This book review encompasses just about everything that needs to be known about children’s writing and makes a mockery of the grotesque Wow! national standards-Hattie culture of today. As I go through the review, readers will come across small matters of difference between me and the authors; my preference being slightly less structure and even more emphasis on expressive writing. But if you based your writing programme on the tenets set out you would be doing famously.
This book by Gail Loane with Sally Muir, and design and layout by Pennie Brownlee, is a work of love.
It is a beautifully crafted book, spaciously set out, replete with lyrical photographs, and altogether pleasing to the eye. Here we have the three friends, also a huge supporting cast of teachers, inspired by Gail and Sally’s message over the years, contributing to what has been produced here.
A work of love by all concerned and then, of course, there are the children.
Any teacher worth his or her salt knows the feeling: a child says something beautiful, and your eyes water as you see beyond the child to an expression of the marvellous potential of the human spirit. The book is full of children being lifted to moments like this.
Laura Ranger (7 years) concludes a wonderful poem about Kapiti with: ‘The wind is writing/ what it knows/ in lines along the water.”
Then there are the children whose writing provokes a slightly different response – a deep inward breath of surprise: Margo Baars (y. 12) describes a teacher’s manner in class, the subtleties and changes of tone in Margo’s writing are immaculate – a student picks up the courage to pose a challenging question; Margo describes the tension as the teacher struggles for a reply – the account concludes with her writing:
‘But the pause has taken the edge off Mr Ashford’s statement. In a way he has been beaten. He coughs and then resumes his stream of words and numbers. One by one students relax again; they pick up pens and re-check watches. I proceed to retrace the lines and curves of the inscription: “Mr Ashford sux”.’
The children are the quiet heroes of this book. Having written, they have moved away from us, just out of reach, but their words stay to echo in our minds – we thank them, and wish them well.
Yes – a work of love, reaching back to the years of the education golden weather, Sylvia Ashton-Warner, Elwyn Richardson, Clarence Beeby, and that generation of majestic stjcs.
The book is a work of love – a gift – to teachers who believe in the possibility of the transformational, in other words, in children being taken somewhere to see the world in a different way.
This book should by your bedside and hanging around every staff room, even every classroom.
Stan Boyle, that eternally mischievous and questioning former principal of Hillcrest Normal, storyteller par excellence, and someone who knew Elwyn, writes in the Foreword: ‘ “I’ve got something to say” is more than just another book on the teaching of writing and reading. It embodies a vibrant philosophy of education.’
Exactly – and for that reason, on a down note, the message in this book is in for a hard passage. The compounding problem in propagating the message is not its reception and acceptance by teachers, but the generally hostile forces to deep learning that prevails in today’s education climate, manifested more particularly in the case of writing in the unavailability of sufficient time for true thoughtfulness and creativity to occur. Without that thoughtfulness, the message, and the philosophy from which it is drawn, when enacted in classrooms, will be just another recipe, a decidedly superior one admittedly, but a recipe nevertheless.
This book is Gail’s testament to her life as a teacher and, as Stan Boyle says, not just about reading and writing but education as a whole.
I visited Gail in 1993 for an article for Developmental Network Magazine when she was a teaching principal of a three teacher school near Thames.
Her reputation had, of course, preceded her, which is why I was there. It was instantly evident that her performance was up to the high reputation she gained. She had an assured grasp of the central idea of expressive writing – that of getting children to write with particularity, with an eye for detail, whether describing objects, or their own or others’ feelings. And the way she did this was to come at the children from various directions, providing them with new sources of stimulus, and new ways to reflect on experience.
And here we are two decades later with a book that spells that out in engaging detail.
There follows commentary on matters in the book that particularly interested me, with some of the comments based on my predilections.
My key predilection as an ideal for the teaching of writing has a slightly different emphasis from that set out in the book – Gail, probably influenced by the American part of her inspiration, and by the current concerns of teachers and the system, sets a fair degree of structure in the way children are stimulated and the way examples and teaching points are put forward. My predilection (as an ideal) is, yes, for the inspiring literature to be discussed with children and the children’s ideas and models to be shared, but done with a shade lighter touch. I favour giving children more time to work things out for themselves, to pick things up from the rich environment made available, to discover and come across things, and the teacher being hesitant, even nervous about decisions to be made to do with the timing and the nature of individual interventions. Will it be a discovery opportunity taken from the child?
The important matter, though, is that teachers absorb the outstanding message in this book then to express it in a way that seems natural to them – with some of those ways certain to encompass many of the practical ways set out in the book. There’s no great issue.
If the book’s message and philosophy is thought of as a circle of modelling, sharing of ideas, of expressing, self-correcting, and intervening, my thought goes immediately to the intervening, the individual intervening (what sort, and whether or not to?). I still follow the circle, but it’s where my interest immediately takes me, and that is to individual interventions. A point about this book I acknowledge, however, is that any teacher who reads it will be wonderfully well set up to make expert, well-judged individual interventions. So the point of difference being discussed is fine. With all that in mind, the following are ideas in the book that especially took my interest.
Gail writes: ‘I can recall my own memories from secondary school; if we are to write about the relationship between Hamlet and his mother, we must be guided to the position where we care about these characters.’
I like this idea because it is saying that the key to writing is to establish a strong affective connection with the topic, whatever the topic. And I like the example because Shakespeare can be challenging, but if the affective is aroused the example is telling us – that challenge can be easily overcome, as can other challenging topics.
‘It is generally well-meaning teachers who counter the dilemma by providing a starting point: a story starter … but this usually leads to unsatisfactory results …’
Yes – establish the affective interest, and then leave a fair amount of space for the children to discover a starting point for themselves.
Then there is exemplified the array of ideas that makes writing vivid and effective:
‘We are learning to show rather than tell.’
‘Strong verbs’ which reduce the need for continually searching for adverbs to say what you want to say.
‘Specific nouns’ which reduce the need for continually searching for adjectives to say what you want to say.
‘Selective use of adjectives.’
Gail quite correctly emphasises the importance of variety in sentence structure. I, of course, completely agree, but I prefer to emphasise the idea of children discovering the way to this through their striving to express their ideas and observations with sincerity and nuanced subtlety. The book emphasises the importance of oral language to writing, and I agree because if children are lead into complexity and subtlety in oral discussion, the intent to express that satisfactorily in writing will lead them naturally into sentence-structure variety which, when it occurs, can be used as a cause of class celebration. It’s a glorious circle.
In writing personal memoirs, Gail comments how these can be rather ‘dreary’. I like the way she advises on memoir conclusions: ‘In personal memoir, the writer is able to end a piece with some resolution or evaluative comment that assures the reader the moment or events described have been reflected upon, and the significance understood.’
And, of course, if there is something to be reflected on and significance to be understood in the conclusion, those elements will need to have been present preceding.
She includes in the book the powerful situation, which was reported in Developmental Magazine of children being asked to go outside then come back in with observations showing it was autumn. On their return, one girl reported on the leaves fluttering to the ground. Gail asked, ‘Did you actually see any leaves fluttering to the ground?’
‘Well, go back outside and this time report on what you actually see.’
Personal writing in a nutshell.
Then there is M. Applegate’s poem, ‘Be Specific’, both powerful and didactic which begins, ‘Don’t say you saw a bird; you saw a swallow …’
While frameworks for teaching can sometimes take away discovery opportunities and originality, I particularly liked the three-part one for character portraits: Physical description (show, don’t tell and be specific); behaviour – how this character speaks and acts; how the character affects other people (show don’t tell).
Gail then says that once clear on the ‘rules’ of the genre, these writers may go on to break the rules, combine, or invent forms and still come up with a piece of writing to suit their purpose.
Fair enough. Point taken Gail.
There is a most interesting paragraph commenting on writing on behaviour in character portraits: ‘Describing what someone looks like is an important part of the process of forming our observations into words, but we reveal more when we try to describe the way they behave. In an extended narrative, we have a need to get to know the sort of character this person is in order to predict the way they will respond to the situations as they arise.’
This is a sophisticated idea, being the equivalent of the sincerity called for in expressive writing being applied to narrative writing.
A particularly admirable characteristic of the book is the easy transition made from literacy techniques in expressive writing to transactional writing. Gail’s American influences (that country characteristically giving strong attention to transactional writing) are evident in the convincing transactional sections.
In a key paragraph she writes, ‘Expressive writing, leading to transactional or expository writing, can provide scope for self-discovery through exploration of the world around us, in just the same way as expressive writing can lead to poetic forms, such as memoirs and descriptions.’
Chapter Eleven serves brilliantly as a summing up chapter.
‘We, as teachers, are striving to help our students find that personal voice that gives written text its sincerity and impact.’
The idea of personal voice is implicit and explicit throughout the book, but with all the advice and explanations out of the way – its expression here comes through starkly.
A list of indicators of a good piece of writing is provided, one we are told that should ‘apply to all writing regardless of the age and stage of the writer – from new entrant to published authors – and regardless of the type of writing’
The list is:
It is legible
It ‘hooks’ the reader in, making them want to read on
It conveys a message that can be understood
The form suits the purpose
There is sincerity of voice
It is constructed to read fluently
The vocabulary chosen is appropriate
(With the more mature writers) there is evidence of deliberate attempts to include specific language features which enhance the telling, a sense of audience.
As word processors becoming more common, I suppose the legibility one could be dropped off the list. I would have liked the idea of the writing evoking an affective response (as against the use of the hooking in expression). My major quibble is with the idea of ‘convey[ing] a message that can be understood’. I would have preferred the idea of a message that is ‘communicated’, leaving open that it might have been felt one, a sub-conscious one, an affectively received one. The idea of the writing being ‘constructed to read fluently’ is a wonderfully encompassing, referring to the choice and order of words and the many technical matters to do with sentence and paragraph structure and punctuation. An aspect of writing, though, that could have merited more attention in the book is the matter of rhythm within a sentence. In the final indicator, I would leave room for the idea of specific language features being intuitively used, making it more applicable to younger writers (in other words, allowing the parenthetical reference to ‘more mature writers’ to be omitted).
There is a snappy review of adjectival and adverbial phrases, use of strong verbs and nouns, and the use of contrast within a sentence and personification. In respect to adjectival and adverbial phrases I would have emphasised throughout the book, as is done here, the use of commas as a way to add extra information: a far more naturalistic and accessible way in.
Much is made of semi-colons in the book. I do use them in my writing, but I am drawn, often irresistibly, perhaps incorrectly, to the much less disjunctive looking dash. The current emphasis in convention is to use semi-colons sparingly.
But I do like the attention given to the hyphenated adjective, for instance, ‘pyramid-shaped’ blocks. Yes, it can be tighter than a simile and more suited to the purpose.
And in an Elwyn-style point for a powerful individual intervention, Gail asks the student how an account of how to ride a bike can replace the ‘you’. The student replies, ‘The biker’. ‘Or?’ Gail persists. ‘The rider,’ the student replies again.
Immediately sharpening the account. I love this sort of thing.
Then another reference to the basics:
A simple sentence can be powerful, when a strong verb is used.
A strong verb has more impact than adding adverbs.
Specific nouns in a sentence add more impact than a list of adjectives.
A variety of sentence length, sentence structure and sentence beginnings will make for more effective writing.
But to reiterate my predilection, let the children do a lot of working their way toward these as a result of caring more for their writing, getting a better feel for writing, wanting to express subtlety and complexity more completely – complemented, of course, by some direct teaching, especially when the class is considering the writing of others.
There it is, a book to go into deeply, browse, or consult. Everything a teacher might want, at whatever level of complexity: planning for writing; how authors work; getting children to think like authors; sharing writing with others; how quality literature links reading and writing; the teacher as a model; ways to approach the various genres; encouraging children to write with sincerity; close observation; a host of strategies to get children discussing writing; and ways to tap children into universal experiences. It’s all there.
This book is our book, a book of the best our heritage made relevant for the present. The writers had something to say, something important to say, and they have said it beautifully and persuasively. We must read the book, absorb the message and the detail, then make it our own. What I hope doesn’t happen, but I fear will, is that the book will be widely read and admired, but not acted on in the spirit intended – becoming more an artefact of our once wonderful education philosophy, not a generous, vibrant means for lifting and inspiring present and future generations of children.