Sensitivity and the Writer

 

sensitivityI’m a delicate little flower. People tend to laugh when I say this. But it’s true. I am a very sensitive person. 

I think people laugh because sensitivity is all-too-often confused with weakness. And I am most definitely NOT a weak person. I am a person who feels deeply. Sometimes I might struggle with expressing those feelings in a way that others can understand. Sometimes deep empathy is mistaken for aloofness. Other times I express anger and frustration with tears. A lot of the time I simply don’t react externally, I contain the depth of my emotion and process it internally, requiring time and space to do so. But I DO feel it. Very much so.

However, sensitivity is not looked upon as a positive. I remember in one job I had (in a particularly toxic workplace environment) a friend said to me “if only you didn’t cry,” as though my crying, instead of the personality inadequacies of a dysfunctional bully, was the reason that he targeted people (me, as well as others at different times). 

I’d been told to “toughen up” and “get a thicker skin” so often in my life that for a very long time, I thought there was something terribly wrong with me. I was compared to a turtle without a shell; an oyster without its protection. I tried to ‘toughen’ up, I tried not to take things personally. I tried the ‘water-off-a-duck’s-back’ philosophy. None of it worked for me. 

And I realised that I didn’t want it to. I didn’t want to shut down completely. I didn’t want to switch off from pain –– my own or anyone else’s. I didn’t want to be one of those people who could walk past an old homeless man in the street and not recognise the inadequacies of a society who has failed him. I didn’t want to look into the eyes of crying child and not see the pain. I didn’t want to close myself off to the acquaintance locked in an abusive relationship, or the colleague caring for an elderly parent and a sick child who sometimes gets grumpy. I didn’t want to get a thick skin if it meant that I walked around in a narcissistic bubble.

I’m okay being a very sensitive person. And whilst others may not cope with, or understand, my sensitivity, it lends itself very well to my writing. After all, how can a writer write with authenticity unless they have some degree of insight into their character’s emotions? The short answer is they can’t. It’s why writers tend to be such a sensitive bunch. 

A writer writing without an understanding of the human psyche, can only skim the surface of the human experience. Human connection and interaction is what drives story. Regardless of genre, a reader must be able to connect with a character, they must be able to relate to a character, either positively or negatively, whether that character is human or not. A reader needs to see some of themselves in the characters they read, consciously or subconsciously, in fantasy or reality. Strong narrative elicits some kind of reaction or response from a reader. And reaction comes from emotion. And emotion comes from sensitivity. 

To really get inside a character and create that relate-ability, a writer needs to be aware of, and sensitive to, the full gamut of human emotion. 

I’m a very sensitive person. And I’m okay with that. Because I’m a writer.

 

Write Change

writeI’m about to change everything about the way I run my writers’ groups. Everything!

I’ve written a lot about writing on this blog. But I keep coming back to my observations about how writing develops in young people. As a writer who teaches writing I am acutely aware of how kids learn to write, what they write as well as when and how they write. And I am very familiar with their attitude to writing.

Kids, in general, are very enthusiastic about writing when they are young. But something happens along the way that changes this. They become more reluctant to write and less willing to take risks with their writing. And because of this, they can’t always develop their full potential as writers.

I’ve seen it both in the classrooms of the schools in which I teach, and in the teen writers’ groups I run. There is a negativity attached to writing. And the idea of writing for fun seems as attractive to these kids as the thought of eating a Brussels-sprout pie.

So what happens between the ages of six and sixteen that dramatically changes a student’s attitude to writing? I’m not entirely sure. It’s a complex question with a network of cause and effect reasons. But based on what I see, I’m going to narrow it down to one thing: pressure. 

There is enormous  pressure placed on young people to achieve academically. By the system. As the curriculum narrows and teaching becomes more prescriptive, there is less time for teachers to allow students to write just for the sake of writing. 

I’m not blaming teachers. Standardised testing dictates what teachers teach and what students must learn to achieve ‘success’. Teachers are under just as much pressure as students. And it doesn’t leave a whole lot of room for creative development. 

And then there are parents. Of course parents want their kids to succeed. They take advice from those who purport to know more than they do: teachers! Who are under pressure from schools to lift their NAPLAN results. Schools are under pressure from their state governments who are under pressure from federal government who continue to under-fund education systems… and so it goes.

But how does this impact on kids?

It leaves them reluctant to write. Kids feel the pressure. They are scared to write. They won’t take risks. They don’t want to be told told their writing isn’t good enough. They don’t want to disappoint anyone. They don’t want to make mistakes. But if they don’t mistakes, if they don’t write for the sake of writing, they don’t develop as writers.

I give all my writers’ group participants, and their parents, a questionnaire to fill out when they first enrol in the groups. It gives me an idea of where to place each kid. One of the questions asks what aspect of writing they want to work on. Unanimously, the parents say: ‘Essay Writing.’ But last term, of the ten kids in each group, at least seven of them ticked the option that said: ‘I wish I didn’t have to write.’

I felt so sad. I’d structured my groups to cover all development aspects of writing, including essay writing, because I knew that was what would attract participants, because this locale (Northern suburbs of Sydney) has a strong culture of tutoring. And because I need to support myself so that I can write.

But it got to me. These kids came to group, not because they wanted to or because they loved writing, but because their parents made them. One little boy in Year 7 (12 yrs) would come to group each week red-eyed and teary because he’d fought with his mother every single week about not wanting to do writers’ group. He was a bright kid who was where he needed to be at his age, but his Mum wanted him to be better. Then there were the Year 11 (16yrs) boys who wanted me to teach them to write essays. Not to develop their essay-writing skills, but to actually rote-teach them to write an exact essay in response to exact questions. 

It was soul-destroying for me. Writing creatively is my lifeblood. It’s what gets me out of bed in the morning. It makes me feel alive. It heightens my senses and makes my heart sing. When I’m not writing, I’m thinking about writing. Creative Writing is my bliss! And I felt like I was selling out by ‘playing the game’ and contributing to the demise of writing for fun! 

So I stopped. I canned the groups this term. 

And while I finished the novel I’d been working on, I thought a lot about it. Of all the Writers’ Groups I’ve run over the past four years, I’ve had two favourites. One was the group for disengaged young men because, though the boys could barely construct a sentence, they had nothing to lose by taking risks with writing and they achieved the most relative success. It was the most challenging group I’ve ever run, but those young men finished six months in the group recognising and enjoying the power writing gave them. It was fabulous to be a part of that!  

The other group was a group of Year 8 girls in the selective stream of the school at which I did a writer-in-residence gig. They took risks with their writing, learned the art of critiquing and produced some fabulous narratives. Unfortunately for this group, one of their teachers complained to the Principal that creative writing was detracting from academic achievement (the girls were withdrawn from other classes to attend writers’ group) and the group was stopped.

The thing that these 16-year-old boofy boys and 12-year-old very bright girls had in common was learning to love writing. And recognising the power it gave them.

What the ‘system’ fails to recognise, is that if kids learn to love writing, they’ll write for fun. And if kids write for fun, just because, and without fear of failure, they become willing writers. And if they become willing writers, they are more likely to engage with the writing process in all its genres.   And if they engage with the writing process in all its genres, they will become better, stronger and more capable writers, creatively AND academically. It’s really not rocket science!Write!wordle

So… I am no longer going to ‘tutor’ kids to write academically. 

I want to share my passion for writing. I want to inspire kids to want to write. Of course, the technical aspects of writing are important and they’ll be worked on in the context of the writers’ group setting. But the new and improved Writers’ Group Program will be CREATIVE WRITING  groups. I want to teach kids to love writing as much I love writing. I want them to know what it can do for them, how powerful it can be. I want kids to value writing (and necessarily) reading as a pastime that has the potential to provide great joy as well as power and freedom in their lives! 

And if they can feel that, even just a little bit, then not only do we have better writers, we have happier, more resilient kids, with better self-esteem who are more likely to take risks and reach higher.

I love writing. And I want everyone to experience the magic of creating story. 

For more information on the ‘New and Improved’ Writers’ Group program, click here!

 

 

Writing and Risk Taking

riskI’ve just completed the first draft of my third novel. You’d think it would be cause for celebration, wouldn’t you? After all, I’ve been working on the manuscript for just over a year. Actually, about fourteen months. Fourteen months, one week and three days, precisely. That’s fourteen months, one week and three days with tangential voices in my head. And they didn’t always wait patiently for me to sit at my computer and arouse them. Rather, these voices woke me up at night, nagged me while I was swimming laps, bugged me while I was trying to watch television, or listen to someone who was talking to me. They interrupted my teaching, distracted me from my research, entertained me while I waited for the bus. In short – they were always there. And now they’re gone.

Anyone but another writer may think it strange. But I know these voices really well. They belong to individual characters with their own personalities. They have good points and not so good points. They have their personal likes and dislikes, talents and weaknesses. Like the rest of us, they are fabulous and they are flawed. But they are mine. I created them, nurtured them, grew them to the point where they surpassed my creative development and began to dictate and narrate the plot and subplots themselves. They let me know who was capable of what, what was or was not consistent with their psyche. They told me where they wanted to go and what they wanted to do and with who.

Sometimes we battled it out on the page. I would write what I wanted to happened, they would refuse to comply, and that particular chapter or scene would sound clunky, or wouldn’t flow properly, or had some often unidentifiable factor subverting the plot. Other times, if I allowed them free reign, their interpretation of my narrative view resulted in a flow of words as smooth and providential as red wine and dark chocolate on a cool Autumn evening in front of a crackling log fire… and all was right in my literary world!

And now it’s over.

The next step, of course, is to submit it for feedback. But there is something holding me back. This manuscript is deeply personal. Not in a ‘my characters reflect me as a person’ type of way, nor in a ‘there are biographical plot lines contained herein’ sort of way. Neither is true (well, no more true than any author creating any work of fiction).

risk taking

Perhaps it’s because this novel, more-so than the first two, has so much more riding on its viability. It is, after all, an experimental work (and I’ll say no more about that this time). Or perhaps it is because in submitting their work, writers, as with any creative artists, open themselves up for public scrutiny and critique with no possibility of rebuttal. In any other profession, an employee has only to seek approval from the person above them in their supervisory line, and feedback is provided one-to-one. If the feedback is unfair or unwarranted, there are other avenues the employee may pursue. But creative artists have no such alternatives. It’s a very public climb, or fall.

In the development stages of a book’s production, an author has to send their work out with the express intention of seeking critique. First drafts always look very different to finish works. Redrafting, refining, and rewriting are necessary processes in the development of a book. Any book. A writer does not publish a book that has not undergone a rigorous editorial process. And sometimes this process can take many months, even years. We all know this.

It’s what needs to happen to my manuscript now. But for some reason this time, the risk feels too great. It’s a lot scarier than it was for my first two books. Perhaps it’s because the novel is for a different age group (16+ rather than 12-16), or perhaps because it was with a different hierarchy (interactive), maybe it’s because it will be a new editor who has a much greater power to influence me…

I’m not sure what it is, or why this time is so different. But I do know I can’t back down or back away. I have to submit. I have to know. It’s one of the most nerve-wracking, scariest, and simultaneously exciting moments as an author to date.

Okay… here goes….

Teaching, writing, fear, and children.

ipad n booksI love teaching writing to children and young adults. There is something incredibly powerful about encouraging a young person to enhance their communication skills.

There is a lot of concern among teachers at the moment about the future of writing. These kinds of discussions seem to come up at the beginning at every school year, and as our school year (here in Australia) has just begun, so too have the conversations. Teachers worry that children are losing the art of written communication, that social media is diluting, if not destroying, the written word. They lament the loss of kids’ handwriting. They see that handwriting lessons at school are often the only time a student actually uses a pencil or pen. They know that kids don’t get the opportunity to practice their handwriting because most other things are done using computer technology – be it tablets or laptops, game consoles or ipods. Teachers (rightly) recognise that typing is becoming a more important skill than handwriting in enabling kids to communicate effectively online. And online is where the majority of all written communication is occurring.

Personally I don’t see too much of a problem with it. It’s just another morphing of reading and writing in the contemporary context. Fear is what usually drives concern. There is a fear that if children can’t use a pen to write, they will lose the ability to meaningfully engage with society. But writing is no longer about just using a pen or pencil. And to engage meaningfully with society in the 21st century, it is imperative that children are able to communicate effectively online, both formally and informally.

Throughout the ages fear has always accompanied change. Way back in 370BC, Plato recorded a conversation between Socrates and Phaedrus where Socrates, a great thinker and philosopher of the time, lamented the loss of intelligence among the masses if the populace was taught to read. He thought that “learning to read would result in the “appearance of wisdom, but not true wisdom.” Just over a thousand years later, the invention of the printing press brought the similar fear of a “dilution of the intellectual capital of the time.” Another thousand years and television was the culprit. People called it the ‘idiot box’ and feared that too much viewing would lead to the simplification of the mind. Luckily, none of these fears have been realised.

In fact, each metamorphosis that reading and writing has undergone has resulted in a greater, more stimulating, encompassing literacy with which to educate, including teaching children to write. It’s exciting to see look back over the bigger picture and see the changes. And see how we, as a society, have survived those changes. And thrived.

I love teaching writing to children and young adults. There is something incredibly powerful about encouraging a young person to enhance their communication skills.

Academia versus Creativity

keep-calm-and-enjoy-writing-your-story-1Something concerning is happening about the way in which young people are pressured to view writing. Writing and reading are intrinsically linked—they always have been. It’s a well-known fact that the more you read, the better you write. But the way in which young people are reading is changing, and though this is not necessarily a bad thing overall, it is having an unexpected effect on the way they view writing.

I’ve been running writers’ groups for teenagers now for four years, and even over that short amount of time, I’ve noticed some alarming changes. Creative writing seems to be taking a backseat in lieu of the more structured academic writing.

When I first began running the groups, the creative writing workshops were very popular. Teenagers seemed to enjoy them and would attend at least for a term at a time, many for a semester, but most came for a year. They enjoyed the exercises and loved developing a creative work from the ground up. But it began to wane.

I wondered why. It couldn’t have been cost because I hadn’t put my prices up over the four years. It wasn’t content because the evaluations kept telling me they enjoyed the range of exercises and writing games.

But this year I have had many more requests for ‘essay-writing’ workshops than I have had for ‘creative-writing’ workshops. I’ve had students show up to groups expecting to be hot-housed for Selective schools, or for HSC, and then dropping out when they discover that the groups are designing to encourage people to engage with the process, take risks with their writing, but mostly to enjoy writing.

“My dad is not paying for me to have fun,” one boy told me when I asked him why he was not coming back. He was in Year 9. Fourteen-years-old. I felt incredibly sad for him. But he was annoyed with me for refusing to approach the teaching of writing with high expectations, lots of homework, and hard-core pressure.

In all the years I’ve been teaching, both primary and high school,  and running writers’ group, I have found that a student learns much more easily when they are engaged with the process and enjoy what they do. And importantly, writing skills are transferable. Many parents, and some students themselves, seem to be oblivious about this.

When someone learns to write narrative, they learn to structure their sentences to convey meaning. They learn to use the technical conventions necessary (particularly grammar and punctuation) to communicate emotion, represent character, set the scene, and dictate rhythm. Writing narrative successfully is no piece of cake. But it can be a lot of fun! Exercises to create character, strengthen description, convey emotion, for example, are specifically designed to fine-tune the technical aspects of writing.

Developing and maintaining a narrative arc and ensuring a consistent plot provides a challenge to many an adult writer of fiction. But with rich imaginations still relatively intact, kids are natural storytellers. And developing the skills to communicate their thoughts effectively is enriching in so many ways.

Not only does it give them an opportunity to exercise their creativity, it helps them to develop a clear focus and alternative means of communicating (or escaping from) their realities — whatever their realities are.

When a student has to write an essay, they need to develop a coherent argument. They need to communicate simply and persuasively. They need to use correct grammar and punctuation, and write effective sentences and paragraphs. And in the case of exams, they need to do it spontaneously.

All these skills are developed and practised while writing narrative. The more one writes— no matter what style of writing—the better ones writes. The more ones reads, the better one writes. The more comfortable one is writing, the better one writes.

Learning to write is so important. Why spoil it for kids by placing so much pressure on them to write academically that they never get to enjoy it? When kids disengage from the writing process, by default they disengage with the reading process. This is never a good thing.

Let kids write. And let them enjoy it.

Publishers, cybersafety and the real world

whoareyouA few years ago when I began submitting the novel FAKE PROFILE to publishers, one of them said to me: “Is this really an issue for kids that young? The story has to be believable.” For those of you who don’t know, FAKE PROFILE is about a group of 13-and-14-year-old friends. A few of them create a fake Facebook profile for one of the others as a joke. It starts off being funny but when a post goes viral, it ends up having devastating consequences that none of them could have predicted.

When that particular publisher asked the question, I was a bit annoyed. After all, I was the one who worked with teenagers of the age for which I was writing. I was the one who conducted Social Media Safety seminars for students, parents and teachers. And I was the one who had quizzed students about their social media use before, during and after writing the book.

Last year I asked a class of Year 7 students at the high school where I’d been teaching writing, which of them had a Facebook profile, 29 out of 29 students indicated in the affirmative. When I asked whether anyone had created one in a name other than their own, 11 out of 29 students indicated they had. That’s almost a third!

My ‘research’ on teenage use of Social Media is informal and anecdotal, it always has been. But in this weekend’s Sydney Morning Herald, there is a story informed by research conducted by Newspoll on behalf of The Australian Media and Communication Authority about the demographic most likely to be cyberbullied. There is no surprise (at least not to me) that the “most likely candidate for cyber-bullying is a 14 year old girl who checks her Facebook account daily”.

The report states that “Girls aged 12 to 17 who used Facebook daily were most likely to be cyber-bullied. Within that cohort, 38 per cent had ended a friendship over their bad experience, 32 per cent had a face-to-face confrontation and 41 per cent had felt “nervous about going to school the next day”.

It’s interesting that the very issue about which FAKE PROFILE was written two years ago should be highlighted in the media today. Actually, it’s not as interesting as it is concerning. Use of social media and cyberbullying have been issues for years; it’s only now that it is getting the publicity it needs for people to become aware and informed about it.

Parents and teachers are in the best position to educate and support teens on their use of social media, but first they need to educate and inform themselves about this very real, and very concerning issue. Perhaps that’s why FAKE PROFILE is read in equal numbers by adults and teens, and why teachers kept asking for a teaching program (which will be ready very soon) to accompany the book for use in the classroom.

And THAT publisher? Well, as FAKE PROFILE continues to gain traction in schools, he may well be wishing he’d been a little better informed himself.

FAKE PROFILE is available here. A Stage 4 English Teaching Program based on the new National Curriculum due to be implemented in schools across Australia can be pre-ordered here.

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Crowdfunding for Writers

crowdfundingLike most writers, I have to work to support my writing. While I am very lucky to be able to earn enough to eat and pay bills, I yearn for the day when I can throw myself into my writing without having to worry about finding the extra funds necessary to pay a professional editor, graphic designer, and publicist for my books.

Imagine my surprise when, recently, someone suggested to me that I list my current project on one of the crowd-funding sites available to creative artists to source the necessary funding. Now I’ve always assumed that if it ‘seems too good to be true’ then it probably is. And being able to list a writing project online and have money pour in from unknown sources, in different amounts to reach a predetermined goal amount set by me, seemed way too good to be true. So began an extensive investigation into the phenomenon of crowdfunding.

Crowdfunding is the concept of an individual, usually a creative artist, receiving small contributions via the internet from many sources in order to finance a particular project or venture. It evolved out of the crowd-sourcing movement where one might solicit content, a service or project online from multiple contributors all over the world. It’s a business model borne out technological globalisation where anyone, anywhere that has the required skill has the opportunity to provide a service. Individuals and businesses alike are increasingly turning to crowdsourcing as an alternative means of reducing costs.

There are many sites for the purpose of crowdfunding, and more are popping up all the time. How it works it this: you list a project on whichever site you choose, and offer some form of award to contributors, for example, a musician crowdfunding to make an album might offer copies of the album, a writer may offer copies of the book, etc. You set an end date for the campaign and then publish and promote your campaign to all your online networks. People then pledge contribute amounts of as little as $1 to as much as thousands. If your target is reached by the end date nominated, the site releases the funds to you, minus their fees and charges, at which point you are obligated to release whatever rewards have been claimed. But if you do not reach your target, no money changes hands.

But it’s not as easy as it sounds. Most sites are ‘all or nothing’ sites, where if a particular campaign, so even you fall short just a bit, you don’t get the funds. Because the campaign takes place online, it’s important to have already established online networks. A fan base, so to speak. It is, after all, these contacts that you will be calling on to fund your project. And as with any venture you embark on online, there is fine line between promoting your project, and spamming your contacts. Much caution is required to walk this line.

Some fabulous projects have been funded using the crowdfunding model, albums, books, documentaries and movies, to list a few. But many many more have failed due to the project listers displaying more enthusiasm than project management skill. Running a campaign requires hard work and lot of preparation as well as strong belief in the project mixed with a heart-felt enthusiasm.

I spent quite a bit of time browsing the various sites based here in Australia, and overseas. And I found that crowdfunding is branching out further to include such initiatives such as educational scholarship and university research.

The socialist in me quite likes the concept of sharing financial resources to enable talent to be developed equitably. The capitalist in me likes the idea of investing in a project that will, in turn, give back to the economy. But the human side of me struggles with the idea of putting myself, and my work, out there and asking others to contribute to its development.

Regular readers may know that in addition to writing, teaching writing, and writing about the writing process, I’m also doing a PhD in Writing. You could say writing is my passion.

Still, I’d been struggling with the concept and notion of creating a crowdfunding campaign to get my second novel published and I remained a little ambivalent about using the crowdfunding model for myself.

But then, as a writer and academic researcher, I was presented with a fabulous opportunity where crowdfunding was the only realistic option that would enable me to accept it.

I had an abstract accepted to present a paper at an international conference on Writing. And I am about to step way outside my comfort zone to embark on the campaign of my life to be able to present my paper, which is about how technology is changing the way we write, at the conference.

Check out my Pozible Campaign!

I am ready. Really I am.

imagesAlmost two years after I finished writing Fake Profile and following a successful launch  a few months ago, I recently began to receive requests to take the novel where it needs to go — into schools!

At first, it was a couple of texts from teacher friends suggesting that I should write a teaching program to accompany the book. But since officially launching the paperback version of the novel, I have received much more feedback about the book from parents and teachers, than from the 13 to 15-year-olds with whom it originally seemed to resonate.

The difference in feedback between the two groups is interesting. Parents are adamant that I promote the book in schools; teachers want a teaching program so they can use the book as a stimulus to teach Cybersafety and Digital Citizenship. Both groups see these types of stories on the news and often have to deal with the fallout when social media goes wrong for their charges. But the kids themselves are much more blasé about it. After all, the story of Fake Profile is much more familiar to them. They like the fact that it reflects their reality now.

The most common response I get from kids is “There’s a Brittany-type character at my school and…” They are less surprised by the concept of Fake Profile (…oh yeah, that happened to…) and more interested in the interaction between characters (… I loved the little brothers; they reminded me of my cousins…)

The volume of emails I’ve received from random readers humbles me, and I feel privileged to be in a position to be able to write a teaching program. And now I’m ready. The program is nearly done, the flyers have been designed, and all that is left is to summon the courage to send them out.

See what you think.

Fake Profile Promo

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

Download a PDF Flyer here: Fake_Profile_promo

 

 

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Literacy and Democracy: are they one and the same?

digitalwordcloudEffective communication is the cornerstone of a democratic and literate society. And everyone has the right to engage freely. There are few people in the western world who would disagree with this. But the reality is that there are groups of people who have a much more limited capacity to communicate, than perhaps, a generation ago.

To understand why this is, we must first understand the nature of a ‘literate society’. The boundaries of literacy are changing. Where once, literacy meant being able to read and write, these days literacy necessarily incorporates use of the various technologies and platforms utilised to interact meaningfully in society.

So much of our interaction occurs online, that limited access to the hardware (smartphones, tablets, laptops, etc)  means limited engagement. Shopping, watching television, booking accommodation and travel, or movie and concert tickets, paying bills, banking, and importantly – socialising, is increasing conducted in cyberspace. True, these are all first-world activities, but our reality is that if we cannot (or do not or will not) engage at this level, we cannot effectively consume or contribute to the society in which we live.

To all but the digital natives, these things do not come naturally. They need to be taught. And while once teaching our kids to read and write meant arming them with literacy for life, now teaching literacy means so much more than reading and writing. Literacy has become much more about being able to consume and create a range of multimedia in multimodal formats. Teaching kids to become life-long contributing literate members of society means providing them with the skills to decode a range technologies not yet invented, for purposes not yet defined, to engage in occupations not yet created or identified.

But what happens when subsections of the community are not able to access the tools required to become literate entities in this new and emerging technological environment? Are they relegated to a further position of disadvantage because of it? And who might these people be? The answers to these questions may surprise you. It’s not only socio-economic disadvantage that precludes people from engaging meaningfully.

Even if people do have access to the necessary hardware, if we don’t have the knowledge or skills to teach kids effective literacy, how do we teach them appropriate social and economic engagement?

And it’s not just kids who are in danger of becoming less-than-literate in a 21st century sense. There is a generation of older people who have not had access to digital instruction, and their children and grandchildren (gen x-ers and y-s) who may have adopted the technology but are self-taught and not necessarily offay with the ins and outs of effective engagement. It’s these generations who tend to leave themselves wide open and are overrepresented as victims of hackers, identity theft or trolls. And it’s these same generations who are teachers and parents. Therein lay the issue.

Kids are starting school with the knowledge and expectation that they can and will engage and perform technologically at a level that, more often than not, surpasses that of the adults in their lives. Parents and teachers want to do the best by their kids, but working in schools, I get to see both ends of the stick. I hear about kids as young as five accessing the internet on their ipods and DSs, in their bedrooms unsupervised, and scrolling through youtube videos looking for something to watch, and inadvertently accessing a Barbie video – a pornographic parody of a Barbie video. At five years old. At the other end of the scale is the 11-year-old who is not allowed access to social media of any kind, which means she is ostracised from her peer group socially and unable to engage effectively in digital citizenship lessons at school. Both sets of parents want the best for their kids, but both are damaging their kids in irreversible ways by not having a full understanding of what it is to be literate in a digital world.

21st century literacy is about ‘reading’ danger, communicating effectively, differentiating between a ‘selfie’ and sexting. 21st century literacy is about creating meaningful content, engaging in appropriate texting, understanding cyber etiquette, and locking down your profile. 21st century literacy is about understanding copyright and plagiarism, and recognising reliable research. And most importantly 21st century literacy is about knowing how to communicate via soundbite, image, video, and text — appropriately, positively, comfortably and meaningfully. How literate are you in the 21st century?

 

 

 

Writing to a test

testThe NAPLAN testing regime begins again this week, and as happens at this time every year, the media goes into overdrive with analyses of the pros and cons of standardised testing. Some of these reports are well-researched and intelligent critiques of the pitfalls of putting kids as young as seven under the pressure of exam conditions, of the narrowing of the curriculum as educators are coerced into ‘teaching to the test’, of tying funding to test results. And some reports are nothing more than politically motivated scaremongering designed to instil fear in the populace.  But I’m not going to engage in this debate.

I want to focus on just one aspect of standardised testing that I believe is incredibly destructive. Writing. Kids need to learn to write and teachers need to teach them how to do it. There is no argument there. An inspiring teacher is an invaluable resource for a child learning to write. But writing is so much more than developing the technical aspects of grammar and sentence structure.

A child learning to write is like a bird learning to fly. Small steps first. Then as they grow in confidence, they become bolder, knowing that there is support behind them. Safe, supportive environments encourage children to take risks with their writing. Sometimes the risks fail. But it’s not a big deal because with guidance and opportunity, those risks eventually pay-off. And the results are writers who blossom and thrive and develop a life-long love of writing, or at least reading.

But standardised testing is jeopardising this process. Children are becoming nervous. They don’t want to take risks because they don’t want to let their parents and teachers down. They comply with the formats thrust upon them by teachers who are pressured by education bureaucracies and government policy. They write recounts and reports and expositions and maybe a bit of narrative. They remember to use capital letters and full stops and try hard to use nouns and verbs in the right places. And they feel bad about themselves if they don’t score well.

A generation ago, children learned how to write using the ‘whole language approach’. We know now that that approach was not particularly successful. Hindsight taught us that explicit teaching of the technical aspects of writing is necessary. But the pendulum has swung too far and now we are inhibiting the development of creativity in our children by being way too prescriptive in our approach to literacy development. Once again, we’ve missed the mark to the detriment of our kids. And writing in general.

Teachers are well placed to assess student writing. They always have been. And in a classroom environment where the teacher has access to student writing in formal and informal contexts, both on paper and in electronic formats, any teacher worth their salt will recognise the need to instil passion and a desire in children to write. If kids understand the value of writing, if they want to write, they are far more receptive to learning the technical aspects that enable them to strengthen their writing. But if kids are scared of making a mistake, or of disappointing, this too will show up in their attitudes to reading and writing.

Writing is power. But it’s also a joyful, colourful, enriching way to engage with and participate in the world around us. How long before governments get it right?

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