Wednesday 9 December 2015

How might we talk about 'good writing' in schools?

The kind of writing that teachers are supposed to teach in schools is the kind of writing that comes up in exams.

This kind of writing is geared towards what can and must be assessed according to mark schemes.
People who advise teachers or tell teachers how to teach writing produce booklets, books, text books, courses on how to teach writing.
What they mean is that these are booklets, books, text books and courses on how to teach the kind of writing that comes up in exams.
Meanwhile, people called 'writers' write stuff that is not the same as the kind of writing that comes up in exams.

The booklets, books, text books and courses for writing that comes up in exams are full of formulae for what makes good writing. They mean writing that is good for exams.
These formulae are such things as Vocabulary Connectives Openings Punctuation, Wow words, and stuff to do with 'fronted adverbials', 'embedded relative clauses', 'noun clauses'.
In fact, under instruction from these booklets, books, text books and courses, the application of these formulae has come to mean 'good writing'.
It is not 'good writing'. It is 'writing for exams'.
Meanwhile, people called 'writers', write stuff that is not the same as the kind of writing that comes up in exams.

When you read the kind of writing that children do under the influence of the booklets, books, text-books and courses, you realise that a good deal of it starts to sound the same.
You notice strings of adjectives, a good deal of adverbs, many randomly inserted relative clauses, odd  sounding 'fronted adverbials' (which the children will have been told may also be called 'time connectives').
I might say this is not 'good writing'.
It's what I would call 'bad writing'.
To which you might say, 'What is good writing?'

Fair enough.

How do we decide what is 'good writing'.

I don't think we can decide what is 'good writing' according to tiny differences of percentage marks.
I think we can come up with a loose general feel of what is 'good writing' perhaps on a three-grade scale of 'very good', 'good' 'not so good'.

Really? What criteria?

First - 'first impression'. That's a valuable resource to think about when thinking if something is good writing or not. You could 'grade' that first impression on my 3 grade scale.  Perhaps.

One criterion, I would say is 'surprise'. Is there anything about this piece of writing that is unusual, different, grabs the attention, surprises? A lot, a little, or not at all? (3 grade scale, again)

Another: is there anything going on in this writing that keeps my attention? Are there things going on with this writing that keep me interested? Or am I dozing off? Am I losing interest? (3 grade scale)

Another: (more complicated and theoretical) how has this writer 'transformed their sources'. This rests on the theory known as 'intertextuality'. This theory says that what we all do is write with the 'already'. We use the resources of language, and forms of language (e.g. literary forms, 'the essay', the story', 'the play', 'the newspaper article' and so on) that are in our heads or that we have just come across. A piece of writing that we do, 'transforms' these. That is 'originality'.
As we read a piece we will have a sense of shadowy shapes of previous writings - maybe because we're reading 'a recount' - it's like all other recounts BUT has it in anyway slightly differently or interestingly departed from that. Other times the shadowy shape might be a 'motif' or 'scene' or 'type' e.g. 'boy meets girl' or 'I walked into the building' or whatever.  Has the writer simply taken these without modifying them, or does it feel as if the writer has done something different and interesting? i.e. has the writer transformed his/her sources in interesting (or not so interesting) ways? (3 grade scale)

So, if you were to take these four forms of assessment, and put each on a scale of 1-3, would you be able to come up with a 'mark'? If three of you looked at a piece of writing, and you averaged out your scores would  you arrive at a set of pieces of writing which genuinely varied from what were 'very good', 'good' and 'not so good'.

Now all this is relatively trivial and unimportant, if you can't then do something with this which would help all the writers (children or adults) to write more (rather than less) interesting things. So, what might help?

Share the writing with explanations as to why and how you arrived at the conclusions the readers came up with for that loose grade - so all three categories of writing ('very good', 'good' 'not so good') are shared. Do we agree with that classification? Why don't we agree?

How might we learn from each other? What aspects of someone else's writing might help me with mine? What aspects of my writing might help you with yours?