English in Education special issue 2019: Writing

Edited by  Jenifer Smith and Mari Cruice

Reynolds, Frances, c.1729-1807; Hannah More (1745-1833)
Hannah More, 1745-1833

idea-thinking

Call for papers

Writing might be seen as the most dangerous part of the English curriculum, where individual students can express themselves in ways that are their own – and which may not conform to adults’ expectations. In the 1790s, Hannah More, an influential figure in the establishment of Sunday schools for British working class children, insisted that pupils should not be taught to write. It was not until the twentieth century that “composition” was considered appropriate in the secondary school curriculum, and then at first only for older pupils. This issue comes at a time when the notion of creative writing as a discipline is seriously contested: a high stakes testing regime in several English-speaking countries challenges the validity of subjective judgment, and the UK government recently closed down a new national course for A level (senior secondary) students as insufficiently rigorous. At the same time, undergraduate courses in creative writing flourish. How can the committed teacher and writer best respond to these new times?

We say “teacher and writer” because many believe that a successful teacher of writing should have confidence in and be conscious of their own writing practices. In the UK, NZ and the US, National Writing Projects related to English subject associations hold regular workshops and courses where teachers can explore and experience the process of writing. Such workshops open numerous questions for organisers and participants. Where does writing come from? How far does it depend on unconscious processes of language, and what is the place of explicit instruction? How do we learn from other writers? How do young writers come to understand how writing can work for them and what role does assessment play in that? What is the relationship between the critical writing about other writers’ texts required of students in English (and other subjects) and their own production? How far does the critical/creative binary support good practice? Such questions will doubtless be discussed by contributors to this special issue. In the spirit of such work, we invite submissions of poetry and prose with or without accompanying meta-cognitive reflection.

We hope, even in present circumstances, that this issue will confront and celebrate writing and the teaching of writing as it is now, discovering and rediscovering the possibilities of what writing may be; reclaiming this territory as a vital creative and enlivening human activity. We welcome submissions which engage with the ways in which writing is learned from the earliest years; with writing pedagogies; the affordances of writing; the nature of composition and of writing and thought. We welcome writing (reflective, creative, or both) from teachers at all stages of education and in all circumstances. We particularly welcome contributions from those to whom, for whatever reason, writing remains a challenging, indeed dangerous, aspect of their work.

Please prepare your submission in line with the journal’s guidelines for authors. Submissions should be made via our ScholarOne site by 7 May 2018. Please select the correct ‘Special Issue’ as the Manuscript Type.

To discuss potential submissions, please contact:

Jenifer Smith

Mari Cruice

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The Politics of English …

Pol-of-English_cover

… is the correct title for the current (Spring 2016) special issue of English in Education.   In producing the print edition, the publishers accidentally transposed the title Assessment and Learning from the proposed 2017 special issue.   The online version has the correct title, and print subscribers will receive a postal note from the publishers.

So how does the special issue view the current politics of English?  In his editorial, Ken Jones writes:

The articles in this special issue register the effects of … the ways in which English, through a thirty-year process of cumulative change, has come to be regulated and redefined. They examine some of the intellectual justifications put forward by advocates of change. They track its effects on teachers’ sense of the possibilities of English. Without hyperbole, they consider alternatives.

Simon Gibbons’ article focuses on the ways in which teachers have internalised the requirements of policy in their own sense of what it means to be a good English teacher. Andrew McCallum studies the teaching of English in a state secondary school and a private school.  He argues that, in the first school, where creativity is seen not as integral to English but as conditional upon the prior mastery of something uncreative, a skills focused curriculum produces a drastic narrowing of the learning experience.  This experience is captured by Michael Rosen in his poem ‘Bear Grylls’, which the author has allowed us to reprint for the special issue from his latest collection.

Drawing on  a comparative study of teaching Romen and Juliet in London and Palestine, Monica Brady and John Yandell insist that ‘classrooms are places where meanings are made, not merely transmitted’.  In similar vein, Karen Daniels, in her article on Early Years education, argues that English – or ‘literacy’ – is a site where students develop ‘repertoires for meaning-making’.    These micro-practices of English teaching are not insulated from the political, as they are enabled and constrained by the wider, ‘macro’ social practices of policy-makers and social movements.  Howard Ryan and Debra Goodman consider these in their account of the ‘whole language’ movement in the United States.  As Ken Jones concludes, to make significant changes to the present state of English requires looking beyond the micro-politics of the classroom.

 

Creativity foreclosed

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The Department of Education for England has ruled that the A-level course (for senior secondary school students) in Creative Writing should not be available after 2017. This course has only recently been introduced after a long gestation period that involved a good deal of consultation between the profession, the examination board and Ofqual, the qualifications regulator. The statement from the DfE gives no detail as to the reasons for this decision, but it is understood that the course is thought to reward skills rather than knowledge and to overlap with other A-level English subjects.

The relationship between skill and knowledge is much contested philosophically, but in the case of writing it is evident that a high level of skill depends upon the ability to apply cultural knowledge. Shakespeare’s gift depended on his knowledge of the histories, chronicles and popular literature of his time. In the A-level Creative Writing course, students have to study non-literary (‘professional’) writing, prose fiction, prose non-fiction, poetry and play-script. In this way, they develop their grasp of generic conventions, style and voice, narrative and poetic techniques and other aspects of the writer’s craft. The extent and depth of their knowledge is assessed not only by the content of their writing but also by the reflective commentary that they supply as part of the assessment.

If the first of the DfE objections implies that candidates don’t gain sufficient knowledge, the second rather paradoxically suggests that the knowledge they gain overlaps with that offered by other English subjects. Some overlap between subject content is inevitable in many fields of study, but the crucial difference here is that creative writing is a different kind of knowledge from that assessed in a Literature course.

The most popular English A-level, English Literature, involves writing about literary texts. Novels, plays and poems are analysed by reference to genre, historical context and literary qualities. This analysis is then assessed largely by an end-of-course examination. This kind of writing, where the literary text is used as evidence in a formal argument, is very different from creative writing, where cultural knowledge is used in order to produce an original work. It is the same difference as the difference between writing about art or music and producing an artistic or musical work. Writing can be as much a creative activity as are art and music: an embodied form of knowledge that, in the words of the teacher quoted below, makes learning tangible.

This teacher’s college piloted the A-level in its first year and gained an immediate enthusiastic response from students. Some who weren’t even enrolled dropped in to take part. In its second year, the course enrolled 70 students. She gives a passionate account of their achievement:

In Creative Writing students learn, through writing practice and wide reading in contemporary fiction, non-fiction, poetry and script, to use the English Language for creative purposes. Some have been published or won prizes through for their writing. That, however, is not the achievement of the course. What is, is the genuine spirit of collaborative exploration of ideas and ways to express them in words. An effective writing workshop makes learning tangible. Students offering advice, support and critical appreciation of each other’s work is at the heart of this subject. They are not passive vessels soaking up content but are active creators of new literature. The subject is empowering and enabling. In a recent poetry workshop, one student grinned at me and said, ‘This is so exciting.’ I have never heard that in an English Language or Literature classroom.

Yes, writing is a skill, but it is also a craft and an art. I love teaching English Literature but as Ted Hughes exemplified, it does not foster creativity. Creative Writing as product is central to our culture. Why then is Creative Writing as practice not central to our education system?

At the same time that creative writing is being withdrawn from the A-level curriculum, it is increasingly studied in higher education: including combined degrees, there are more than 500 creative writing courses in UK universities. Given the intention signalled by the DFE in recent years to improve continuity and progression between A-level and higher education, the withdrawal of A level Creative Writing is an extraordinarily retrograde step.

A petition started by the National Association of Writers in Education has reached nearly 4,000 signatures.

Storytelling in primary and secondary classrooms

Storyteller1

Gary Snapper writes:

If we want to improve our students’ literacy, we should not narrow their curriculum by providing ever more test-oriented literacy lessons. We can instead enrich their curriculum with more creative and physical activity, raising motivation and energy levels, and providing the stimulus for more effective learning. In English, in particular, effective understanding and effective writing can flow from the stimulus of discussion, drama, and performance, as from the traditional routines of grammar, comprehension and essay writing.

With this in mind, and in the light of the decreased emphasis on speaking and listening in the current curriculum, the central theme of the summer edition of Teaching English will be Storytelling in primary and secondary English. An idea that recurs throughout the magazine is the power of storytelling to motivate students (and teachers), its potential in stimulating and activating students’ (and teachers’) creativity, and its consequent potential to improve students’ literacy.

We look at storytelling from a range of perspectives. Tony Wilson suggests ways of teaching oral storytelling to children. Georghia Ellinas explores storytelling in the context of Shakespeare’s stories at the Globe. Carolyn Drever recounts what happens when storytelling and outdoor education come together. Debbie Chalmers and Mick Connell focus on the range of creative work that can emerge when the teacher becomes storyteller. In a similar vein, Chris Parton and Joan Foley report on teacher-as-storyteller in the ‘Classic Tales in English’ project. Meanwhile, Pete Bearder discusses the power of oral performance in his account of his work as a Spoken Word Educator in London.

Also in this edition

We feature two articles by James Durran intended to help English departments think through some fundamental issues to do with assessment and learning objectives. Peter Thomas’s detailed exploration of how to improve students’ writing – by focusing on sentence structure and sequence – is essential reading, and its concerns are echoed by Harry Ritchie’s call for a move away from traditionalist notions of grammar and towards grammar-in-use. Andrew McCallum, meanwhile, suggests strategies for dealing with unseens at GCSE, whilst Amy Forrester urges NATE members to consider organising English ‘teachmeets’ to share good practice.

Columns and Reviews

As usual, our news and review pages feature a survey of recent curriculum news and reviews of recent publications, whilst regular columns by Tom Rank and Keith Davidson explore topical issues in English. We also remember the life of Peter Medway, who died this year – a longstanding friend of NATE and a key figure in the history of modern English teaching.

If you are a member of NATE, you’ll receive Teaching English in the mail at the beginning of June. To join, click on the main website (link on right) or click here.

The threat to A Level Creative Writing

Welcome to NATE’s new blog, which will offer informed comment on issues of concern to teachers of English and related subjects, with links to research.   For more information about NATE, please see our ‘About’ page and our main website link.

The future of A level Creative Writing is under review.  The following is the NATE Post-16 & HE Committee’s letter to Ofqual, the examinations and assessment regulator.

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We are extremely concerned to discover that A Level Creative Writing has been placed on a list of endangered A Level courses. The subject fully satisfies all five of Ofqual’s principles for the reform of an A Level subject, and it is crucial in continuing to develop national understanding of and practice in the relationship between literature, English and the arts.

With reference to the Ofqual principles, A Level Creative Writing is making a significant contribution to both English studies and creative writing as disciplines in the UK.  The course defines clearly and precisely the knowledge, skills and understanding required by students of creative writing in higher education; indeed, it is more rigorously designed in terms of content and outcomes than many comparable courses at HE. The clarity and specificity of the course allows universities, schools and employers to understand the level of attainment achieved by students. The course is at least as demanding as other A level English qualifications in the theoretical, literary and cultural understanding required and in the quality of expression and content required of students. Validity in creative writing, as in other arts subjects such as art and music, can be assured by a judicious combination of examination and coursework assessment. Using these methods, student achievement can be readily differentiated. Finally, the course offers a distinct but complementary addition to the current suite of English subjects.

We elaborate these claims in what follows. Most importantly, the course has cultural and educational value that cannot be summarised only in terms of continuity to higher education. It is also making an important contribution to the development of English as a school and university subject. It recognises that, like art and music, literature can be as much an arts subject as a language or humanities subject. In art and music, knowledge and achievement in the discipline are judged as much by the creative practice of the art as by the ability to write critically about it. The same is true for literature. Creative Writing A Level can and should be seen as the creative practice of literature, and thus as a rigorous study of literature just as Art and Music A Level are rigorous studies of art and music.

This is not a minor point. There is a great deal of evidence over many decades that the study of reading and the practice of writing are strongly interconnected, and many teachers and academics believe that literature courses should include more creative writing as this is a route to greater literary understanding for students and teachers (just as creative practice in art and music is universally recognised as a crucial part of the disciplines of art and music.) Creative writing is routinely used as a means of teaching literature as part of primary and secondary English, and is increasingly being used in university English Studies as well as in discrete creative writing courses.

It is also vital to recognise that A Level Creative Writing does not consist only of the practice of creative writing, but crucially and fundamentally requires wide reading and study in a range of literary texts. There is much evidence emerging from A Level Creative Writing classes to show that it produces a rich engagement with literature, as rich as or even richer than that which emerges from A Level English Literature courses. Where creative writing units have featured in A level English courses, they have also been very successful.

A Level Creative Writing is entirely consistent with the primary purpose of A Level both as the rigorous creative and critical practice of an art form (literature) directly analogous with art and music, and as an alternative and equally rigorous approach to the study of English language and literature. A Level Creative Writing is also an entirely distinct subject from all other A Level courses, adopting an arts-based approach to literature rather than a languages- or humanities- based approach.

Valid and differentiated assessment has been shown to be entirely achievable in creative writing both in HE Creative Writing courses and in elements of pre-16 and post-16 English. Again it is crucial to recognise that assessment in A Level Creative Writing is as much based on students’ critical reflection on their writing – the practice of literary criticism – as on their own creative writing and is thus directly analogous with critical practice in both arts subjects and in English.