I was recently involved in a discussion about making writing meaningful for children and despite some variations and discrepancies, ‘purpose’, ‘audience’ and ‘real experiences’ were the universally agreed necessities. The trajectory we took is probably unsurprising as it was a discussion with other classroom teachers who love teaching English.
Upon reflection, however, I couldn’t stop thinking about ‘real experiences’. I’ve always had a fairly casual relationship with reality when teaching non-fiction writing. The only way I could stomach teaching explanation texts was to use the wonderful Pie Corbett’s suggestion of creating imaginative explanations for the question: ‘why are bananas curvy?’ Why? Because let’s face it, how many people sit down to read an explanation text for pleasure? Certainly not me, and judging by the faces of my Year 6s when I introduced the genre, certainly not them!
After listening to my banana explanation, however, they stared at me in silence (a rare occurrence) until someone asked, ‘Miss, is that true?’ ‘Of course not!’ was my reply, ‘But it makes for much better reading.’ Suddenly explanation texts didn’t seem so dire after all.
However, after that discussion about making writing meaningful, I couldn’t stop thinking about whether or not my imaginative approach to non-fiction was flawed – was I actually teaching my students the skills needed to write for a factual purpose?
Over the past couple of weeks I have been teaching biography writing to help my class brush up on their recounting skills. This time, I thought, I will stick to reality. We wrote about Roald Dahl, using his brilliant autobiography, Boy, as our research starting point. Reality check: so far, so good. We then moved on to writing about members of our school community:
Purpose: to spice up the staff section of the school website
Audience: parents, students (prospective and current) and visitors
Real experience: well it’s our school community, so we’ve got that covered
The children set about designing interview questions, interviewing and planning biographies of their chosen member of the community, but when they sat down to write, one girl piped up: ‘But Miss, I don’t have enough to say.’ With some confusion, I pointed out that she’d written a very detailed plan, full of facts collected from a well designed and lengthy interview. Her reply:
‘But that’s not everything I want to write, I want it to be funny. Please can I make it up?’
I was torn for a moment, but then I remembered the purpose I’d given them: to spice up the staff section of the school website. She had hit the nail on the head – she knew her audience, she knew the purpose and she knew how she wanted to marry up the two. I stopped the class and told them they could embellish the truth if they wanted to. There was a murmur of decided approval from across the room and they set off to write.
It was then, as I walked around reading their writing, that I realised something about real experiences: just because something isn’t true, doesn’t stop if from seeming real. How many times has a child told you in fascinating detail about an imaginary friend or imagined experience? How many times has great literature alluded to ‘a world of pure imagination’?
‘When a person is lucky enough to live inside a story, to live inside an imaginary world, the pains of this world disappear. For as long as the story goes on, reality no longer exists.’ – Paul Auster, The Brooklyn Follies
And how much more interesting is THIS biography, than one that sticks to the facts?
I think I’ll stick with imagination after all.
This is a re-blog post originally posted by Nicola Stone and published with kind permission.
The original post can be found here.
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