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A passion to write

Sam Duncan reminds us that effective teachers help learners to express the views and feelings that are meaningful to them 

At the recent NRDC International Conference in Nottingham, Sue Grief and I ran a workshop for adult literacy teachers and policy-makers where we explored links between the Effective Teaching and Learning: Writing study that the NRDC published in February (Grief et al. (2007) and the Voices on the Page student writing project.

These two NRDC projects were conceived and carried out independently but, as they grew and as we talked about them, we came to realise that they had much in common, and much to offer each other.

Key links we identified included the importance of critical thinking, the value of using speaking and listening, and of authentic and meaningful texts to develop writing skills, and the integral role of motivation and of linking work inside the classroom with lives outside the classroom. Not only are these all central to both the Effective Teaching and Learning: Writing research and Voices on the Page, but each of these issues links to the next, all bound up in a nest of why questions. Critical thinking (which is still an odd term to me, as if there could be non-critical thinking) is about asking why you are doing something, why certain meanings emerge, why someone would read this text, or why someone would write it... why, why, why...asking, discussing, speaking those questions and listening to a range of responses.

The use of authentic texts is also a case of whys: why this text is used in a certain way by certain people and why this means it has been written or could be written in this certain way rather than any other. To go further, what does 'authentic' mean? It seems to be generally agreed that using meaningful texts is a better way of developing reading and writing skills, and the more 'meaningful' the better, but what makes a text meaningful, and to whom?

Motivation and links between classroom work and outside-the-classroom lives also hover around the why question. Why are we writing? What are we writing for? Why (or why not) are we propelled or  compelled to write something, to read something, to write something in response, burning to write, trying to tell someone something?

Asking why to a class of students - or asking what they want to write - and what it should be like in order to figure out how to write it -seems a possible way to approach that uncomfortable literacy teaching tightrope between teaching literacy for 'social adaptation' (teaching students to adapt unquestioningly to the literacy required by a dominant cultural norm) and teaching literacy for 'social transformation' (using literacy classes to question and challenge those norms, Beder, 1990). Our professionalism as teachers lies in how we can help students to write what they - not we - want to write.

We used this method to ask two adult literacy classes to come up with the criteria for selecting the individual award-winners in Voices on the Page. Their criteria ranged from 'has something in common with me' to 'shows different ways of life' and from 'relates to or challenges your opinion' to 'connects to what's in your mind'. In his introduction to True Tales of American Life, a collection of true stories 'written by people of all ages and from all walks of life', and one of the inspirations behind Voices on the Page, Paul Auster writes:

If I had to define what these stories were, I would call them dispatches, reports from the front lines of personal experience. They are about the private worlds of individual Americans, yet again and again one sees the inescapable marks of history on them, the intricate ways in which individual destinies are shaped by [and, I would add, shape] society at large. (Auster, 2001)

This interplay between the individual and society, between one voice and a multiplicity of voices, are core to Voices on the Page, core to developing writing skills, and core to adult literacy, language and numeracy teaching and learning.

Encouraging young female undergraduates in the Cambridge of 1928 to write (despite, she felt, a lack of role models), Virginia Woolf urged:

So long as you write what you wish to write that is all that matters; and whether it matters for ages or only for hours, nobody can say. But to sacrifice a hair on the head of your vision, a shade of its colour in deference to some Headmaster with a silver pot in his hand or to some professor with a measuring-rod [or National Test] up his sleeve, is the most abject treachery...(Woolf, 1929)

So, to the criteria-producing adult literacy students, to Auster, to Woolf, and maybe to most of us, effective practice in writing hinges on writing what we are burning to write, writing what is meaningful to us, writing what we consider to be good writing, for this second or this hour or this decade. We all have to write our tales of burning life, the words that connect our lives to the lives of others. We can write as individual, singular voices or as part of a multiplicity of voices; we can write in order to see ourselves through someone else's eyes, stepping in and out of every box we have ever been in, ever wanted to escape from, ever longed to be inside.

Sam Duncan is an adult literacy coordinator at the Institute of Education, University of London, and a literacy tutor at City and Islington College. She is also co-manager of Voices on the Page.

Auster, P. (2001) True Tales of American Life. Faber and Faber
Beder, H. (1990). Adult literacy and the political economy: some critical issues. Paper presented at the SCUTREA.
Grief, S. et al. (2007) Effective teaching and learning: Writing: Summary report. NRDC
Woolf, V. (1929). A Room of One's Own. Harmondsworth: Penguin. 

See also: Celebrating writing 


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