Conducting writing workshops with students can be an intense experience. Secondary students are often on timetables already crammed with activities. Adding something extra can trigger complex and, I sense, protracted negotiations between specialist teachers reluctant to cede a second of their allotted timetable. I wonder if this is partly due to the new, data-driven approach to education. I’m guessing every department has KPIs in place, along with boxes to tick to prove they have covered sufficient kilometres of curriculum.
As for the students, the older they get, the deeper they are funnelled into the results machine. They know they’re competing with each other at a school, state and now national level for tertiary entrance scores. If they can’t see the direct benefit of an activity (‘Am I going to be marked on this?’), I wonder if it becomes an irrelevance or curiosity before they tackle the next mandated and benchmarked activity.
I worry that this results-centric attitude to learning might stifle creativity. Do students opt for a safe approach to writing and problem solving, and avoid taking any creative risks, in order to get a solid mark? My hunch is that they do – even though I still see some fantastic ideas bubbling up to the surface.
Putting that aside, I work with students from Grade 5 up to Year 12 and, most of the time, it’s great fun. My philosophy is that creative writing doesn’t have to be daunting and that there’s never any excuse to say “I can’t think of anything to write about”. Story ideas are all around us and it’s simply a matter of opening our eyes and ears.
Whenever I’m at a school for consecutive days I’ll hang around in the library whenever possible and encourage students to drop by for a chat, show me their writing, tell me what they’re reading and so on. In my experience, younger students are more likely to take me up on this. Those in Year 10 and beyond often seem too stressed, busy or both.
When I mingle with the students I get a sense of who they are and where they’re at in their development. Maybe it’s the obsessive compulsive storyteller in me but I start to build a picture of what these children’s lives might be like outside school. And sometimes the signs are worrying.
Three students are stuck in my mind from recent school visits. I worried about them as I drove away and still do. In one case, a writing exercise I led resulted in demonstrable proof of a student with self-esteem so poor I referred their work to a teacher immediately.
What do these school visits teach me? Teaching is one tough gig. In each class you have kids who are uber-confident, kids with good ideas who are afraid to express them, kids who are palpably needy, kids so busy trying to be cool that they’re not in the room, and kids truly interested in what you’re trying to tell them… And they’re all hoping, secretly or otherwise, that you’ll catch their eye and focus on them. It must be exhausting to be counsellor/educator/disciplinarian/inspiration/motivator and more to each of these personalities.
It’s one thing to swan into a school as a visitor. It’s another to be there day in, day out, busting a gut trying to teach and care for students.