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Button it and butt out - helping children find their voices in creative writing

Teachers are terrible for butting in, don't you think? If you're a teacher, or if there's a teacher in your family, you'll know what I mean here. In my local Headingley cafe, I am always wildlife watching for parent-teacher hybrids with their talk of 'making good choices' and loud interruptions to children's chatter with choice dollops of wisdom. I am just as culpable. Taking my nephew to the park, the teacher that lurks within me spots the opportunity for quick lesson on plant life or bird migration. Cue deep sighs and athletic eye-rolls from my nephew. Reading a book with him is too tempting to pass up an impromptu phonics lesson or when playing computer battle simulations together on Rome Total War, I can't help myself from giving him a little lesson on the Roman Empire as I pulverise his centurions with my Egyptian chariots. The inner teacher bursts out, hulk-like, from your unsuspecting human form.

As a teacher of writing, I have become more aware of the perils of the big 'butt-in'. When I am trying to coax ideas from the children, or get them to describe something in a certain way, I am well aware of how quick I can be to jump in with suggestions ("why don't you write it like this...") or with mid-sentence corrections (Capital letter! jabs finger). Unsure, the children then defer to me when trying to shape their ideas: "Can you tell me what to write?" or the worst: "I've forgotten what you told me to put". Either they don't trust themselves to be able to think of something to say, or they have my game sussed and know I will swoop in and write it for them. 

Helping children phrase sentences isn't a bad thing, it is after all what we are there for. But in getting children writing, I want to hear their voice, not mine. I don't want the writing to be formulaic and repetitive parroting back to me my sentences, syntax and phrases. That's partly why I have stopped using pre-written sentence types, model texts and writing fames. I want the writing to be a response to the way they think and talk, not how I have decided they will best demonstrate achieving the writing objectives. 

In several recent writing workshops, I have been invited to work with schools to help the children be more creative in how they write. The teachers identify that children struggle to compose and experiment with ideas and, higher up the school, to inject a little of the voice and verve of a real writer. So, I do away with the writing WAGOLLs and we write together, following the rule of 'what sounds good' rather than 'what looks good'. Text can be refined and developed at the editing stage later but the unique voicing comes in at the drafting stage.
When teachers drop in on the sessions to see how the children are getting on, it is not difficult to see the root of the problem. Teachers are quick to jump in on children's handwriting, correct punctuation, or offer a suggestion ("Why don't you say...") Composing is then reduced to guessing what is in the teacher's head rather than finding a way to articulate what is in your own. Regionalisms are sanitised (I love reading a bit of Yorkshire in a child's story), quirky phrases are straightened out, writing objectives are shoe-horned in ("why don't you say it in the passive voice?").

When you read as a reader, you don't notice the punctuation. If you do, it's a bad piece of writing. It's the writer's voice that carries you. If you don't believe me, then read Nelson Mandela's book Long Walk to Freedom. No, technically it's not an accomplished work of grammatical genius, but I defy anyone to read it and not hear the great man's voice in your head. When you read as a writer, you begin to see that there is no hard and fast rule with punctuation, syntax or grammar. It is the plot, the characters and, crucially, the voicing that carries it. For adults, see Douglas Adams. For children, Eve Bunting's "where the fountain splashes dark" is a beautiful, grammatically incorrect example from Night of the Gargoyles that, in Year 6, would get the green highlighter.

Teach good example sentences and phrases from literature as much as you like but if you want the children to find their voices, you need to know when button it, when to butt out and when to let them write.

Keywords: creative writing, primary, author's voice, children as authors 

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