I saw this quote from the late, great Ursula Le Guin this week, and I thought it made a great starting point for this blog.
I’ve spoken about why reading matters outside of being an important life skill, but I’ve never spoken about stories.
I’m really lucky that in the setting I teach in we have small groups. My biggest class size is ten and all of my students will get on with their work quickly again if we take a short break. Lessons are long, so often we do take a quick brain break and we just chat about what’s happened that week or something we’ve seen in the news. We tell each other stories.
We focus in Functional Skills on all communication having a purpose, a goal that, once achieved, marks that act of communication as satisfactory. But we don’t often think about communication as satisfactory in itself.
We use language only because we live in a society. Without the presence of other people, there would be no need to communicate. Sometimes being able to summarise the T.V programme you watched last night or explain why your bus journey was long are conclusions, and skills, in and of themselves.
I’ll talk more about stories in the sense of folk tales next week, but, for this week, try to give weight to those lulls in your class where students just talk.
I teach a wide range of students. I cover Entry 3 to Level 2 Functional Skills in my day job and I tutor GCSE in my spare time. My students are all really different, but there are a select few who have something really common. At a certain point – some as soon as they see the activity, some at least after having a cursory glance at it – look at me and say “I can’t do it”.
We’re taught as teachers not to listen to can’t. There’s no such thing. If you try, you can. Does this sound familiar? I’ve used similar tricks with my groups. “Use a dictionary to look up the words you don’t understand and see if you can do it then”. Sometimes it works, but there are still those students that sit and stare at something you know they can do, because you’ve prepared it based on something they’ve already done well, and say “I can’t”.
I’m ashamed that this blog post has taken me so long to write, because it also means that the realisation behind it was far too long coming. I used to work in a mainstream secondary with SEN pupils, and now I work with students with far more diverse and complex needs. And what they’ve taught me is: I can’t means I don’t believe I can.
This has changed how I handle “can’ts” in my classroom. Instead of “try”, my first reaction is now “what can’t you do”, so that the students can break that initial fear in to smaller chunks. Then we can work on that small chunk and, in the end, they usually find they can.
It’s a question I’ve been asked three times in the last week. Each time, by a student who, when given an exercise that combines reading and writing, usually complains.
I explained that we do writing and showed him the tasks he’s done over the last few weeks.
“Not that, creative writing. Like writing a story.”
I currently teach Functional Skills English, but before that I taught Creative Writing and I write novels. I was ecstatic that he wanted to do creative writing.
Now, my reason as to why we haven’t yet done creative writing is fairly easy. The class that student is in has only been running four weeks. It’s barely been time to get to know my students in terms of likes and dislikes. My other classes, running since September, all do creative writing exercises regularly.
But it made me think, when we teach functional English, do we abandon creativity? We focus a lot on reading, mainly because it is often the area of greatest difficulty for our students. But do we lose something by not practising Creative Writing?
The need to create is so purely human. Surely there is a lot to be said for allowing that to happen in English and then letting it drill down in to functional skills tasks. Creative phrasing can be deftly turned to a letter of complaint, after all.
I teach creative writing a lot because I love it and want to share that, but should all teachers strive to have it in their classrooms? I’d say it would make things a lot more interesting.