“ To me education is a leading out of what is already there in the pupil’s soul. To Miss Mackay it is a putting in of something that is not there, and that is not what I call education, I call it intrusion…”
― Muriel Spark, The Prime of Miss Jean Brodie
In recent months, I have been considering the importance of modelling writing – I’ve even written a couple of blog posts about it (here and here). Yet despite my fervour for modelling, in the back of my mind a nagging doubt has continued to haunt me. Could my use of models be denying students a chance to become free writers, to find their own voices, to find their own way? In the words of the inimitable Miss Jean Brodie, is my modelling an unnecessary ‘intrusion’ when I should be ‘leading out’ the latent creativity of my students?
Whether true, pure creativity exists is a philosophical question this pragmatic teacher would like to avoid for today. It is certainly true that many English teachers, myself included, have been inspired by the idea that reading and writing can set us on the path to self-expression; for a teacher to constrain this freedom is tantamount to tyranny, we might argue. Room for thinking has been paramount to my own development as a writer – why deny it to others?
Unfortunately, however, the blunt reality presented by the literacy capabilities of many of my students has dulled some of this idealism. It has been further dented by my reading of Hattie and Yates’ Visible Learning and the Science of how we learn, with its persuasive emphasis on the importance of modelling and the use of worked-examples.
You see, the purposeful and explicit use of models in the classroom, whether through exemplars or ‘live’ writing, is absolutely vital, especially when our students have had deficient literacy input at home. Models provide the opportunity for our students to see how tone, structure, grammar and ideas can become knitted together in a cohesive whole beyond the sum of the parts. How can you ‘lead out’ something when these seeds have yet to be sewn?
Be that as it may, all is not lost. I believe that creativity is not inspired by sticking our heads in the sand and hoping; it can be taught, and the way to do this is simple. We model more frequently, not less, and, like Ron Berger, we immerse our students in a multiplicity of exemplars. There are three obvious types: the teacher model, the student model and the outside expert model (written by the professional writer from past or present). All should be treated with equal importance.
Before I share some ideas, let me tell you the wonderful tale of how, with a gap of several years, I witnessed one student’s writing inspire another’s. Five years ago, I taught Lucy, an incredibly gifted writer. She wrote a wonderful piece from the perspective of an aged Beatrix Potter whose thoughts and imaginings, now blighted by dementia, had become consumed by the nostalgic memories of her literary creations. Three years later, I read and discussed this piece with another class. One boy, Simon, significantly less talented than Lucy, produced a remarkable echo of her work. It told the tale of a parish vicar looking back over his life and, word by word, renouncing his faith in God. Simon had been brought up in a strictly Christian family. Writing this remarkably restrained piece, inspired in tone, content and structure by a girl he had never met, was of profound importance to a young man who may have been questioning his own faith.
So how can we use written models in the classroom in such a manner that teaches our students the technicalities of writing, yet does not unduly constrain?
Use more than one model. Time and resourcing constraints mean that, more often than not, our students are introduced to only one exemplar. This can be dogmatic. Instead, we need to show them that there are many possible paths to successful writing. Providing three or more very good but very different exemplars (perhaps just as paragraphs), and asking students to select their favourite can lead to a rich discussion that triggers inspiration in different ways.
Use teacher models in conjunction with student models as often as possible. Only two weeks ago I asked my mixed-ability Y9 class to write a letter from Much Ado About Nothing’s Benedick to an agony aunt. I figured that the task would be tough and so they needed to see an example first – a letter I wrote from an agony aunt, this time from Beatrice. This was great for the weaker students, who captured the tone and style better than I could have imagined in their Benedick letters. Unfortunately, a few too many strong writers took the safe option by parroting my model. Luckily, not all of them did, and when I repeat the task I have a number of interesting – and better – exemplars to share and critique alongside mine.
Make sure we are constantly sniffing out new models. Like Ron Berger with his portfolios of excellence, I know I must now adopt a consistent strategy for identifying and storing models. Every time I mark a set of books, my aim is to scan at least two pieces of good quality work using the CamScanner app on my iPhone, which is then send to my Dropbox folders. Too often in the past, I have not done this and great work has been lost. If I leave it until the end of the year to collate, it never happens. My aim now is to extend this approach across my department; as teachers we can gain fresh insights from regularly reading the great work of our colleagues’ students and, more importantly, so can our classes.
Consider the sequencing of models. The order we present models to our classes can lead to constraint or freedom. Even though we must seek to create a common conception of excellence, it is important to avoid creating a power structure where the teacher’s ideas are made to seem more valid than others. I find that more freedom is created when my ‘teacher model’– a precise teaching tool often designed around the key grammatical concepts I am trying to introduce or key weaknesses that need to be addressed – is shared before student models. Implicit in this sequence is the idea that my expectation can be achieved in a variety of ways
Use anthologies of student examples creatively. Each year in my English department we create an anthology of the best KS3 writing, which leads to a presentation evening. I keep sets of these anthologies as a teaching resource that can be used in a multitude of ways both in class and as homework before students complete their own writing.
Create degrees of separation between the model and the students’ work.Take a great example (established author/teacher/student) and then ask students to ‘plan backwards’ – write the plan we imagine the original writer designed. After this, students plan their own piece of work. This creates a greater degree of separation from the original exemplar, giving students more room to move.
Build in different entry points in mixed-ability classes. Modelling for freedom can be tricky with a mixed-ability class. In general, the more able the writer, the less we want to constrain. Here’s one simple strategy for using a model that works well.
1. Share a first paragraph (preferably ‘live’ with the help of the class).
2. As a whole-class shared exercise, structure a plan for the next few paragraphs (maybe six in length.)
3. Ask stronger writers to write their own plans – using the shared one as a model – and let weaker writers (if they need to) copy out the shared plan as their own.
4. If necessary, the very weak (or very uninspired) can copy out the first paragraph and carry on from there. All others will use their own plans – either the class plan or their own.
Model a chain of influence. Demonstrate how good writers are inspired by one another by showing how one student has taken the flavour of another’s writing and made it their own – like Lucy and Simon. Both pieces of work are shown side-by-side so that the class can consider the workings of influence and inspiration.
Plan before models are introduced. This way students can ‘own’ their ideas and structures, but we can have more say over the technicalities and grammatical constructs they employ.
As the father of a two year old boy, I am now in a front row seat as his language bursts forth. It has taken time, patience, and plenty of modelling from many people to get to this stage. Over time, over years, over key stages, is it wishful thinking to imagine that a multiplicity of models might encourage written language, in all its freedom, to burst forth in our classrooms?
Tom Sherrington – Defining the Butterfly: Knowing the Standards to set the Standards