field, text structure and language features of academic texts, so that the power of developing text could be handed over to students. They cited Jon Callow’s The Shape of text to come: How image and text work (2013 PETAA). Their work demonstrated the way the magic of writing can grow in our students in academic texts, along with mastery over the technicalities of text.
If the voices of our students are to ‘radiate’ from the page, or screen, then we may need to stop teaching writing as a set of small isolated skills, and, instead, teach writing to engage the hearts and minds of readers. This is what engages the heart of a writer.
Resources for teaching writing in context
Callow, J. (2013) The Shape of text to come: How image and text work Newtown: PETAA
THE handbook for the grammar of reading and producing visual texts. Callow includes image and text working together, the metalanguage of visual and multimodal texts, visual resources and support for the teacher for ‘selecting texts and activities in the classroom’.
Parkin, B & Harper, H. (2018) Teaching with Intent: Scaffolding academic language with marginalized students Newtown: PETAA
Parkin and Harper presented some of their research at the PETAA Learning Intensive. In this very accessible text they demonstrate working with teachers to build students’ knowledge of science simultaneously with the academic language required for writing in subject science. Very comprehensive.
Rossbridge, J. (2015) Put it in Writing: Context, text and Language Newtown: PETAA (with Rushton, K.)
This excellent resource includes a comprehensive introduction to texts and language and ways to support the developing writer. The rest of the book is organised in teaching sequences for writing in the imaginative, information and persuasive ‘worlds’.
Turbill, J., Barton, G. & Brock, C. Eds. (2015) Teaching Writing in Today’s Classrooms: Looking Back to Look Forward South Australia: Australian Literacy Educators’ Association Ltd (ALEA)
This handbook for teachers was published as a celebration of ALEA’s 40th birthday. It is divided into three sections –
- Looking back – examines what we can learn from the past, with chapters that represent key points of reference for the teaching of writing, re-edited for this collection
- What is happening now – shows current writing practices in classrooms, schools and community contexts in Australia, Fiji and the US, and how current frameworks have been informed by past thinkers
- Looking forward, which deals with digital and multimodal texts. It includes case studies, and the implications for digital and multimodal texts for the future.
Each of these resources includes information on integrated assessment that is practical and informative.
Queensland School Curriculum Council (1998) Literacy Position Paper. Online resource, no longer available
Sedgwick, F. (2000) Writing to Learn: Poetry and literacy across the primary curriculum London: RoutledgeFalmer