Saturday 24 December 2011

Collecting language

If I look at my notebooks, I can see that they're made up of fragments: words and phrases I've heard, things I've seen, moments I've remembered - that sort of thing. The writing is messy and there is no organising principle. It's chaotic.

But it's also a seed-bed or nursery. In amongst it are the starting points for writing. Now, I'm a bit of an old hand at this. Most children aren't. So if a) I'm right about thinking that this is a good way to make writing pleasurable and purposeful and b) teachers are people who can take children to this way of working, how can it be done?

I often go into classrooms where there are boards called 'The Literacy Wall' or 'The Word Wall'. I see lists of 'useful words'. Here's a suggestion: why not expand these or even replace them with an alcove, board or wall with words, phrases, quotes, thoughts and ideas from the children. Why not suggest to them that they are word hunters or detectives and it's their job to remember or jot down anything interesting they hear - be that something someone has said, or line they've heard in a poem or song, a TV programme or film - or from wherever; anything interesting they see; anything interesting they've been thinking - and then find ways in which these can be put up in this space?

This first has the purpose of showing children that language is like anything else around them: food, leaves, cars or whatever: it can be investigated and examples of it can be collected, specimens if you like.

Then it has the purpose of giving children the chance to share these 'specimens' and, importantly, to talk about them, ask questions about them.

Then, it can provide the platform for writing. If the children and the teacher start to collect intriguing and odd things, then these will be fine ways to start various kinds of writing. The poet Emily Dickinson wrote a poem that begins: 'I heard a fly buzz when I died...' I jotted it down. I've often thought about it. It intrigued me. In a moment of daydreaming, I connected the line to a time when I was in trouble at school and was standing in the head teacher's study...and a fly was buzzing. I borrowed 'I heard a fly buzz when...' and from then on I was on my own writing a poem about listening to a fly instead of listening to what the head was telling me. At the end of the poem, I acknowledged (of course) that I had borrowed those 6 words from Emily Dickinson. The poem is in 'Michael Rosen's Big Book of Bad Things' (Puffin).

Because I let myself swim around in the sea of words, expressions, lines from poems and songs, sayings, 'fluffs', mistakes and the rest, I have a resource that I can use and mix up.

I hope this is useful for anyone working with others in a regular way and looking for ways to generate ideas about writing.