Sunday, 25 February 2018

Writing for pleasure 4 - investigating


The guiding principle for most of the government's guidelines on how to investigate or explore language and literature is that we have to follow the methods laid down in the tests and exams. These include:

breaking words down into sounds, words given names for the 'class' of words they belong to, words given 'functions' in sentences, words and phrases given 'good' places for them to go in sentences, some words and types of phrases elevated to being better than others, the processes of 'retrieval', 'inference', 'chronology' and 'presentation' being decided upon as the sole criteria for comprehension. 

As a collection of practices, they add up to a view of 'language in education' that all that is worth knowing about language belongs to 'education' and if you want to know anything about language or language in literature and writing, the only way to know it is by being taught or instructed. 

The point is that there are other approaches which can be mixed with the government approved methods, can on occasions precede them, can on occasions be used instead of them. 

The alternative starting point is to think of language, language in literature, language in all kinds of writing as a phenomenon just as we might treat, say, 'the sea' or 'energy'. That's to say, we can 'learn about it' in several different ways, one of which is to investigate it, explore it, discuss it. Prior to doing that, we have to 'sample' it, and in Writing for Pleasure 3, I described some ways of collecting language, some of which is pupil-led. Of course, of course, of course (!) collection that is pupil-led can be mingled with what is teacher-led (providing of texts, quotes, songs, poems, stories, plays etc). 

(Irony: in the 1950s, there was an assumption that the job of schools was to provide pupils with 'Literature' - poems, stories and plays. I'm hearing from teachers that there are key times in e.g. in the primary curriculum, when on occasions, usually prior to Key Stage 1 and 2 SATs,  senior management will query or even ban e.g. poetry, or 'free reading'. I've heard of schools that more or less dispensed with books in class but have followed e.g. Ruth Miskin's course of extract and exercises instead.)

In my 'Poetry and Stories in Primary and Lower Secondary Schools' and 'What is Poetry?' I've outlined a basic way in which any piece of language from any source can be investigated. ('Any piece' can mean words, phrases, sentences, passages, chapters, poems, scenes or whole books - quite literally - any).  These are for teachers and parents and pupils to adapt and change depending age and circumstances. I summarise them here:

1. Probing ways in which the example 'reminds' you of anything in your life, or the lives of anyone you know. How? Why?

2. Probing ways in which the example 'reminds' you of any other 'text' (film, story, song, TV programme, poem, etc ). How? Why?

3. Are there any questions  you would like to ask anyone IN the example? Any questions you would like to ask the author? Can you answer any of those questions yourselves. If you can't, what do you need to do to answer them?

4. In every piece of writing - especially poetry - there are 'secret strings' which link one part to another. These can be strings that link sounds, rhythms, repetitions, patterns. They can be strings that link 'images', rhetorical devices, structures of sentences. They can be strings that link by means of e.g. opposites (or 'binaries') or 'series' e.g. threes. We can be 'detectives' (younger children enjoy this), and hunt for these strings. We can then discuss what are these strings for? Why has the author created them? What effect do they have? 

In my experience, the best way to structure a class around these questions is to vary between talk in twos, and whole class. You can research what pupils are getting from this experience ('learning outcome' !) by making recordings of samples of their talk, transcribing them and using the 'matrix' I've put in ' 'Poetry and Stories in Primary and Lower Secondary Schools' to analyse what is going on. (This is what we do on the MA in Children's Literature at Goldsmiths.)

The pupils' questions, discussions and answers are themselves a resource for writing. They will involve the pupils' lives, queries, matters of interest, thoughts about a range of texts from outside the classroom, questions of structure, intention, choice of words, images, phrases, sounds. Some of the answers may involve e.g. 'hot seating' (if, say, someone answers a question for an author or a character etc) 

Any of these can be starting points for writing. Teachers have told me that if they go through these four stages, quite often they haven't had to set something to write about, the pupils have asked to 'write something like that' or some such, straightaway. 

Or, of course, we can 'grab' something that someone has said, (or the way they've said it and suggest that.