Friday, 23 February 2018

Writing for pleasure 3 - collecting language


'Out there', every day, there are millions of examples of 'language-use' - spoken and written. We can think of it as a resource, which we can use to pick and mix, or 'scavenge' for what we want from it. This is what I mean by collecting.

1. Speech. It's great to focus children and school students on their own speech and the speech of the people they hear around them, relatives' sayings, proverbs, aphorisms, slips of the tongue, things they hear  in the institutions they go through (school, hospital etc)  and what they hear on holiday or on the media.  We can create spaces on walls, in books, or in corners, where we collect whatever is interesting, ambiguous, odd, fantastic, muddled, funny, tragic, pithy, clever, enigmatic. Teachers can model this by bringing in a few examples from e.g. their  parents, off the TV, toddler talk, overheard on the bus, etc in order to get things going. 

This is what many writers do. It's a writing activity. The key thing is to keep it refreshed and enriched, so maybe you have to keep changing it, every month or so. 

Encourage children and students to use it, to create their own versions  of it. By 'use' it I mean that we can draw attention to items on the list and discuss them.

2. Writing - same goes for examples of writing. This can include anything from poems, stories, plays that are being read, ads seen on buses or on posters, things taken from newspapers, odd things from text books,good jokes from joke books, stuff clipped from magazines. Again, the principle is 'clipping'. It can include lines from songs, street signs, odd things written on products, instructions for furniture you have to assemble, recipes - any examples of writing that catch the eye.

It can also include the idea of 'anthologising'. Encourage children and students to make anthologies of passages of writing they like or are intrigued by or puzzled by. It doesn't have to be marked or overseen. You can set it for homework, just copy anything, a few quotes, a passage that appeals to you, a verse from a song in the charts. And you can encourage the pupils to talk about the pieces, (perhaps in a designated time) or by writing a few words about it in their anthologies. 

Again, many writers do this. 

All of this are ways of making how language works, explicit. It draws attention to the way in which we are affected by language in many different ways. 

It is also non-hierarchical. It says that language is everywhere, in use, affecting us whether it's 'popular', 'mass media', 'high art', 'commercial'; whether it's 'perfect' or an error, slip of the tongue, ambiguity, pun, piece of rhetoric or some such. All this is scope for discussion and contributes to 'knowledge about language'. It may well uncover how language works on affecting us. 

3. Collecting longer kinds of writing. 

Essentially this means a library! We have to ask ourselves how pupils get access to the huge variety of written  text in the world: school library, local library, internet, theatre, film, and all the ways in which text is blasted at us through TV, ads, promos, captains and so on. 

If we want pupils to write. we have to, bit by bit, get them interested in saying - in broad or specific terms - 'I would like to write like that'. Essentially, this is what Shakespeare said to himself when he sat down to write his sonnets. It is part and parcel of a writer's job, to say, 'I would like to write like that'. This can mean, 'using that form', or it can mean 'trying to express those ideas'. or 'using that motif', 'using that theme' or indeed, 'something triggered off by what I just read'. 

One of the best ways to understand form, theme, structure, genre is quite simply, 'trying to write like that'. By creating a pseudo-science of 'analysis' we have made it hard for ourselves. It is really much easier to have a go ourselves. 

However, if we are just 'set the task' of doing this, it can be off-putting. If we've collected an example, and imitate the example we like or are interested in, it's usually a much more motivated task. 

At the heart off all this, is the motor of 'making literacy mine'. One of the jobs of education is not simply to say, 'we are  endowing pupils with this chunk of literature' but it is to find ways for the notion of literacy to be one of possession. 'I, the pupil, have the right to own this piece of writing, or this kind of writing. It doesn't belong to one person, or to one kind of person, or to one institution - but to everyone. And I am part of everyone, so I'm entitled to have this and use this.'

That message is particularly important for those who get a sense that some or all writing doesn't belong to them. 

Collecting examples of speech and writing, talking about it, making anthologies carried with those activities, the message that it all belongs to you. 

Tuesday, 20 February 2018

Writing for Pleasure 2

Here is a short list of principles or processes which we can use to help us to write for pleasure:

Collecting, investigating, imitating, changing (or inventing), distributing.

(One important aspect of this list is that we should think of it as interconnected: each process feeds into another. For example (and I'll return to this) 'distributing' is as important as any other process on the list because how people react when something is 'distributed' feeds back into what and how we write. It's how we put 'audience' into our writing. I mention this interconnectedness because it's very easy to pull one of these elements out and just focus on it, hoping that it'll do the trick.)

By the way, this is not just about 'creative writing' and it's not just about 'continuous prose'.  It's about all kinds of writing. More on that later. 

'Out there', every day, there are millions of examples of 'language-use' - spoken and written. We can think of it as a resource, which we can use to pick and mix, or 'scavenge' for what we want from it. This is what I mean by collecting

The moment we have collected a 'specimen' of language-use - it can be anything from a single word, to a whole book; anything from a line for a  song, a comment that someone made to a whole speech or a play - we can investigate it. We can look at it and ask it questions about why it is the way it is, how it works, why we are interested in it, why we are/are not moved by it and so on.

Any piece of language-use can be imitated, copied, repeated. So long as it's not a burden, this has the advantage of putting that sequence of words into our minds and bodies, with all its rhythms and strategies. 

Changing or inventing:
Any piece of language-use that we are imitating, can be played about with, tinkered with. The more we do this, the more confident we become with writing. There is, if you like, a scale of kinds of change: at one end, there are tiny changes, at the other there are huge changes, some so big that it's almost impossible to see what is being imitated. At this end of the scale the original text is really a 'trigger' which leads to big inventions.

Any piece of writing can be seen as a piece of language-use that can be distributed - that is shared through the means of using digital media (blogs (e.g. quadblogging), school websites, bulletins, fan fiction etc); 'old' media - booklets, posters, letters, magazines, ; performances - to one other person, a group, a class, a whole school, a parents' evening, a local community event, a video, a powerpoint show and so on. 

In the next blogs, I'll go through each of these processes in turn with ideas on how to do these, bearing in mind (again) that the list is intended to be interconnected so that each process  can help the others. 

Writing for Pleasure 1

We often talk about reading for pleasure - good thing too - but in a way writing for pleasure is harder, and, I think, happens less often. 

Why would that be?

Most of us learn to talk without anyone teaching us. It happens because we are around other people talking and if it was hard or odd or confusing, we can't remember it being like that, because we learnt how to do most of it in a time we can't recall. Writing, on the other hand, is something that we are taught and most of us can remember a few things about times when we were being taught.

I can remember most of my teachers telling me that I had terrible handwriting, other teachers telling me that I was 'good at writing even though my handwriting was terrible'. I can also remember my dad giving me advice on how to write - he was a secondary school teacher and the advice he gave me was: write about what you know and don't try to write about what you don't know. (I think he was talking about writing non-fiction essays and realistic stories, not fantasy!) 

One reason - I think it's the main one - that writing is hard is because there are various things about it that are very different from the way we speak to each other. 

When we speak to each other we do many of the following things that we tend not to do when we write:

make gestures, such as pointing to people and things
interrupt ourselves and other people
not finish what we seemed to be going to say
letting other people finish what we were going to say
speeding up and slowing down
being more or less musical in the way we string words together
stressing parts of words, whole words and phrases (though we can do this a bit in writing by using italics and capital letters)
repeating words, phrases and sentences
using a lot of phrases like 'you know' or 'like' 
doing a lot of 'umming and erring'
use a lot of 'pronouns' without saying who the 'he', 'she', 'it', 'we' or 'they' actually are because we are assuming that other people listening know who we're talking about,
saying things in a way that is 'compressed' or 'contracted' like 'I'd've' (though some of these we can write down, just as I've written 'I'd've'!) 
using regional, local and non-standard words and phrases,
and - not talking in the long, sentences that we use when we write!

When we write, a lot - but by no means all - of the writing we do is not organised in the way we organise language in speech.
In continous prose (the kind of writing I'm doing now), we mostly organise things into sentences, and if it's standard English, this means that most of the sentences have a full verb in the middle of it, which has a 'subject'. This is the main 'axis' or 'elbow' of a sentence. (The last sentence you've just read, that axis was 'This is...' 'This' is the 'subject' and 'is' (in this case) was the full verb or 'finite verb' as some people call it. 

When we speak, we quite often don't organise our speech into 'subject verb' sentences.  

When we write, we have to explain every pronoun, or people won't know who or what we are talking about.

When we write we can make sentences grow, particularly if we revise what we write. We can add extra phrases that begin with words like 'in', 'on', 'by', 'with'. We can add extra clauses that begin with words like 'although', 'because', 'if', 'as soon as', 'when', 'where', 'who', 'that'. We can link one idea to another using 'and',or 'but'. We can of course use all these words, phrases and clauses when we speak. What I'm saying here is that when we write, we can lever in more of them, making what we mean more complicated. 

Another thing we can do is what the linguist David Crystal calls, 'front-loading' a sentence.When we speak, we tend to dive straight into that 'subject-verb' thing, or even straight into the verb. 

'What you doing?'
'Going out.'

If I was reporting that I would write, 'She asked me what I was doing, and I said that I was going out.'

That's a very different 'construction' of language. I can also, add in things at the front about when and where I was when 'she' asked me what I was doing. I can also  say some things about 'she'. I can, if I choose,put some of these up front, in a way that I might find difficult when speaking. 

'In a room that was neither a pub or a shop but had the air of being a bit of both, she asked me what I was doing...' 

Some people can speak like that - especially stand-up comedians, politicians, and in the kind of rehearsed, written speech that you get in plays and films or people like me reading off scripts on the radio. 

Most of the time, we don't talk like that. 

Both talking and writing take place over longer stretches of time than a single sentence or just a few sentences. We might chat for hours. We can write things that take hours or even days to read. How these two ways of using language are organised are very different too. When you look at transcripts of people talking for a time, there is often a 'circularity'. People give each other accounts of things, and often come back to them, sometimes again and again.  They also signal to each other that in many different ways things that indicate they are listening to each other ('Mm', 'Go on', 'Really?'), the indicate when they are bored, when they haven't followed what the other persons is saying, and various kinds of comments about whether the conversation should go on, wind up soon, or wind up now!

In writing, we hardly use any of these. In fact, part of the oddness of writing is that we do it without anyone saying, 'Mm' or 'Go on,' or 'Right...OK then...' We do it to and for a silent audience. This simple fact is one of the main reasons why writing is difficult. We have to imagine our audience, we have to 'internalise' an audience (that is write for that audience without saying we are), and every word and phrase and sentence we use, does in fact 'imply' an audience. This is because in a way, everything we say and write comes from stores of language (words, phrases, sentences, etc) which are a bit like shelves in libraries: stores of language for particular reasons and purposes, waiting for us to use, adapt and re-use. When we speak or write about, say, the kind of car we want to get, we go  to the car shelf and start talking in a kind of car dialect. This is much easier when we speak because the person we're speaking to might well help us.When we write, we have to do it with no help. So, when we're writing about, say, 'The Tudors', we have to go to the history shelf and pull down the 'history way of writing' and there isn't anyone to prompt us with words and phrases that historians use, like 'on the other hand...' or 'another problem that Elizabeth faced...' We have to learn these in order to be the kind of person who can write like that. Again,it's not easy!

In writing, we can 'develop an argument' or 'structure a plot' or organise a poem according to a fixed form like a sonnet or a ballad, There are then 'strings' that run through pieces of writing that are, say,  the way we organise a series of 'points' in an argument, discussion or 'exploration of a theme'. There might be 'strings' which guide us  in shaping a whole song or poem, and there might be rhythms to the length of scene or the kinds of dialogue that we put in a play which again are a bit like invisible strings holding and shaping the whole piece of writing. Incredibly rare and clever people can do some or even most of this when they talk. In fact, it's easier for most of us to do this when we have time to think and 'draft' and 'redraft' our writing! 

We might say, then, that the kinds of writing I'm talking about here (continuous prose, poems and other forms of literature)  are a bit like a dialect that is different from the one that we speak with. It's not a perfect analogy, but if I stick with it for a moment: consider trying to speak with the dialect you don't speak with. In my case that would be, say, Glaswegian. Immediately I'm thinking of things like 'canna' and 'dinna', the Glaswegian way of saying the kind of things that I say as 'can't' and 'don't'. I have to learn those words in order to say them. That's a bit (not totally) like the process by which we learn to write in standard English continuous prose. And it's not easy, particularly when we're very young, and particularly when we're both learning how to physically form words with our pencils and pens at the same time as learning this new way of using English. 

The question, then, is how do we make all this pleasurable? 

However, before getting into this, I'll need to explore the question of different kinds of writing. One of the ways in which we 'mystify' writing is to tell children and adults that really there is only one way to write - standard English,continuous prose. 

In fact, there are many, many different ways of writing and even within some forms of standard English continuous prose - like, say, in  novels, or newspapers, where there are loads of times when it's not very standard, and not very 'continuous'. Here are some types of writing that are like this:

TV and film scripts, plays, poems, songs, TV ads, posters, newspaper headlines, slogans, dialogue in novels, the words in a  children's picture book, emails, texts, comments in social media, shopping lists, labels, some instructions.

Let's never forget that all this writing is important, a lot of it is a crucial part of how we enjoy ourselves, get things done, and in some cases make money! 

This is why that anyone teaching writing knows that one way to make writing pleasurable is to do some of it in these ways, even if it's only in a kind of mock way  - 'let's make up a mock ad for toenails'. This is then a kind of 'bridging' place to get writing going, which is neither speech, nor standard English continuous prose. 

It's 'something else' and, as it happens, it's a territory I've been exploring for about the last 50 years or more: writing in ways that make the writing 'easy to say out loud' and I do this in most of my poetry, in my radio scripts and in a good deal of my stories and some of my blogs - even this one that you've just read.  

Sunday, 18 February 2018

What is education for? The Tories know.

You may have seen, heard or read that the new Secretary of State for Education, Damian Hinds, is cooking up some kind of differentiated or graduated system of university fees, based at least in part on what he calls the 'economic value of the course to society' ! (I kid you not).

As someone who has spent his whole life being of virtually no 'economic' value to society, I'm very interested in what Damian Hinds' league table (!) of more or less economic valuable courses is going to tell us.

And surely doctors are pretty useless. What 'economic value' are they? They just prolong people's lives. What's the use of that? We need people to die the moment they stop being productive.

And why stop at the 'economic value' of a university course? (see Damian Hinds today). What about the economic value of each 'unit' (some fools still say 'child') from Nursery school onwards? C'mon, let's get productive.

In the 1960s some of us said that the trouble with education was that too much of it 'served the interests of capitalism'. We were of course loony lefties, anarchists, marxists and trots and so this outrageous, stupid conspiratorial idea could be dismissed.

Now in the 21st century we have  one Tory politician after another telling us that the purpose of education is to... be of economic value, to be productive (in economic terms) to compete with other countries. They're agreeing with what we said when we said education serves the interests of capitalism. Oh - except we said that this wasn't good. They're saying it's brilliant and we need more of it, and we need children to be assessed and trained and priced according to just how much they serve the interests of capitalism.

Fair enough. There isn't anything else that matters. Is there? Is there? there? Anyone there? Pick up. Pick up. Is there?

How to be rich

When I go round state schools I tell children that if they want to be sure of a good job they should leave and go to a private school.

What I tell children in schools is that if they want to achieve and acquire wealth, the best thing they should do is inherit it.

I tell students worried about debt that if their parents can’t afford to help them, find some parents who can.

I was explaining to this rough sleeper bloke that he could have avoided his situation if he had put his profits into a tax haven and he told me to f off.

I looked at the prospectus for Eton. Sounded nice. Everyone should go there. Oh hang on...

We at Metrics Incorporated

We at Metrics Incorporated prefer not to use the terms, child, pupil or student and use instead the term ‘unit’ which we see as relatively more (or less) productive in adding value to business profits.

We at Metrics Incorporated have checked on Michael Rosen’s metrics and found a high score for the translation part of his Anglo-Saxon paper for his degree but are disconcerted by his claim that he learned the translation off by heart the night before.

We at Metrics Incorporated do our best to help politicians confuse people by saying that Input A (one variable change) led to Output B (the result) even though other variables were not held constant.

We at Metrics Incorporated instruct schools to improve their metrics scores by not accepting or excluding low scoring students from the school, or removing them from as many exams possible in which they are likely to score low.

We at Metrics Incorporated put a lot of effort into training MPs and journalists into believing that metrics tell us everything we need to know about anything, and the result is that none of them question metrics itself.

We at Metrics Incorporated are worried that there are people in jobs on wages that are not big enough for people to feed their children but we congratulate the Tories for creating more of those jobs.

We at Metrics Incorporated have found it impossible to measure the value of the silence that a child shows while reading a book and so we have deduced that it’s a largely useless experience.

We at Metrics Incorporated have reduced the amazing, complex, subtle part of human behaviour called ‘language’ to metrics by turning it into bits of right/wrong fact; then we call these bits ‘grammar’ (to sound important) and test children on it.

The result of 'metrics' taking over the world.

‘Evidence’ was turned into ‘metrics’

Governments bought into metrics,

metrics have driven policy,

metrics eliminated the unmeasurable,

but the unmeasurable can be valuable, can’t it?

The Tories say education is a necessary weapon

in a 'competitive world' 
(they mean that UK business is in a war with the Rest of the World).

'Metrics' (that is: only teach what is measurable)

is their weapon in this.

Doing times tables fast (see the new test) is part of this.

The 'knowledge-rich curriculum' is really:

the 'lot of measurable stuff curriculum'.

One ironic part of 'metrics' taking over education

is that though 'metrics' is a commercial enterprise ('big business')

it can only be implemented through government policy

ie it's 'nationalised'.

Thus, huge centralisation of power at DfE with Sec of State and Nick Gibb.

There are 3 dimensions to metrics:

1. 'remember stuff'.

2. 'regurgitating stuff'

3. 'doing it fast'.

Note: 'regurgitating stuff slowly' is 'not good enough'.

If you disagree with the commandment:

"All that is un-measurable is un-valuable' ,

then you should know that you are a living embodiment of heresy.

The Heresy Police will be round later.

The govt has found money to create Heresy Jails.

Their efficiency in eliminating heresy is being checked

by Metrics Incorporated.