Teaching, writing, fear, and children.

ipad n booksI love teaching writing to children and young adults. There is something incredibly powerful about encouraging a young person to enhance their communication skills.

There is a lot of concern among teachers at the moment about the future of writing. These kinds of discussions seem to come up at the beginning at every school year, and as our school year (here in Australia) has just begun, so too have the conversations. Teachers worry that children are losing the art of written communication, that social media is diluting, if not destroying, the written word. They lament the loss of kids’ handwriting. They see that handwriting lessons at school are often the only time a student actually uses a pencil or pen. They know that kids don’t get the opportunity to practice their handwriting because most other things are done using computer technology – be it tablets or laptops, game consoles or ipods. Teachers (rightly) recognise that typing is becoming a more important skill than handwriting in enabling kids to communicate effectively online. And online is where the majority of all written communication is occurring.

Personally I don’t see too much of a problem with it. It’s just another morphing of reading and writing in the contemporary context. Fear is what usually drives concern. There is a fear that if children can’t use a pen to write, they will lose the ability to meaningfully engage with society. But writing is no longer about just using a pen or pencil. And to engage meaningfully with society in the 21st century, it is imperative that children are able to communicate effectively online, both formally and informally.

Throughout the ages fear has always accompanied change. Way back in 370BC, Plato recorded a conversation between Socrates and Phaedrus where Socrates, a great thinker and philosopher of the time, lamented the loss of intelligence among the masses if the populace was taught to read. He thought that “learning to read would result in the “appearance of wisdom, but not true wisdom.” Just over a thousand years later, the invention of the printing press brought the similar fear of a “dilution of the intellectual capital of the time.” Another thousand years and television was the culprit. People called it the ‘idiot box’ and feared that too much viewing would lead to the simplification of the mind. Luckily, none of these fears have been realised.

In fact, each metamorphosis that reading and writing has undergone has resulted in a greater, more stimulating, encompassing literacy with which to educate, including teaching children to write. It’s exciting to see look back over the bigger picture and see the changes. And see how we, as a society, have survived those changes. And thrived.

I love teaching writing to children and young adults. There is something incredibly powerful about encouraging a young person to enhance their communication skills.

How appropriate is your writing?

I have a question for authors: do you consider conceptual content in the creation and development of your narrative to target specific subgroups within the Young Adult field? Or do you write for a general Young Adult demographic and hope that the readers will find your work?

The reason I ask is because this morning I was looking at the reading ages of Year 7 students assigned to my writers’ groups. One of the groups is comprised of 12-year-old girls with reading ages of 17+. Reading ages are based on a student’s level of understanding of the text before them and 17+ is the highest score they can get. It means that these 12-year-olds are capable of reading material that is way beyond their chronological age.

It creates an interesting dilemma. Being able to understand what they are reading at a cognitive level doesn’t necessarily mean they have the social or emotional maturity to process it. I know firsthand. I was one of those kids. Starved for appropriate reading material as a child, I was constantly scouring my house for any book (magazines didn’t do it for me) that may have found its way inside, irrespective of content appropriateness.

You see, I grew up in a household of non-readers who did not understand my voracious need to consume reading material. They tried to accommodate my need to read by giving me books for birthdays and Christmases. But they were kids’ books—understandable I suppose, given that I was a kid.  And I would devour them in hours and be left yearning for more.

There was the odd occasion when a popular-culture book would find its way into the house and I, in all my juvenile wisdom, would pinch it from my mother’s bedside table, take it back to my room and read until the early hours of the morning.  Of course, reading Mills and Boone at age ten probably scarred me for life. But the book that terrified me for years was The Exorcist (1971) by William Peter Blatty. I was eleven when I read that. And with catholic religious instruction in my early childhood, I was convinced that the devil was alive and well and would possess me in my sleep. I spent the next few months walking around like a zombie because the nightmares that plagued me left me so sleep deprived I could barely function. At about the same age, I read Jaws (1974) by Peter Benchley. Reading that meant I was too terrified to swim. I wouldn't get into the water. Any water. Not even my cousins three-foot deep above-ground swimming pool. Just in case.

There was no reading material available to me to fill the gap between cognitive development and social/emotional development. The two don’t necessarily advance at the same rate, and the disparity can sometimes be great. So without having someone around with enough awareness of the issue and knowledge of the literary world who can guide and advise, a child can be left flailing while attempting to fill a void they cannot identify and of which they have no understanding.

Thankfully, nowadays there are a few more options for young readers with chronologically older reading ages. In the technological context of childhood these days (ugh, I sound sooo old), information is so much more readily available to kids. They’re able to get online and seek out titles. They can search library catalogues themselves, they can source books from author websites, read blogs, join reading and book communities and connect with other readers like them. But there still seems to be a bit of a gap in the market.

I asked this particular writers’ group what kind of material they like to read. They’ve mostly all read the Harry Potter and Twilight series (remember they are 12), but many also enjoy the classics from Jane Austen and the Bronte sisters. The Cherub series by Robert Muchamore was very popular as “something to get lost in to pass the time", and the Tomorrow series (Tomorrow When the War Began et al) by John Marsden also featured highly. Romance, fantasy and mystery, were genres of choice.

None of these authors (except Bronte and Austen, of whom I was not even aware until I’d reached high school and found the library) were writing when I was young. And I’m pleased to note that for the past ten years or so, more authors (many of whom dealt with similar reading issues themselves as children) are developing a greater awareness of the need to target their narrative to specific groups of kids.

So again, my question to authors is this: do you consider conceptual content in the creation and development of your narrative, and target specific subgroups within the Young Adult field? Or do you write for a general Young Adult demographic and hope that the readers will find your work?

Writer in Residence – good, bad, or just plain scary?

Yesterday I found myself confronted by half a dozen arrogant young men spewing resentment and repressed anger. They thought they had something to prove, though I’m not sure what. They were rude and aggressive and sometimes threatening. And the language they used toward and about each other was enough to make a wharfie blush.

I wasn’t roaming George St in the middle of the night, nor was I at a rugby league match where you might expect to see such behaviours. Nope, I was in a classroom in a local high school. Out front, actually, as a newly appointed ‘Writer in Residence.’

The young men were 16-year-old year ten students chosen to take part in a pilot program aimed at enhancing Social Media Literacy. I’d been told these particular boys struggled with basic literacy and might benefit from working in a context within which they were motivated to write.

They sauntered into the classroom with grunts and groans typical of the age group. They towered over me as I tried to navigate my way through the testosterone oozing unchecked from their pores. Like pack animals, they stuck together sniffing out the slightest vulnerability in their potential prey.

They found it in one of their own, turning on a gentler quieter boy, knifing him with intimidating stares, assaulting him with hurtful offensive comments. I couldn’t watch, it was awful. I intervened, drawing the focus away from the boy. That was the point at which they turned their aggression toward me.

I remained calm, repeatedly requesting that the behaviours stop. I started sounding like a broken record. I wondered whether I would be able to get them to write anything at all, let alone anything of quality. I decided to change course dramatically and told them they would be writing a blog about school.

“F***ing waste of time…”
“Place to hang with mates…”
“You got no f***ing clue…”
“Rather be sleeping…”

It took much cajoling and encouraging to get them to put these thoughts into words, writing in the first person. Clinging to their bravado they  managed to scrawl a few words here and there in between the rough-housing and belligerence.

It needed so much energy, but not wanting to show any sign of weakness, I persisted. I had to focus on my breathing so as not to dissolve into a pathetic blubbering mess. It took everything I had to hold it together and present an even-tempered fearless facade.

I’m not a teacher. I’m a writer with teaching qualifications who has spent the best part of the past six years sitting at a desk behind a computer, working alone. And for the last two years, working from home. Just me and the cat. And the cat never challenges me―unless he’s hungry, and that’s easily fixed.

I left that classroom exhausted. I had to go sit in the car for half an hour to allow myself the time and space to calm down. I decided enough was enough; that this gig was far too stressful. I would tell the Principal who had engaged me that I had had enough; that it wasn’t worth the stress; that I was far too sensitive a person to be dealing with unpredictable angry young men; that it took too much away from my own writing. I decided I would see the day out and  not return.

Then I read the pieces the boys had written, and everything changed. I melted. Though they struggled with the technical aspects of writing, they  wrote about their experience of school as an institution with insight and a sensitivity I had not afforded them. The writing was honest and raw and real. It conveyed fear and doubt and a level of vulnerability that would have horrified them if they’d been aware of it.

Unbeknown to them, their writing told of confused and frightened boys cowering in the bodies of angry belligerent rebellious young men,  battling the hormones coursing through their veins trying to make sense of the world around them.

Except for the quiet boy―he wrote of hate and anger and vengeance.

I’m going back next week.