WHEN THE WRITER COMES INTO THE CLASSROOM by Robert Dunbar
(PI News, May/June 2002)
Extracts from the Keynote Address delivered to the Writers In Schools Forum in January 2002 looking at the important components of the eight week residencies recently introduced by Poetry Ireland Education.
While totally accepting that there are individual schools, classrooms and teachers of undoubted excellence, initiative and attainment, my overall picture of what happens in the activity called English is a bleak one: and, curiously enough, not least in the area of writing, our focus today. There may well be many reasons that contribute to what I diagnose as bleakness: but one of its most obvious manifestations is the disjunction between what should be happening and what is not. Our new curriculum says, ‘The development of oral language is given an importance as great as that of reading and writing, at every level, in the Curriculum, and it has an equal weighting with them in the integrated language process. It will have a crucial role to play not only in language learning but as an approach to teaching throughout the Curriculum.’ For the sake of the visiting writer it is absolutely imperative that that reality exists. Very little writing of the sort we are trying to encourage can take place without the frequent and active, interactive if you like, exchange of anecdote, experience, insight and opinion. Where it does not exist, the writer will have to try and stimulate it, a task that calls for remarkable powers of patience and perseverance.
Sadly our new curriculum does not recommend the wholesale removal of reading schemes from our schools, but it does say this: ‘The Curriculum also gives particular consideration to children’s reading needs after they have achieved some mastery of reading skills. The reading scheme needs to be supplemented with other material. The class reader on its own will not cater adequately for the child’s reading needs. These will be fulfilled through the experience of engaging with a wide and varied range of text. The consistent use of well-stocked and regularly supplemented school and class libraries will be crucial in ‘providing this experience.’’ The extension of reading activities beyond the class reader is where writers and discuss their work, have a major contribution to make.
Today’s children and young people are lucky to have the opportunity
- one their predecessors did not have - to meet the people who actually
write and illustrate the books which, with luck, they have been given the
opportunity to read. This last consideration is what the success or otherwise
of these kinds of writer visits will depend on. As a minimum requirement
for guaranteeing that success, such visits require detailed pre-planning,
which I see as a four-way undertaking: it should involve the writer, the
class teacher, the principal and the publisher - the last of these four
to provide whatever relevant and colourful publicity material may be available.
The pre-visit conversations between the writer and teacher should be such
that they include a clear understanding of the pupils’ existing knowledge
of the author’s books: teachers should be encouraged to encourage
pupils to ask their own - as distinct from planted - questions: writers
should be encouraged to select for reading aloud the most dramatic or touching
or scary or whatever moment (or moments) from their books and they should
read with a maximum sense of occasion and delivery.
Clearly, the precise details and organisation of such visits will vary from one situation to another, but in general terms I would argue the need for a fair degree of pre-visit formalisation and agreement on such mundane matters as the nature of the physical environment, the number of pupils in attendance, classroom-management arrangements and writer, teacher and pupil expectations. But I feel strongly that the absolutely vital raison d’être of the ‘reading’ visit is to try and initiate pupils into some notion of how the creative imagination actually works. How does a story come about? What are its main components? What light can be thrown on the process by which it translates from first idea on to the final page? What, over and above a good story, should a piece of fiction have to offer? Our new Curriculum at one point enumerates these skills as ‘analysis, synthesis, inference, deduction, summarisation, evaluation and correlation’ - and while I am not for one moment suggesting that such vocabulary need play any part in the classroom exchanges between writer, teacher and pupils I do think the list encapsulates some useful thinking as to how full reading may be defined: the writer, the person who after all has created the material which demands the analysis should be in a specially privileged position when it comes to talking about it.
What I think is to be avoided here is the sort of exchange which merely replicates the ‘literary criticism’ model of reading which largely dominates English in our secondary school system - principally because it is the model demanded by our examination system. Junior and Leaving Certificate students deserve something different from the writer from what they get, most days, from their teacher or from the introductory notes to their novels and anthologies.
In its thinking on writing the new Curriculum is quite considerably influenced by a number of contemporary theorists on the subject, but particularly by the educationist Donald H. Graves, in such books as Writing Teachers and Children at Work (1983), Discover Your Own Literacy (1990) and, most relevantly perhaps, A Fresh Look at Writing (1994). The essence of Graves approach may be seen in this paragraph entitled ‘The process of writing is as important as the product,’ which I quote from the 1999 Curriculum: ‘The Curriculum stresses the importance of the process of writing as well as the product. It incorporates the principle that the act of writing is a part of the language learning process. It asserts that the child can become an independent writer by attempting to write and by self-correcting his or her writing with the prompting and guidance of the teacher. This entails a consistent experience of writing, editing and redrafting that involves the child in writing on a wide range of topics, in a variety of genres and for different audiences.’
In the eight weeks of the writer’s visit which focus on developing pupils’ writing abilities there will, clearly, be some scaling down of our aspirations. But there should be time for adopting the central principles of the approach. By contrast with what characterised ‘writing’ when I was at primary school - and I do not think that in many places a great deal has changed! - the new approach advocates that writing is much more a child-centred, and much less a teacher-centred, activity. The ‘process’ method therefore places these skills firmly in the context of the children’s own writing. The ‘editing’ process, an integral aspect of the ‘new’ writing model, seems to me to be a key area for the visiting writer’s participation, experience and expertise. There will not be time for much involvement with the technical skills aspect - but there will be plenty of opportunity for the visiting writer to talk about such matters as choice of word and phrase, choice of significant detail, structure, plotting and overall presentation.
The over-riding concern is with what the child is trying to say and with nudging him or her towards the most effective way of saying it, avoiding sloppiness and clichéd responses. The most desirable outcome is not that we produce a new Heaney or Ní Dhomhnaill -they’ll emerge without our help and sometimes in spite of it - but that every child will have gained in self-esteem and self-confidence where writing is concerned and will understand the importance of becoming an active listener to the constructive comments of others (pupils, teachers, visitors) on that writing. The whole enterprise must be undertaken in terms of pleasure rather than in terms of chore and given some sense of reality by being promised an audience beyond the immediate classroom of its origins.
As a final outcome I have to say that I would be less impressed by a beautifully produced anthology in most cases, than by the legacy of experience, insight and imagination which I would like to think most visiting writers would have bequeathed during their time in the school. The residency should have both short and long-term effects: its real significance may not be realised (in either sense of the word) for quite some time.