Saturday, 20 September 2014

Why teach writing in school?

Why do we teach writing in school? I've been thinking about this recently so tonight I am sharing some of my ponderings. At the same time it makes me wonder how often we really question why we teach what we teach every day but let's stick with the writing for now.

There are a lot of reasons we might teach writing, here are a few to start with: 
  • to learn one way to develop, organise and/or clarify our thoughts
  • to communicate with others
  • to share our learning 
  • to be able to actively participate in society... to have a voice
  • to broaden our opportunities in the future 
  • to show evidence of our learning 
  • to exercise our creativity
  • (to quote 'Mr Keating' from Dead Poets Society, to woo women?!?) 
It would appear that there are many good reasons for learning how to write which is great news, this gives us a huge range of options to create authentic purposes for writing. Authentic is the key word here. As adults, generally speaking, when we are writing we are doing it for a purpose and an audience. In classrooms it would seem to be more often an academic exercise and I am not sure that it needs to be. 

Let's think about some of what we may write in the world outside school and the audiences we might be thinking of as we write: 
  • A shopping list- for ourselves or a person who is doing the shopping for us 
  • An application- for a future employer perhaps 
  • A book- for a particular demographic 
  • A blog entry- for a particular demographic or mainly for yourself to clarify your thoughts
  • A diary entry- for yourself, or for a family member in the future to read 
  • A professional reflection- for yourself to improve your practice and/or an appraiser or critical friend 
  • An email/letter- for the person you are writing to, perhaps a friend 
  • A facebook post- for your friends or something for the general public 
  • A report- for your employers, a stakeholder in a business, members of a community group/committee  
So in our classrooms if we are asking the children to write about a given topic for us, the teacher, is that modelling what writing is really about? I know we need to help our children to improve their writing to enable them to communicate more effectively (in writing) but the challenge is doing this in a meaningful way. We, their teachers, are not their only audience. 

As I said I have been thinking about this and here are some ideas that I came up with about possible contexts and audiences for our students, clearly it is just a start: 
  • Writing to a local member of parliament about a community issue we are concerned about 
  • Writing an application to take on a role in the classroom or school (perhaps a leadership role?) 
  • Blogging for themselves or to share with friends/family members showing what they are learning about at school or in a particular project 
  • Diary writing for themselves (I remember at a course many years ago hearing this advice to offer to students about free diary writing at school [may have been from Kelvin Smythe?]- just don't write anything you wouldn't want your parent/caregivers to read if they were to pick up the book) 
  • Writing to the school board about an issue around the school or an idea to improve the school 
  • Writing a story for another class in the school, or for school children overseas where they may have limited access to books and resources for learning to read 
  • Reflecting on their own learning, what is going well, what they are working on- this could be for the teacher, for themselves, for parents/caregivers
  • Writing for a school newsletter/newspaper/website to share what is happening in the school with the community 
  • Writing a plan for a project- either for yourself or recording for a group of peers (it could be a shared document like a google doc) 
  • Taking notes for yourself on a particular topic that you are learning about
Sometimes the context comes from other learning, such as a response to a drama we are engaged in where we may write 'in role'. We may feel compelled to record our thoughts in response to a text we have read or an issue we have been learning about. The opportunities are endless, and when our children notice these for themselves then perhaps we are on the right track to creating real writers.

A note about spelling and neatness before I close. When we write something for ourselves we need to be able to read it, so it needs to be legible and we need to understand it. However if we are writing for someone else we need to practice some empathy and understand that making it clear and easy to read is really important, we have conventions such as spelling to support this ease of reading. In my opinion spelling and neatness is about understanding context and audience. 

Context and audience are important considerations to create authentic learning opportunities and whilst we may see learning to write as an essential skill, having a good reason to do so is no less important. In fact, I'd argue that it is almost vital... when we have a good reason, we are far more likely to be motivated to participate in the learning and that is when the magic happens.   

This is a letter my three year old wrote to his nana when she was overseas... authentic contexts are everywhere

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