The Impossible Triangle of Writing

Hello all! It's been a couple of weeks since my last post but I have a very good reason.
A couple, actually. Firstly, I have been feverishly writing not one but three essays, two of which are now submitted and all of which needed more attention than I could have spared if I was also writing a blog post. Secondly, I have been collaborating with the wonderful @mimmer and that kind of took over for a week. Anyway, life is slowly getting back to normal and I only have a dissertation left before I am totally free to write what I want to write!

With that dissertation in mind, I am going to leave a link to a questionnaire right here.  If you are a UK teacher and have the opportunity, I'd really appreciate you filling it in.  It'll only take 10 minutes and it'll really help me to gather data for my dissertation.  Even if you aren't a teacher, if you could forward the link to teachers that you know, it would be a big help.  Thanks in advance!

The Impossible Triangle of Writing!

When encouraging children to write, you can only choose two of the following three:

I love writing.  I have a degree in creative writing and my very first gradable assignment was a 10,000-word anthology of stories and poetry.  It was bliss.  I'm very lucky in that I get to write this blog for fun.  I'm even luckier that I have been commissioned to write an anthology of Reading Comprehension texts and questions... twice.  I just love writing.   And I always have.  I attribute this largely down to the fact that, when I was at school, the National Curriculum was a fairly young thing and the opportunities to write were richer.  

I remember one of my teachers asking us to write a story about anything at all.  That was the whole week of English lessons.  Just write something!  How often do we get to do that as educators now?  Everything is themed and written to be judged, or to contain a certain aspect of punctuation or grammar.  It's tick-box writing; narration by numbers.  It's sad.

Worse than that, it's not fun.  Tham Khai Meng (writing in The Guardian) said that creativity is educated out of children at school.  And I sort of agree.  Not totally, it is still possible to be very creative within the curriculum but it's tough.  

I once worked in a school where the English coordinator did something very impressive.  She insisted that one hour a week would be set aside for free writing.  This writing would be shared by the children (who would either read their pieces themselves, or have it read by someone else) but never, ever marked.  The genius of this was that, even if something isn't marked, it can still be used to assess, so it was not a wasted opportunity (although many of the staff felt that it was, and so did a 'mocksted' officer.  Don't get me started).  

Personally, I loved these sessions.  Giving the children the creative space to take risks and be silly; to actually play with the language they had learned resulted in some of the finest writing they had ever done.   Not naturally, I'll admit.  There was still teaching and there were still structured lessons and story maps but I was able to use the free writing sessions to assess what needed to be covered; who could be pushed just a little further; who needed a little more support to achieve more.  It was great.

Then I started to notice something.  In school, we need children to write a certain amount by a certain time because we need to have grades next to their names every six weeks.  Which is fine, learning to work to a deadline is an important life skill.  When I get a writing commission, I have to produce the words by the given date or my client will not be happy and I probably won't get a repeat gig from them.  But that's me.  A grown man who trades words for money.

What do children get out of it?  Why do they write?  I'm looking for an answer that's a little more poetic that because we tell them to... but to be honest, I'm drawing a blank.  Admittedly, some children will write some pieces and really get a kick out of it but largely, it's because we need them to write it.

So I sat with the English coordinator and together we decided to overhaul the whole thing.  We stripped the writing requirements for the staff down to four areas (for Key Stage 2, that's 7-11-year-olds, and only 2 for Key Stage 1, 5-7 years): Writing to Entertain (also KS1); Writing to Persuade; Writing to Inform (also KS1); Writing to Perform.  All the genres fit neatly into one of these categories, which freed the staff up to concentrate on the content.  It also meant that it didn't matter what the children wrote about.  If we were focussing on Writing to Inform, then the conventions of information writing would be taught but the applications of those conventions could come in whatever form the children chose.  Suddenly, I had a whole class of children who wanted to write!  One that has stuck with me for nearly seven years is How to a Good Milwall Supporter, a wonderfully satirical piece written by a very reluctant boy (who didn't realise that he had written a satire, he just thought it was funny because it was true).  

So I had cracked the code of getting all the children to write.  They could practise and experiment during free writing sessions and they could demonstrate their ability to apply their skills through whatever catalyst best suited them. But there was a problem.  Deadlines were still a thing.  And these had to account for redrafts as well.  Inevitably, this either resulted in children having to rush their writing and present neatly finished sub-par pieces, finishing quite brilliant pieces but with no time to produce a final 'published' copy, or taking so long to produce wonderful work in beautiful handwriting that they never quite finished.

It seemed to me that we were being unreasonable.  The three elements of 'good' writing in Primary school were pace, quality and neatness (at least, as far as assessing against the relevant criteria are concerned.  I am in no way saying that this is what makes a good writer).  What we had here was a Penrose triangle of impossibility.  

Working in a different school, this time as the English coordinator (promotion, woop!), I led a staff meeting on this conundrum and forwarded a rather divisive proposition.  Instead of a Penrose, I instead suggested that the teachers picture a Kanizsa triangle.  

Labelling the three PacMan-esque images as Pace, Quality and Neatness, I explained (more implored, really) that to help the children achieve the writing grades we knew they were capable of, we had to destroy the illusory triangle.  We needed to choose two of the three and let the other one go.  So, if we wanted quality work quickly, we needed to accept that it would not be neat.  If we wanted neat work of high quality, then we would need to allocate the time to achieve it.  If we needed something quick and neat, say for a competition or an emergency Parents' Evening display, then it was unfair to expect the highest quality.  We needed to remove a corner and destroy the triangle.

I actually ran the staff meeting past my class the day before to get their take on it (why more people don't do this, I'm not sure.  Children are the most important part of a school, they should have input!) and they saw the sense of it.  Some argued that they could produce all three corners at once, and that's great.  Some can.  So if you are reading this thinking, Nonsense, I could get my kids to do all three, great!  Good luck to you, if you're successful, tell me how!

What I found by using this triangle was that it restructured my expectation to a more manageable level and it removed the stress for the children because we would refer to it whenever we began a piece of writing.  They know that, if we were taking more than a week, then I expected high quality, neat work.  If we were going to start and be finished in a few days, then they would not be penalised if their handwriting wasn't joined, or if they were a little smudgy with their presentation.  In short, much like the free-writing, it removed the risk factor and allowed them to concentrate on what we needed at the time.  

I still swear by this triangle.  And by the four writing areas.  These, combined with using a monomyth (or Story Circle, thanks, Dan Harmon) side-bar have never yet failed to produce writing worth assessing.  

This is, of course, just my opinion and experience though.  I am always keen to know what things are like outside of my own little circle.  Maybe you completely disagree with me and think that it is always possible to create high-quality writing in two days with perfect penmanship?  Perhaps you believe that children do not have to write extended pieces to be assessed?  Maybe you think that I have the right idea but have completely missed the point!  Whatever your views, I'd love to hear them so please get in touch.  Either leave a comment at the bottom or send me an email or a tweet.

To close, I'm going to ask that you again forward the link to the questionnaire to absolutely every teacher you know.  The more data I can gather, the more relevant my findings will be.  I also need to interview a few Year 6 teachers, if you're up for it.  Middle leaders and SLT, too.  You'll be completely anonymous, I promise!

In the meantime, look after yourselves and thanks for reading!

Carl Headley-Morris