Essence: Expressive writing
By Gail Loane interviewed by Kelvin Smythe
Essence: Expressive writing
An interview with Gail Loane
A series of postings, by a number of writers, to throw light on the essence of curriculum areas and how children learn
I first visited Gael Loane when she was a teaching principal of a three teacher school near Thames. It was evident that she had a firm 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, in particular, providing them with new sources of stimulus, and new ways to reflect on experience.
There prevailed amongst the children the idea of being an author, of wanting to write, of caring about their writing, of getting satisfaction from writing. When a child wrote something distinctive, and it was shared with the other children, there were nods of appreciation all round – writing was highly valued.
Gail Loane continually moved around, working with individual children, calling groups of children together as the need arose – listening, questioning, challenging, cajoling, exhorting. She is a person who listens to children (a characteristic of all good teachers), listens deeply, and to whom children listen deeply in return.
Following her time at Puriri, she was appointed to a junior class advisory position, then when Tomorrow’s Schools came, she went. Gail Loane, though, is still available today to share her insights into learning, especially in the area of children’s writing.
Formative influences? First of all playcentres, said Gail in response to my question. I was particularly interested in the parent education side - grappling to find ways to draw parents in and give them an understanding of what we were trying to achieve. Lex Gray and his playcentre philosophy, Montessori, Gwen Somerset – anything to do with children’s discovery learning, these kinds of things took my attention. I found a university course on children’s literature particularly stimulating.
Then, in 1980, I went back to teaching at primary schools. And right from the start it was children’s language that was my focus. Elwyn Richardson’s and Bruce Hammond’s ideas, and Pam Lord, my school inspector at the time, were helpful in my development.
It was Dorothy Heathcote, however, who was pivotal. There was her stress on excellence. I came to appreciate that in my teaching I tended to rely on a lot of tricks. Something more substantial was needed. A key statement of hers was, ‘Do not leave children with hollows’. Meaning all learning should be quality learning. That statement has continued to mean a lot to me.
While Donald Grave’s ideas have played an important part in written language programmes, and we should acknowledge this, an unintended outcome has sometimes been a lack of attention by teachers to developing quality learning contexts – the children have some times been left with hollows. I have seen ‘process writing’ all set up (the charts, the conferencing, and so on) but the results were unsatisfactory. At that stage in my language teaching I was continually straining for ways to maintain children’s attention to their work. I could see they had ideas, but I found it difficult to draw out of them the quality of expression to match. Fortunately, I had strength in art. By making them observant to detail in that curriculum area, I learnt how to shift this attitude to writing and later science.
I can remember how frustrated I felt with a child who had high ability but who persisted in writing in flowery language – the stars always glittered.
(I interposed at this stage and said that what she had said reminded me of an episode in Janet Frame’s autobiography when her elder sister Myrtle said the words in Janet’s poem should be ‘tint the sky’. Janet had written:
‘When the sun goes down and the night draws nigh
And the evening shadows touch the sky.’
Myrtle insisted there were words you always use when writing about certain things – evening shadows tinted, stars shone or twinkled, waves lapped, wind roared. Janet Frame remained unconvinced.)
‘It wasn’t good enough to say - just let them go’, Gail said.
‘How would you go about challenging that child now,’ I asked.
Recently, a teacher asked me to take a language lesson with her class. During the course of the discussion a child said: ‘Autumn’s coming’.
I said, ‘Why don’t you all go outside, stand there, and use all your senses. When you have one really good sentence come back in.’
Back in they came.
‘The yellow, red and brown leaves are fluttering to the ground.’
‘Is that true?’
‘Are the leaves red?’
‘Did you see any leaves fluttering?’
‘Out you go again.’
‘Inside they came.’
‘That tree over there has yellow on top.’
‘Could you say that better?’
‘The oak is tinged with yellow.’
They had concentrated, and the result was a few interesting sentences.
Keeping those hollows away is hard work; you can never take quality in their thinking for granted. I took my class to look out over the sea. Out came superficial responses. How disappointing.
Then a child said, ‘A pencil thin line divides the sea from the sky.’
This observation lifted the whole class, especially after they registered my delight in hearing it.
Following teaching y.3-4 children, I moved to another school and junior children. How to get beginning writers going was the challenge now. An important element was having adults around children while they were writing. Training sessions for parents were run. Anxieties about letting the children off the leash a little with spelling, and so on, were soothed.
Getting young children to see themselves as writers can be a difficulty. I can remember an encounter with two children – one a boy, the other a girl.
‘Today we’re going to write a story all by ourselves,’ I said in that teacher style of voice.
‘I can’t,’ said the boy. ‘I only make mistakes.’
I shifted my attention, ‘What might you write about?’ I asked the girl.
‘My daddy shot his foot with a gun.’
The boy contemplated for a moment; clearly he wasn’t going to be outdone.
‘I had a bath.’
‘Great!’ I said. ‘Were you just tricking me before?’
Off he went with a piece of paper and a few squiggles appeared.
A key way for me to tap into children’s experiences is to use literature. For instance, there is a piece of writing I feel is particularly effective – ‘Through the Tunnel’ by Doris Lessing (school journal. Pt 4, No. 2, 1977). [If you cannot obtain a copy please e-mail networkonnet.] After watching other boys swim through a long hole in a rock, a boy overcomes his fear by eventually giving it a go. The close description of the boy’s feelings and the attention to detail, contribute to a strong sense of tension.
At the end of the story we reflect.
‘What was the story really about?’
They responded with things like: ‘Plucking up courage’, ‘Showing determination’.
These contributions were fair enough, but only a few children had anything to say – something further was needed. That something was someone getting personal – telling a personal story. In this case, it was the teacher’s personal story. If you want children to reveal more of themselves, you often need to reveal something of yourself. I have learnt to tell stories; all teachers should develop this skill. Water stories then came from the children, as well.
In having discussions we all sit in a circle. Stories from their experiences are dug up. At times I say: ‘Turn to a partner and tell him or her about it.’ With junior children I say: ‘Go knee to knee.’ They don’t all have to write about what we discuss, but, inevitably, it has some influence on what follows.
My timetable started off with fitness, then there would be stimulus time – reading a story or a poem, discussing an experience, going out to observe something in the environment. After that they dispersed to do their writing. The children themselves insisted on a quiet time for doing this. Writing usually lasted about twenty-five minutes – some carried on from there, but one way or another most finished their writing by the end of the day. Just before morning play, and after it, I read them a story. This was followed by reading, though, throughout the morning programme, reading and writing activities went on side-by-side; there was no great distinction.
I was always looking for new ways to get improvement. I recall a child who was having difficulty writing with any distinctiveness.
What I tried seemed right for that occasion.
‘Can I use your piece of writing as something the class can work on? You have to agree.’
So I put her typically sketchy story on the whiteboard and asked for comment.
‘We need more information in the story,’ said one child.
The story was about scrub cuttings.
‘Yes – we need more detail’, said another child.
In their suggestions and questions the children were supportive.
‘Tell us about the car.’
‘What were the cuttings like?’
With children and their writing you just keep probing.
And by the way, photographs are a useful way for getting children to produce keenly observed detail.
Then there was the child who wrote with a lot of ‘ands’. How to get the point across? Next day, on the whiteboard, I wrote a story I’d made up.
‘Any comment?’ I asked the class.
‘That’s a poor story – it has too many “ands” in it,’ a child said.
There was a chorus of agreement, and suggestions for omissions and substitutions followed quickly.
I have found the scribing part of reading experience a useful time for getting across expressive and technical points – especially if it is the children making the points.
For those children who persist in writing rambling stories, I sometimes write or tell rambling stories. Within the rambling, though, I make sure there is a precise and effectively told exciting part. The discussion that follows usually brings out the relevant teaching point.
‘Would I do anything different if I went back to the classroom? Well – I’d give children more opportunities for different kinds of writing, for instance, character sketches. As well, I would get them doing more research writing.’
And then she returned to her experiences with children.
Do you know what a child said to me last week? She came up to me and the discussion went like this:
‘Is “like” for simile?’
‘And “is” for metaphor?’
‘Does that mean a metaphor is more powerful than a simile?’
Gail Loane is available to give help in children’s learning, especially in written language.