Making your writing mean something

For the most able writers in our classrooms, the difference between my reaction being “I like this…” and “My jaw just hit the floor” is often very slim. I’ve been lucky enough to have a very able Year 8 and a very able Year 11 group this year, and consequently I’ve spent a lot of time thinking about what makes the difference. It seemed easiest to try and explain it with a case study, so…

A Practical Example:

AE is in Year 11. She wrote the following piece, which is a perfectly respectable description of a snow day.

“Crisp, cool air burned my searing lungs as they attempted to breath, struggling against the bitter cold. Every exhale spat out a plume of smoky water vapour which gracefully curled and danced in the chilling breeze, then floated away into nothingness. Snow had smothered the ground like a lethal blanket, several inches thick, which glinted maliciously, intent on unbalancing me as I cautiously trekked to my next lesson.”

She asked for advice to improve it. I decided that the best single image in it was the snow, smothering the earth. Something about the idea of show as an agent of change, of a violent suppression of the existing world struck a chord, leading my thinking towards the idea of a snow day as a suspension of the established social rules, a wild world, a return to the primeval battle for survival. Together, we wrote a new opening line:

“A world of pure and beautiful hostility, the normal rules of society blurred and smeared in a white cloak.”

In its turn, the new opening almost automatically rewrote some later segments – an encounter with Year 7s throwing snowballs became a primal battle with caveman-like Year 10s, to establish the sense of a society temporarily suspended.

AE doesn’t need me to teach her technical sentence structures very much now. Nor does she need lessons in semi-colons. She does, like many students, need a second Reader – a critical eye that can spot a Golden Nugget of message buried in the work. Then the teacher’s role becomes the sieve, panning for the gold, discarding anything superfluous and helping the student to find the message they’ve buried in their own work.

AE’s end result was powerful and interesting, because it had something to say. The magic jaw-dropping ingredient, I would argue, is MESSAGE – we need to help our students’ writing mean something.

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