Power of the pen

I recently had an opportunity to view literacy from a new perspective.

I help to run my home town book festival. Along with the local Rotary, the festival has, over recent years, sponsored a Young Writers competition. This year, 126 students from S1 and S2 in three local schools submitted entries.

Their challenging task was to write a piece of either poetry or prose on the theme, ‘Writing and me’.

My job was to draw up a short leet of pieces from which the Rotary officials could select the winning entries.

If you are unaware of the slog of marking, that high-priority teacher activity, let me assure you that grading 126 pieces is the equivalent of marking the homework of perhaps five classes, an English teacher’s standard week’s work. How long should each piece be given? Five minutes? That’s over ten hours marking. Even three minutes per piece is six hours solid work.

That’s not my main point, but bear it in mind. What encouraged me was that despite the difficult task, the outcomes were superb.

Some of the learners produced pieces of fiction, often with a historical twist, sometimes with an SF aspect, but all with a fine command of tight story-telling and much of it with a mature emotional content. Some crafted poems, skilful, articulate and beautifully structured.

Others wrote reflective pieces on their own experience as budding writers – or as struggling writers, including one moving piece by a dyslexic student. Reflecting on the art of writing, many of them analysed succinctly the changes in writing and communication which have been generated by IT. Their grasp of the world in which they live would put many educated adults to shame. They understand that writing remains a hugely vital tool for communication and survival but that its style and content are decidedly influenced by rapidly developing and changing technology.

Of course it is also true that PCs offer writers tools which can eliminate countless petty errors, whether of spelling or grammar, but a spell-check is only as efficient as its user. The writer has still to make a judgement each time an error is highlighted, in particular if multiple alternative options are offered. Basic literacy skills remain as essential in the electronic world as in the days of fountain pens and ink.

That was perhaps, for me, the most satisfying aspect of the process. These young people were highly literate. They were imaginatively literate but they were also technically literate. Spelling, punctuation, grammar, structure, all were excellent. The writing was well suited to its audience. Meaning was communicated clearly. The analytical pieces were persuasive, well-argued and supported by appropriate evidence.

There may be deficits in the Experiences and Outcomes of Curriculum for Excellence (and that’s a case which I have argued) but the vast majority of these students had grasped them.

That’s a credit to the learners but also to their teachers and while the credit for what was written goes entirely to the young people, the skills they have achieved have been hard-taught by gifted and inspiring teachers.

One last general point, I must make. Although two of the schools obviously entered their most able students’ work, one of them entered any piece which any student submitted and although one of the schools serves a fairly affluent catchment area, two of them do not. What I read may not have been scientifically representative of S1 and S2 writing across Scotland but it was sufficient to give this old English teacher an emotional fillip and confidence that in this most crucial of skills, our schools are doing a fine job.

The above article was first published in Holyrood Magazine on 19 November 2012: http://www.holyrood.com/2012/11/from-the-chalkface-power-of-the-pen/

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