I’m about to change everything about the way I run my writers' groups. Everything!
I’ve written a lot about writing on this blog. But I keep coming back to my observations about how writing develops in young people. As a writer who teaches writing I am acutely aware of how kids learn to write, what they write as well as when and how they write. And I am very familiar with their attitude to writing.
Kids, in general, are very enthusiastic about writing when they are young. But something happens along the way that changes this. They become more reluctant to write and less willing to take risks with their writing. And because of this, they can’t always develop their full potential as writers.
I’ve seen it both in the classrooms of the schools in which I teach, and in the teen writers’ groups I run. There is a negativity attached to writing. And the idea of writing for fun seems as attractive to these kids as the thought of eating a Brussels-sprout pie.
So what happens between the ages of six and sixteen that dramatically changes a student’s attitude to writing? I’m not entirely sure. It’s a complex question with a network of cause and effect reasons. But based on what I see, I’m going to narrow it down to one thing: pressure.
There is enormous pressure placed on young people to achieve academically. By the system. As the curriculum narrows and teaching becomes more prescriptive, there is less time for teachers to allow students to write just for the sake of writing.
I’m not blaming teachers. Standardised testing dictates what teachers teach and what students must learn to achieve ‘success’. Teachers are under just as much pressure as students. And it doesn’t leave a whole lot of room for creative development.
And then there are parents. Of course parents want their kids to succeed. They take advice from those who purport to know more than they do: teachers! Who are under pressure from schools to lift their NAPLAN results. Schools are under pressure from their state governments who are under pressure from federal government who continue to under-fund education systems… and so it goes.
But how does this impact on kids?
It leaves them reluctant to write. Kids feel the pressure. They are scared to write. They won't take risks. They don’t want to be told told their writing isn’t good enough. They don’t want to disappoint anyone. They don’t want to make mistakes. But if they don’t mistakes, if they don’t write for the sake of writing, they don’t develop as writers.
I give all my writers’ group participants, and their parents, a questionnaire to fill out when they first enrol in the groups. It gives me an idea of where to place each kid. One of the questions asks what aspect of writing they want to work on. Unanimously, the parents say: ‘Essay Writing.’ But last term, of the ten kids in each group, at least seven of them ticked the option that said: ‘I wish I didn’t have to write.’
I felt so sad. I’d structured my groups to cover all development aspects of writing, including essay writing, because I knew that was what would attract participants, because this locale (Northern suburbs of Sydney) has a strong culture of tutoring. And because I need to support myself so that I can write.
But it got to me. These kids came to group, not because they wanted to or because they loved writing, but because their parents made them. One little boy in Year 7 (12 yrs) would come to group each week red-eyed and teary because he’d fought with his mother every single week about not wanting to do writers’ group. He was a bright kid who was where he needed to be at his age, but his Mum wanted him to be better. Then there were the Year 11 (16yrs) boys who wanted me to teach them to write essays. Not to develop their essay-writing skills, but to actually rote-teach them to write an exact essay in response to exact questions.
It was soul-destroying for me. Writing creatively is my lifeblood. It’s what gets me out of bed in the morning. It makes me feel alive. It heightens my senses and makes my heart sing. When I’m not writing, I’m thinking about writing. Creative Writing is my bliss! And I felt like I was selling out by ‘playing the game’ and contributing to the demise of writing for fun!
So I stopped. I canned the groups this term.
And while I finished the novel I’d been working on, I thought a lot about it. Of all the Writers’ Groups I’ve run over the past four years, I’ve had two favourites. One was the group for disengaged young men because, though the boys could barely construct a sentence, they had nothing to lose by taking risks with writing and they achieved the most relative success. It was the most challenging group I’ve ever run, but those young men finished six months in the group recognising and enjoying the power writing gave them. It was fabulous to be a part of that!
The other group was a group of Year 8 girls in the selective stream of the school at which I did a writer-in-residence gig. They took risks with their writing, learned the art of critiquing and produced some fabulous narratives. Unfortunately for this group, one of their teachers complained to the Principal that creative writing was detracting from academic achievement (the girls were withdrawn from other classes to attend writers’ group) and the group was stopped.
The thing that these 16-year-old boofy boys and 12-year-old very bright girls had in common was learning to love writing. And recognising the power it gave them.
What the ‘system’ fails to recognise, is that if kids learn to love writing, they’ll write for fun. And if kids write for fun, just because, and without fear of failure, they become willing writers. And if they become willing writers, they are more likely to engage with the writing process in all its genres. And if they engage with the writing process in all its genres, they will become better, stronger and more capable writers, creatively AND academically. It’s really not rocket science!
So… I am no longer going to ‘tutor’ kids to write academically.
I want to share my passion for writing. I want to inspire kids to want to write. Of course, the technical aspects of writing are important and they’ll be worked on in the context of the writers’ group setting. But the new and improved Writers’ Group Program will be CREATIVE WRITING groups. I want to teach kids to love writing as much I love writing. I want them to know what it can do for them, how powerful it can be. I want kids to value writing (and necessarily) reading as a pastime that has the potential to provide great joy as well as power and freedom in their lives!
And if they can feel that, even just a little bit, then not only do we have better writers, we have happier, more resilient kids, with better self-esteem who are more likely to take risks and reach higher.
I love writing. And I want everyone to experience the magic of creating story.
For more information on the ‘New and Improved’ Writers’ Group program, click here!