“Beautiful messiness”

An extract from a case study by Jenny Phillips, trainee teacher in English at Greensward Academy:

Professor Debra Myhill, Director of the Centre for Research in Writing, writes in her April 2018 Teachers as Writers blog:

“[The] process of moving from ideas in the head, to words on a page, through to a finished piece is a messy process, or a recursive process, as the cognitive psychologists would term it…       Young writers in school need rich opportunities to experiment, be messy, and to play around with words and ideas in a classroom context which fosters reflection on what has been written, and models possibilities for revising texts.”

Inspired by what Debra calls this “beautiful messiness” my case study describes the journey in creative writing made by my year 8 pupils.

Andy Tharby, in his excellent book ‘Making every English Lesson Count’ also tries to unpick the tricky process of teaching and assessing writing. The key message I took from his chapter on teaching writing, was the importance of providing students with the input first – in terms of inspiration and information – before expecting any sort of quality output in terms of creative writing. With this in mind, I planned a series of creative writing lessons which would first bombard the students with an audio-visual plethora of information about barn owls: documentaries about barn owls (we loved the language in Rob Macfarlane’s BBC documentary on Essex wildlife); close-up photographs of barn owls; rich vocabulary lists for every aspect of the barn own; and poetry about (guess what) barn owls (courtesy of R.S. Thomas).

barn owl

By the time we came to writing our descriptive piece, the students were primed with information and vocabulary ready for them to use and adapt. They had had chance to listen to, to speak, to adapt, to process and to enjoy the language. Words and phrases floated like dust in the air of the classroom – written on the board, noted in their books, ringing in their ears – all they had to do was reach out and choose one to make their own.

Half way through the first lesson, we were ready to write. Firstly, we talked through a checklist for descriptive writing, and I modelled the thought process for planning a piece of descriptive writing. Then, rather than setting them off immediately with their writing, I explained that we were going to slow things down and take it step by step.

Marshall and Wiliam (2006) emphasise the importance of providing feedback to students at the point of writing, when there is still some possibility of making changes. They argue that the process of peer review and evaluation of a variety of writing, is vital to help pupils build their own critical judgements about writing.

With this in mind, I gave the students a really boring, uninspired sentence or two about the owl (The owl was flying. It was putting its wings out very wide) and asked them to copy it down, and then improve it. Then we paused, to reflect on the word choices made, the intended effect, and the measure of success achieved.

Two more ‘sick’ sentences (Its face was round and white. Its eyes were black.) but this time, a chance to share their work, and add their partner’s feedback to their own.

Finally, as though released from a trap, they sprung forward to begin their descriptions, taking their initial ideas and improving them further, crafting them into a vivid and imaginative opening paragraph. Holding them back, made them more eager and they worked hard until the shrill bell broke the spell.

The following lesson, we began by reading aloud some of our writing to the class, and offering verbal feedback – both praise and constructive feedback – before completing the descriptions. The final stage was for students to look back at the checklist for descriptive writing, and decide which of the criteria they had achieved. They also highlighted what they felt to be their most successful sentence.

After a two week interval, the students wrote a second piece of descriptive writing. This time they did it cold, in assessment conditions, with just a picture of a kestrel for inspiration. Nearly all of the class remembered to make a plan for each paragraph before writing, and it was clear to see that they were striving to remember and include some of the more ambitious sentence forms and vocabulary choices.

It has been interesting to compare the progress each of them has made with their creative writing, as a result of this intensive input and slow, thoughtful, beautifully messy process of editing and reflecting. This episode is, of course, only one tiny step along the path to becoming confident and competent creative writers, but the work produced does indicate that the students made some progress in this area.

References

Marshall, B. and Wiliam, D. (2006) English inside the black box: assessment for learning in the English classroom. London: GL Assessment.

Myhill, D. (2018) Teachers as Writers Blog http://www.teachersaswriters.org/general/writing-and-rewriting/ Accessed April 2018

Tharby, A. (2017) Making Every English Lesson Count: Six principles to support great reading and writing

Creativity in the Classroom

Inspired by excellent GPS and SPS sessions on Creativity in the Classroom, I decided it was high time I brought some fun and creativity into my year 9 classroom, to liven up the last lesson before the half-term break.

We had spent several weeks developing the skills needed for AQA Language Paper 2; the learning outcome for this final lesson in the scheme of work, was for them to revise the requirements of the paper, and to consolidate the skills needed, in a fun and memorable way.

During GPS and SPS we had played around with different resources, and how they could be used to excite and engage students; I also had in mind the Kagen’s collaborative learning model, as well as the team challenge idea from Jamie Benson’s GPS session. Putting the three ideas together, I decided to split the class into teams and created a challenge mat for each team, with a variety of tasks, and an allocation of resources and stationary.

As they entered the room, students were immediately engaged, just by the change in the room lay out, the chance to choose their own groups, and of course, the balloons!

Creativity

While there was a fair amount of work to do up front to set the classroom up, the tasks were self-explanatory, allowing me plenty of time during the lesson to observe and talk to the students in their groups and individually. It was interesting to see how the different teams chose to organise themselves, and the different strategies they developed to complete all of the tasks in the given time. In terms of peer-support, it was encouraging to see students identifying gaps in their own knowledge and helping each other to find out the information.

Students were active throughout the lesson in discussing the paper 2 mark scheme, the skills needed to answer the various question styles, key vocabulary definitions, discourse markers and AFORESTPIER techniques. The work produced was of a good standard, and students had a great time. I think they got so much more out of it, than if I had stood at the front and gone over it all with them as a class.

Incidentally, there are no behaviour issues with this class and they work very well together (although they do have a tendency to become over-competitive). My next challenge is to make this work with other classes too.

Next time, I would think ahead about how to use and display the end results. I still chuckle at the memory of my mentor squeezing out of the classroom door with a bunch of 50 coloured balloons, to quickly stash them in the team room before the next class arrived. My mentor also made some helpful observations about the lesson, and I particularly like her idea of giving each of the tasks a score, so that teams can see where the challenges are.

All in all, while this is not the sort of lesson one can do day in, day out (the cost of the resources and chocolate prizes precludes it), it is perfect for an end of term treat, or to kick start a new topic.

Jenny, English Trainee Teacher, Greensward Academy