Wednesday, 30 January 2013

Slow Writing - Literacy Across the Curriculum Part 1

A New Hope IV: Slow Writing / Deep Reading / Thoughtful Talking

I have done my first INSET session this week and I would be lying if I said I wasn’t scared. In fact, I was very scared. So scared that I would make a complete fool of myself. It didn’t help that I had man-flu at the same time. Thankfully, the response to the session was very positive and the talk created a lot of discussion.  Some of it I will share on here at a later stage . One of the problems with ‘Literacy Across the Curriculum’ is that there is no one model to work from. There are so many ideas.  Many methods. Many approaches. And, as I have discovered, many books on the matter. Now, I could have read a lot of these books, but I haven’t. Not because I am smug and think I know better, but because I didn’t know which path to go down. After some thought, procrastination, and more thought, I came up with the following:

Slow Writing

Deep Reading

Thoughtful Talking

Some of these ideas are adapted from other people's ideas. Others are some of my own. But, what I have done is design a Literacy strategy with my school and my students in mind. My strategy isn’t a blanket approach of 'one size fits all'. My strategy is one that I think is the best for us.  Time will tell if it works. Like a child, I have the teething, weaning and inoculating stages to go through. I think I will try to ignore the embarrassing ‘toilet-training’ stage.  However, I will keep people abreast of things as they happen. I haven’t mentioned things on here before, because I didn’t think it fair to teachers if I share things with the rest of the world, before I explain it to them.  Anyway, here goes …

I have designed a three year plan for improving Literacy. If we are going to do something, we want to do it well. Prior to me taking on the responsibility of Literacy, there hadn’t been a person directing or leading it for several years. Therefore, I knew I had quite a bit of work to do, so I decided that I would focus on one aspect each year. I wouldn’t neglect the other aspects, but I would have a main drive on a particular strand. This year, I decide it would be writing. As an English teacher, I could easily identify areas to work on and offer some possible suggestions.

With writing in mind, I then thought about what our main priorities could be. What are the problems with writing? Why are students not producing effective writing? Then, I thought of the bigger picture: the culture of writing. This is what I noticed about the writing habits of  our students:

In the past (when I was in school)
       Most of the writing done in school.
       Reading mostly done at school.
       Didn’t usually write at home unless you had homework or a pen pal - sadly, I never had one.
       Read if bored and the weather was bad and nothing on TV.

       Some writing done at school.
       Some reading at school.
       Students writing at different times of the day on Twitter, Facebook and mobile phone.
       Students are constantly looking at phone throughout the day.

I noticed that the students write more and read more in a day than I ever did when I was their age. Yet, the types of reading and writing they do are in small bursts. Students write more, and read more often, but only short texts. If you look at the exam system, you can see that shortening of texts in the types of questions set. With that in mind, I looked at what the students write and that, not surprising to most English teachers, highlighted the high amount of features of spoken texts.

       Spontaneous / unplanned
       Mistakes acceptable
       Grammar not important
       Spelling doesn’t matter
       Short and quick
       Just do it attitude

       Mistakes are not allowed
       Grammar is important
       Spelling does matter
       Long and in detail
       Take your time   

The list of features for speech can read like a tick list for some students’ work. The clear problem is social media. This dominates the material students read and write. Students write for 5 hours a day at school and the rest of the time their writing is dominated by language used in an informal context. We know that people are influenced by their environment. If students are surrounded by language that is informal and spontaneous, it stands to reason that their writing is going to reflect this. Their writing behaviour could easily be characterised by the phrase ‘Just do it’. They just do it. No thought. No planning. No consideration.

That’s where Slow Writing comes in. The lovely David Didau mentioned on his blog the idea of ‘Slow Writing’ and this sowed the seed. I needed to change the students’ attitude from ‘Just do it’ to ‘Take your time’. Skill is about choices. The most skilled artist makes all the right choices that the worst artist gets wrong. The skilled footballer almost has a second sight with the choices that he or she makes. Great writers make lots of little choices. They make the right choices. This whole idea became the philosophy behind my drive for the year. As teachers, we would make the choices that writers make explicit. The teaching of Literacy would concentrate on the choices that students make. We will talk about what choices they can make. We will be explicit about the options they have. We will develop the habits of thinking about the choices. No more ‘Just do it’.


I identified several key areas - a bit like the 'Marginal Gains' idea that people are using.  As we prepare lessons now, we can focus on one of the aspects concerned with writing. With the focus on certain choices, this means that the Literacy focus isn’t a ‘crowbar’ approach. Students make choices every lesson and we are just helping them to make the right choices. We will focus on building these choices into our lessons and our planning. We are going to keep things short, simple and intelligent. We have even built this into the planning of writing. Before students write, they have a planning sheet to make them think about what choices are they going to make.  
Right, where do I begin? Simple: the date. Goodbye - 30/01/13. Hello - Wednesday 30th January 2013. They now start in a formal and organised way. No rushing things now. It is all slow. Real slow. Mellow even.
Thanks for reading and apologies if there are any typos - I am tired and still suffering from 'man-flu'. Check out this blog for more of the 'New Hope'.   Furthermore, I carry on this blog in part 2 here.
P.S. There are other aspects of my 'vision' for Literacy in our school. However, this is my main drive at the moment. I will share some of the other ideas at a later date.

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