Releasing the inner writer.

Enthusiastic writers sharing their ideas and getting them down on paper

Enthusiastic writers sharing their ideas and getting them down on paper

Why do we find writing so difficult? Even some of the great writers, such as George Orwell and Thomas Hardy have described the fear invoked by the blank sheet of paper; more likely replaced today by the flickering computer screen. No matter how experienced we continue to struggle with words and prefer to find ways of avoiding the difficult task of composing our thoughts. Prevarication is one of the writer’s closest familiars, and often his greatest curse. If this is true of those who have become successful authors, how much more difficult might it be for those of us who merely dabble in the shallow waters of writing? There are more good reasons not to write than to commence this arduous process, yet in some of us there is a compulsion to proceed. How dangerous might this addiction be? Few who have achieved a modicum of success would honestly seek a cure.

More than thirty friends and colleagues, each with a commitment to write, came together today in Bangalore for a workshop. At the beginning of the day it was possible to discern a range of tensions and confidences. How will I cope if I am asked to write and can think of nothing to say? Will today’s tasks be difficult and make too many demands upon me as a neophyte writer? Hopefully these apprehensions were soon allayed, as participants began to share in writing activities and found their peers supportive.

As university tutors we are cruel and unthinking  in our approach to student’s writing. Mature students enter courses, quite possibly having written nothing more complex than a shopping list for twenty years. Within weeks they are being asked to produce essays of 5,000 words and in a style with which they are largely unaccustomed. For some this is akin to being asked to work in a different language, yet this procedure has become standard in many academic institutions. Ask the tutors who run these courses, how much writing do they do, and how easily does their pen flow? I wonder how honestly they might answer?

If you decided today that you wanted to run a marathon it would be foolish to believe that you could do this tomorrow without having undertaken any training. Yet with writing we fail to recognise that this is not only an intellectual activity, but also one that makes physical demands. It takes time to become accustomed to sitting before a screen and trying to write for prolonged periods of time. For most of us it may be far better to begin with shorter and easier exercises rather than to decide to launch straight into a novel.

In too many schools writing has become a chore. Unfortunately there are teachers who are more concerned with the technical aspects of grammar and punctuation than they are with creativity. Grammar and punctuation are, of course important, they provide the structure around which fine writing is constructed. But let’s encourage children to enjoy the writing process first and once they recognise that writing can be fun, we can then shape and perfect the techniques that will help them to become proficient in using the written word for a range of purposes.

Participants in today’s workshop worked hard. They explored writing in different styles and for different purposes. They shared in their writing triumphs and admitted to a few difficulties. The learning that was in evidence assured everyone that they can write and that with practice they can write well. The concentration on a range of activities was sustained over several hours, tasks were taken seriously but there was much laughter. Interesting, often amusing and in some instances profound work was produced, but above all everyone agreed that writing had been an enjoyable experience.

Who knows, maybe the next J.K. Rowling, Agatha Christie, Vikram Seth, or Anita Desai could have been our midst. Even if this is not to be, I hope that at least some of today’s workshop participants will have been inspired to continue writing and shaping their ideas in words.

 

 

Making progress demands a good deal of respect.

 

Stopping individuals from writing will not stop others from thinking

Stopping individuals from writing will not stop others from thinking

I like to think that I am an advocate of free speech. I am therefore appalled when I hear reports of the extreme efforts to which individuals, organisations, or even governments will go to suppress the ideas expressed by others. However, I also believe that there are issues of respect at stake here, and whilst I have no qualms about the use of biting satire, or scathing written or verbal attacks mounted against oppressive regimes or injustice, I believe that this is more effective when conducted in a thoughtful and polite manner.

The influence upon this current line of thinking comes from news today that a second Bangladeshi blogger, Washiqur Rahman, who wrote under the pseudonym Kutshit Hasher Chhana (Ugly Duckling), has been murdered for apparently expressing views that were found offensive by an extreme minority. This is the second reported murder of an independent writer in Bangladesh in recent weeks, Bangladeshi-American blogger Avijit Roy having been killed in similar circumstances.

Such crimes against individuals who are committed to free speech and the right to express their views to a wider public are clearly appalling, and must be condemned in the strongest terms. I am, of course aware that critical writers and satirists from Jonathan Swift, through Nikolai Gogol and Anthony Burgess to Flann O’Brien have often caused offense to some whilst entertaining and educating others. Fortunately, all of these have now been acknowledged as fine writers who did a service to their communities by challenging cant and hypocrisy in a way that was accessible to a broad readership.

I am not suggesting that either Washiqur Rahman or Avijit Roy were writers who will be held in the same esteem as Swift or Gogol, though I am probably not best placed to make this judgement, but the principle of being able to express critical views and to make these available to a readership is exactly the same, regardless of literary ability.

In reading the reports related to these dreadful and ultimately pointless crimes, I was struck by an expression used in a couple of them to describe the victims. The term “progressive free thinker” has emerged as a descriptor attached to both of these bloggers by several journalist. When I thought about this term I found I had little difficulty with the notion of being a free thinker. It seems to me that both of these writers held a belief that the right to express thoughts on paper (or over the internet) should be sacrosanct; a sentiment with which I am generally in accord. There are, of course laws to protect individuals from material that may be seen as libellous, and if writers are prepared to put their views into the public domain they should take the time to ensure that their comments are justified, and that they have the evidence to support any assertions made. It is also my personal belief that efforts should be made to moderate language and to be respectful. The perpetrators of injustice are never comfortable when attacked by writers who use language that is balanced and arguments that are based upon evidence and logic.

Having little difficulty with the term “free thinker”, I do find myself wondering more about the use of the word “progressive.” Making progress implies that there is an end goal in mind, and that it is possible to measure the distance travelled towards attaining this goal. The difficulty comes when the goal is unclear, or when individuals or groups are working towards vastly differing goals, or wish to impose their own goal upon others. I suspect that the thugs who murdered Washiqur Rahman and Avijit Roy have their own view of the “progress” that they would wish society to make, and that it differs radically from that which the murdered writers would have advocated. The term “progressive” is one of those that has been apprehended by individuals and organisations throughout history to imply that they have the interests of the majority in mind. However, it remains a word that is seldom discussed and often used by journalists in a throw away manner.

What is clear is that the murder of any individual for holding views that challenge the sensibilities of others is a despicable and unjustified crime. If individuals or groups are truly committed to being “progressive,” they would better serve those who they claim to represent by engaging in open debate and listening to the opinions of others. This demands a more inclusive attitude than appears currently to be available or desirable to those who would wish to silence others. Such an approach may lead to greater understanding and ultimately to increased respect and tolerance – now that really would be progress! I suspect that those who murdered these two Bangladeshi bloggers are far more interested in halting progress than in seeing changes implemented to which they are opposed.

 

Let’s value the freedom to respond.

 

Whilst it is relatively easy to stop an individual from speaking, it is far more difficult to stop them thinking.

Whilst it is relatively easy to stop an individual from speaking, it is far more difficult to stop them thinking.

“To become self-aware, people must be allowed to hear a plurality of opinions and then make up their own minds. They must be allowed to say, write and publish whatever they want. Freedom of expression is the most basic, but fundamental, right. Without it, human beings are reduced to automatons.”

MA Jian (Chinese author of Red Dust, and The Noodle Maker)

 

In writing a blog, one of the most interesting and at times amusing elements of the process is the unpredictability of the responses posted by readers. Posting a reply to any article makes a demand upon the thoughts and the time of the respondent, and such efforts should therefore always be treated with respect. Reading the responses can often be an educative process, with comments made that provide an interesting interpretation upon the issues raised in the original article, and ideas that expand or elaborate upon a focus of debate.

As might be expected, there are regular respondents who have engaged in this arms-length form of conversation, and have contributed useful and interesting ideas and experiences with other readers with whom they have never met, but feel able to share their thoughts. A specific example of this was the informative range of responses to Dancing together to the same inclusive tune posted on November 12th 2014. In this article I referred to a student in Bangalore exploring elements of dance for children with special educational needs, and the dearth of literature related to this subject. Within days, several respondents had posted information that they hoped would be of help, and as a result of this I know that the student concerned has gained useful knowledge, and has also had some personal contact and shared ideas with a dance teacher several thousands of miles from her home. It was in the hope of provoking an interchange such as this, and establishing connections between committed individuals that I began writing this blog.

Whilst there are regular respondents to these pages, it is always interesting to see a posted reply from someone previously unknown. When this happens I find myself wondering what it was that provoked them into writing about this specific topic or on this particular occasion. Did they stumble upon the article by chance, or do they read the blog regularly but have never previously felt the need to respond? Thus it is you see, that as the writer of a blog intended to promote dialogue, my own curiosity is aroused by those who reply.

There are, however, other readers who also give me cause for thought, and possibly even a little concern. From time to time I receive emails from individuals who have read an article and wish to comment but feel unable to do so in the  public domain of a blog. I was looking back over some of these mails a week or so ago and wondering about the sentiments and emotions that they express and the situations in which the correspondents live or work. These emails tend to fall into two categories, the first of which I intend to dismiss fairly quickly, and the second to which I will devote more space.

Category one consists of emails from individuals who have  taken exception to either the comments that I have made or my interpretation of the issues discussed. An example of this relates to the article Thank you for a letter of appreciation posted on July 16th 2014 in which I commented favourably upon the actions of Rachel Tomlinson the head teacher at a school in  Lancashire in the UK. This lady had written to all of her pupils thanking them for their hard work over the course of an academic year, and emphasising that she was proud of all of their personal achievements, even where their academic attainment may not have been outstanding. This head teacher’s actions had impressed me as an example of someone prepared to stand by her beliefs that education should be valued as a holistic process, rather than simply one of jumping through academic hoops. Clearly some readers disagreed, which of course they were perfectly entitled to do. However, rather than posting their responses on the blog they chose to send emails directly to me casting various aspersions upon my personage rather than commenting upon the ideas that I had presented. Fortunately this happens quite rarely and my response has always been to reply politely, suggesting that they share their opinions openly by posting a response in order that others may join in the debate. Strangely enough, they have thus far declined my invitation.

The second category of email correspondents differs considerably from the first. This comprises individuals who want to comment on an article, but feel unable to do so on what they regard to be a public platform that could leave them exposed. Typically they write to me to share a personal experience, often in the school in which they work, that exemplifies an issue that I have raised as an area of concern. For example in responding by email to You can’t hit the middle of the target every time (February 10th 2015) a teacher told me of her own anxieties about the ways in which the perceived failure of children in her school to achieve certain academic targets was being used to label them as “remedial pupils,” and that if they were not seen to make significant improvements they were being recommended for removal from the school. In her email to me this teacher commented:-

“I thought for a long time about whether I could put this reply on your blog, but in the end I decided that if someone recognised me and told the school principal it would lead to trouble. I just wanted to say what I feel, so sent you this mail because I didn’t feel I could put my ideas out there on the internet.”

Obviously, when I receive mails of this nature I send a reply assuring the sender that I will not post any identifying details on these pages. (I sent this posting to the lady quoted above and have her consent to use this passage on condition that her identity remains confidential).

The respondents who fall into this category of individuals keen to engage in debate but wary of doing so in a public arena, may well be justified in their apprehensions. Whilst I believe that education should play an important role in fostering democratic principles, and should aim to teach respect for a range of opinions and perspectives, I am aware that my views do not necessarily strike a chord with everyone. Sadly the ability to express an opinion with an assurance that this will be debated in a civil and courteous manner is not always possible. Indeed such a situation remains beyond the reach of many teachers and others even today, and may be seen as a significant impediment to the promotion of those democratic principles of education that many of us hold dear.

Education since before the days of Socrates has been a process of sharing ideas and gaining knowledge through discourse and dialogue. The opportunities that exist to enhance this exchange of ideas have greatly increased in this digital age. Those who wish to restrict the scope for learning that comes with such debate, are obviously fearful of the widening of the possibilities provided through democratic processes. Whilst some readers remain apprehensive in respect of posting their ideas, they are clearly engaged in the discussion of their thoughts in other less public ways.

To those of you who feel able to post responses on these pages, I say celebrate the freedom that education has afforded you. To those who feel more constrained, I hope you may find other ways of joining the debate with those of us who will respect your opinions. And to those who may still feel the need to take a more oppositional position, I hope that you too may gather the courage to share your opinions, in order that debate may take place upon a more democratic platform than that which you have currently chosen to endorse .

The curse of the blank screen

Staring at a blank screen. Will inspiration ever arrive?

Staring at a blank screen. Will inspiration ever arrive?

“The last thing we discover in composing a work is what to put down first.”

Blaise Pascal, (1623-1662) The Mind on Fire:

 

“I’m really struggling here, I don’t know how to get started.” This was the opening gambit from a student here in Bangalore yesterday on our MA programme in special and inclusive education. A task had been set to write a brief justification for a research project as part of the preparation for producing a dissertation, as the final and major part of the work on this course.

Immediately the session focus shifted towards addressing “writer’s block,” that dreaded, and all too familiar situation in which the writer assumes a blank expression staring at an even more terrifying blank screen. In years gone by, of course, it would have been a pristine white sheet of paper that instilled such fear, but in general today this has given way to a computer screen. There seemed to be an assumption on the part of some students that their tutors don’t suffer the same malaise, but in reality this is a situation with which we are all too familiar.

George Orwell, whose wonderful essay “Why I write”, has always inspired me to put pen to paper (or finger to keyboard), once compared writing to a form of madness saying, “One would never undertake such a thing if one were not driven by some demon whom one can neither resist nor understand.” For the professional author there may be many motivations to write, in addition to making a living, Orwell suggests that an inflated ego or a creative enthusiasm may be amongst these. I suppose for many students the demon which he invokes may well be a tutor, who appears obsessed with timetables and deadlines.

Writers have differing responses to this pervasive condition that is termed “writer’s block.” The award winning English novelist Hilary Mantel takes an approach that I could never advocate for my students when she suggests:-

“If you get stuck, get away from your desk. Take a walk, take a bath, go to sleep, make a pie, draw, listen to music, meditate, exercise; whatever you do, don’t just stick there scowling at the problem”

I’m sure the advice is well meant Miss Mantel, but please remember, if you are a student, you have hand in dates and deadlines to address. Imagine, if your “writer’s block” is severe and you follow the well-meaning author’s advice you could be walking for days, the water in your bath will go cold and you will become wrinkly, eating too many pies will make you obese, but worst still, your actions will not remove your anxiously waiting tutors from the scene!

So what can practically be done? I am sure there is no simple cure that can be adopted by everyone. I once heard from a colleague who told me that if he could not start writing he composed Limericks, mainly with one or other of his colleagues names somewhere in the rhyme. Apparently he once wrote one about me, but its content was so rude he never showed me! Another friend would write an angry letter to a newspaper about a particular article that had incensed him, though he never did get around to posting them. Both of these well respected writers, had discovered a system that worked for them, the miracle cure for which we are all searching.

Neither of these methods would work for me. Personally, when this dreaded curse arrives, which it does with alarming regularity, I try to think back to a recent event, or something I have read and simply write a brief report about what amused me or fascinated me, or indeed enraged me on the day (sometimes these therapeutic ramblings end up appearing on these blog pages).

Matters are not helped by today’s technology. I picture the scene in any student’s or academic’s home. They sit enthusiastically in front of the screen with every good intention but don’t know where to start, the words fail to flow and the mind goes blank. Despite all best intentions emails are checked and answered, a website that may (but probably won’t), prove helpful is checked. Before long half an hour has passed and the first word has still eluded the essay. The solution is simple, switch the computer off and go for coffee, when you return it is bound to be easier.

Do you really think so? In the half hour spent over coffee ten more emails have arrived and the vicious technological hamster wheel of prevarication continues! The writing gets no easier, so after a further half hour wasted, and knowing that you can’t take on more caffeine, you go and bathe the cat! (actually this is not a tactic to be recommended, cat’s notoriously hate water, and have sharp claws).

I do sincerely have sympathy for those who find themselves in this all too familiar situation. I also have my own pet theories as well as my means of addressing the problem described above. I would suggest that writing is as much a physical activity as it is neurological. Nobody of any intelligence takes up running for the first time today in the belief that they can run a marathon tomorrow. The same applies to writing. So it is that I say to my students, get into training by writing something every day. Start with something short a Haiku or a shopping list, progress to a full page and gradually work up to a sustained effort of maybe a couple of hours.

As with any other exercise, it gets easier with practice and time. The greatest danger is to believe that you can’t write, when the fact of the matter is that you don’t write.

Ok, I’m off for coffee – as soon as I’ve checked my emails!

The art of expression

Then power of the written word is immense. This collection of poetry in local languages provides inspiration for young learners at Primiti school in Bangalore

The power of the written word is immense. This collection of poetry in local languages provides inspiration for young learners at Primiti school in Bangalore

 

This collage communicates the characteristics of a peepal tree every bit as well as I could do in words

This collage communicates the characteristics of a peepal tree every bit as well as I could do in words

I love words. This has undoubtedly come about in part as the result of the inspiration of at least two outstanding teachers. I say at least two, because I am sure that others made a significant contribution to my enthusiasm for the spoken and written word. Mrs Evans (I never knew her first name, though we referred to her with an irreverent affection as Faggy Maggie because of her habit of chain smoking) and John Passey instilled in me a love of literature and books in general that has served me well over the years. The great authors and poets have been constant companions as have the writers of history, philosophy and assorted essays. The gift of reading given to me by my earliest teachers was reinforced by those who came later and tried to provide me with a more critical and discerning approach to books. This was a gift indeed, through reading Tolstoy I have been transported to nineteenth century Russia, by Mahfouz to the grimy back alleys of Cairo, Kenzaburo Oe has given me insights into the Japanese psyche and of course Narayan, Desai and Anand painted pictures of Indian village life in my imagination long before I visited India. I remember a time when occasionally I would see stickers in the rear windows of cars that stated “if you can read this, thank a teacher”. I certainly thank mine for the opportunities and pleasure that the written word has given to me.

It is a fact that many children struggle with words. Some find reading and writing to be a major challenge and often as a result of this they struggle to gain access to other learning. Every culture values the written word and an acquired competence in reading has become the key to gaining knowledge and information in our education systems. This is as true today in an age of digital technology as it ever has been through the era of the printed text and it remains the case that those children who struggle with reading are likely to be classified as poor learners. Many authoritative texts advocating approaches to the teaching of reading have been produced over the years. Early in my teaching career books, some of which like Tansley’s Reading and Remedial Reading became educational classics, were a source of inspiration and support as I attempted to address the needs of seemingly reluctant readers. But it remains a fact that despite my best endeavours some of my pupils gained nothing more than a basic understanding of the written word. Some could certainly be moved by words and demonstrated a love of stories or poetry when they were read to them. But their ability to progress to that desired state of competent independent reader appeared sadly limited. As a teacher I was often frustrated, but I hope, equally sympathetic.

Whilst we live in a literate world where the word continues to dominate, it is important that we recognise that there are other important means of expression that can, in some instances, convey meaning with equal if not greater power than words. Why is it that some educators are reluctant to accept that for some children who struggle with the written word alternative modes of communication may be just as valid? For some the expression available through music or dance is every bit as empowering as the written page. Indeed in some instances the presentation of a drawn image may be in every way equal to the well-constructed paragraph, and a collage may depict more emotion than most writers can manage in a page of text. My colleague Jean Edwards demonstrates this admirably by producing a blog based around a daily drawing. I would urge you to visit her work at  http://jeandrawingaday.wordpress.com/ . An example from her collection of sketches is provided at the foot of this blog entry. Jean is an articulate, thoughtful, well read and effective communicator and teacher but on this site she demonstrates why as teachers we would do well to pay attention to a range of means of expression.

The London born artist Stephen Wiltshire is a fine exponent of the art of cityscapes. As a child he was described as non-communicative because he never used spoken language. Diagnosed as autistic he was labelled with the classical characteristics of this condition that include poor communication, an inability to empathise and a lack of sociability. By the age of seven, teachers had recognised that he had a talent for drawing and at the age of eight he was commissioned by the then Prime Minister, Edward Heath to make a drawing of Salisbury cathedral. In recent years Wiltshire has been acknowledge as one of the most talented artists of his generation with collections of his works such as Floating Cities and American Dream gaining significant acclaim from some of the world’s leading art critics. You can find more detail about Stephen Wiltshire and his art at http://www.stephenwiltshire.co.uk/biography.aspx

Had teachers not recognised and publicised Stephen Wiltshire’s talent as an artist and especially his ability to communicate through drawing, he may well have been known more for his label of autism than for his significant contribution to the interpretation of buildings and cities. So, when we talk about children and young people with communication difficulties, perhaps we might reflect upon the fact that it may not be their difficulty to express themselves that is at fault. It is equally possible that it could be our lack of ability to understand.

 

This is one of Jean Edwards' many fine drawings that can be seen on her blog. Contact details given above in the text

This is one of Jean Edwards’ many fine drawings, “Winter Tree at Sunset” (2014) that can be seen on her blog. Contact details given above in the text

Thanks to Jean Edwards for permission to use this picture here.