Mind the Gap: Building Writers

DISCLAIMER:

There are a number of elements which I know will make certain people cry (and that’s ignoring the fact I’ll have made a thousand grammatical errors) in this post so I’ll give you some fairly heavy hints: 1) I refer to Hattie 2) I use the word progress. 3) We read Stone Cold by Robert Swindells and 4) I graded work that was edited over and over and over and over again. Each time you reach one of these points you can either stop reading or take a shot of tequila or failing that herbal tea. 

keep-calm-and-mind-the-gap-269

Recently, as I delved into the divisive figure John Hattie’s book Visible Learning, a thought occurred to me. In his book  Hattie says  ‘closing the gap between where students are and what success looks like is the most powerful way we can fast forward learning.’.  The complexities of the pace of learning referred to in this statement through the phrase  ‘fast forward learning’  is a worrying matter to me, yet, alas, a different argument altogether from the one about how we should push pupils from their current position to a position of success. It would seem to me (as a tired-eyed and permanently perplexed NQT) that although as educators we agree learning is ongoing and spans far wider than the time allowed in our classrooms the pressure of academic requirements  ensures we must look for ways to increase the pace of learning, momentum of success and ultimately the speed of the progress of pupils in our classrooms.

The phrase ‘closing the gap’ seems to be a buzz phrase now and therefore one that irrationally vexes me. However the imagery it resonates does not and used in various contexts I believe the idea of the space available for learning being described as a gap useful if we find and discuss the tools and knowledge required to close that gap. Whenever anyone says ‘close the gap’ (as well as wanting to mark a buzz word bingo card)  it never fails to remind me of the understated yet caring voice on the tube worryingly repeating the phrase ‘mind the gap’ before you ‘alight’ from the train.  I think the way in which we approach closing the gap between where students are and the success we believe they can achieve needs to be approached  just as mindfully as getting off our beloved tube – and as anyone who has been on the tube will know much skill, patience and determination is required to do so.

So with the idea of closing the gap at the front of my mind and with the focus on my year 9 group I tried to think of ways I could fast forward their learning and help them be closer to success in their writing – without causing them to fall flat on their faces because I forgot to ‘mind the gap’.

My year 9s are lovely, hilarious, feisty, loud, gentle, ambitious and growing in confidence. However, when I look at them I can’t help but worry as I am desperate for them to become more effective independent thinkers prior to their GCSE years. To try and approach this worry I tied together the ideas from Hattie about closing the gap, ideas from Tait Coles (@Totallywired77) about critique and my ambition to make them realise just how brilliant they can be.

I required an outcome which would be a writing assessment. There are various reasons for this: one was the fact we hadn’t done one in a while and the second that came about after attending an NQT conference where the creative, kind and inspiring Hampshire AST Penny Langford (@PLangers) spoke about techniques which could be used to build writers.  I used Penny’s ideas (with her permission) to try and inspire my pupils to be the best writers they could be. Somehow I managed to sell this quite well as they were enthusiastic, if not cautious, about their writing from the word go. This project lasted just over 2 weeks (7 lessons) but did in no way seem like a waste of time and as a humble NQT I feel I observed some of the best learning I’ve ever seen in these two weeks despite hardly planning a ‘traditional’ lesson after lesson 3. As a group we had completed reading Robert Swindell’s Stone Cold. As we read we did a lot of character analysis in various guises, responded to the plot’s developments and completed much language analysis. We had done a few exercises which involved the pupils responding as writers to the text but no extended or developed pieces. 

Once we had finished the book I showed pupils the following slide:

Stone Cold Writers pic

The slide is merely a photo relating to the theme of homelessness where numerous perspectives can be created. I asked pupils to think of all the different types of writers that may write about this scene. They came up with a range of answers such as blogger, texter, councillor, novelist, poet…the list goes on and on! At this point I asked pupils to think about what one of these writers would have to say about the scene. In pairs pupils had to discuss their ideas. Pupil A shared their idea with pupil B and in return pupil B had to ask 3 questions to gain more information about this writer. Year 9 did this particularly well and for once didn’t stop, look at me or ask me to explain more clearly. They just explained what they thought that writer could see and almost without thinking about it their partner questioned their perspective. This part was important because it made some pupils realise their chosen writer didn’t have a lot to say or that their writer was too complex. I then asked pupils to think about what type of writer they would like to be. After some discussion and mind changing I asked them to sit with other similar writers. For the next 6 lessons I no longer had groups of pupils but instead my novelists, poets, diary writers, columnists, reporters, speech writers and a lone autobiographer! Pupils were really excited by the idea of being a writer rather than just writing. I asked pupils to discuss what their writer could see in their group – what they may talk about? Who? Why? When? What style of writing would they use? and so on…there endeth the first lesson to inspire my writers.

The second lesson consisted of giving the writers the time and resources to research their type of writer. I can hear people screaming that this approach is not plausible because I didn’t teach the conventions of each type of text. True, I didn’t because that wasn’t really the point. Some already knew the conventions of their text; others had to work much harder to find out what they should or shouldn’t be doing. We used lesson 2 to understand our individual texts. I provided writers with examples of their different types of texts whilst some visited the library to research for themselves. Each writer came up with a list of ingredients for their type of text – including specifics about the type of language they should include. On return writers began to plan their pieces in a number of different ways. I gave no instruction as to how to do this – some used mind maps, some prefered to draw, some highlighted examples whilst other writers found quotations and all this time the poets stared into space.  We all discussed what our idea of success would be. It was really interesting to hear what they thought meant they had been successful. Sadly, or mindfully, for some it was reaching a level 6. Wonderfully for others it meant doing their best and being proud of their work. For most it meant including everything on their success criteria and creating something of a similar standard or better than the examples they had studied. We began to build up a picture of what success looked like and the breakthrough point for me was seeing them understand and learn that success is not immediate and that we need time, dedication and patience in abundance to reach that point.

At the beginning of the third lesson we went over the process of critique we have used in the past (based on Ron Berger’s critique theories). I also showed the writers the original introduction to  Orwell’s 1984 and the final version and we discussed what changes had been made and why. I used the following website to source the manuscript: http://www.thefictiondesk.com/blog/george-orwell-manuscript-for-1984/

All this was to encourage the writers to edit, revise and take ownership of their writing. Over the following few lessons the writers did exactly that; they used their time wisely, they shared their work with others for detailed critique, they were patient whilst writing and were tireless with their improvements. Although discouraged, as I wanted to study their changes and adaptations, the floor became littered with balls of paper as they edited their work. I needn’t have been there half the time and in fact 7 or 8 writers asked to go and work in another room for the quiet and always came back with a plethora of writing.  Writers clearly understood that quality rather than quantity was the point. They were happy being their own writer, conforming to their own rules and criteria and aiming for their own success. They knew exactly where they were and how to get to there. After a number of lessons writers completed their work at different stages. All were given the chance to keep working on their pieces and not feel pressured into handing it in too soon. Their finished pieces are displayed below although all drafts have been kept so we can discuss the changes they made and they begin to value the editing process.

Writers' Wall

The ownership allowed to pupils and the closing of the gap between what would have been their original writing and their final piece means pupils have excelled and in my eyes completed their first real piece of extended writing. I have not yet given pupils back their work but I have marked it and displayed it for all to see. I have also levelled their writing – which in itself may seem counter intuitive. The reason for levelling work was the necessity to have a level but also as another way of demonstrating their progress from their previous pieces to now. Pupils understand this work may be a benchmark for what they can achieve when taking small steps. I believe these small steps can be applied to timed pieces of writing and may encourage them to edit and revise their work in future. Therefore, I will take these levels with the tablespoon of salt they need yet pay value to them to see what pupils are able to do when they and I mindfully close the gap between their immediate output and final composition. This piece will hopefully become a paradigm of their writing ability.

When handing in their work one of my most reluctant writers said “I think that’s the best thing I’ve ever written.”.  I hope that to year 9 the success does not come in receiving their feedback but it was at the moment of handing in their finest piece. The technique of allowing pupils to be their own writer and to allow them the time to progress from their current ability to a state of success which they have determined is an effective technique and one with a desirable outcome. It has allowed my pupils to envisage and realise their potential whilst being effective independent and interdependent learners. The pace may not have been on the surface punchy or dramatic but learning was certainly fast and forward thinking. There were fewer learning objectives, no mini whiteboards or different coloured pens were in play just meaningful, motivating and makeshift learning. The idea of building writers over just writing in class whilst mind full of the time, patience and preparation necessary to close the gap on success is one I hope to use again with other classes. Doubtless there is issue after issue with this idea but to encourage writers I’ve used no better. I’m not sure whether I can merit this a complete success because of the numerous pitfalls but I certainly believe my pupils felt and achieved success through their writing. Therefore, today at least, I do agree with John Hattie when he says “Educators succeed “When kids see themselves as their own teachers”.

Thanks to Penny Langford for allowing me to share her ‘building writers’ idea with the very small world that may read this!

The powerpoint I used can be found on TES: http://www.tes.co.uk/teaching-resource/Building-Writers-Technique-6328900/

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6 Comments Add yours

  1. Paul Flynn says:

    Thank you for taking the time and trouble to share this story. You’ve inspired me to try this approach with my students.
    Paul

  2. David Didau says:

    Great stuff Jenn! Even better if… you’d used 1984 instead of Stone Cold as the class reader 😉

    Thank you, David

    1. Haha. Maybe next year!

  3. Charlotte says:

    This sounds like a great idea; love it when students get so into a piece of writing that they just want to keep on going! Am doing something similar with short fiction and different genres in a couple of weeks and will definitely bear this in mind.

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