BIG thanks for your contributions: @lit4pleasure @TobiasHayden @BillyBeanWrites @BeckyMarie80 @navangovender1 @KirstieMS1 @lrwhaxby @Marcelavb3

It was an honour to have Peter Elbow join us via email.  You can find comprehensive guidance on different aspects of ‘Writing Without Teachers’ on his website. His contributions are in bold throughout the conversation below.

Question 1

This is the beginning of chapter 1, ‘Writing Without Teachers’.  The whole chapter can be accessed here. 

  • Two “muscles”: generating and criticizing. Don’t let yourself do more criticising or editing than you do generating. The danger for teachers is that they spend all their time criticizing or judging. They lose the creative generating and generosity frame of mind.
  • Been writing with a few colleagues using the ‘free-writing’ technique to collect our thoughts together before writing something a bit more concrete & I’ve really enjoyed the experience.
  • How about you?
  • I have not tried this technique yet even though I know about it a little. I suppose I feel a little apprehensive about trying it, but I believe that it could reveal some little gems of thoughts that could be developed into something greater?
  • I recently used the ‘free-writing’ technique to collect my thoughts on what I wanted to say in the preface of the book I’ve been writing and it was just such a liberating and enjoyable process. I’m a big fan.
  • I used free writing for a similar purpose, to brain dump how I felt about a significant event, before filtering out what I actually wanted to say. The process provided clarity and my head felt a lot lighter.
  • I could see how this would work like that.
  • It would definitely over a period of time help to ‘unlock’ the fear of writing and obsessions with handwriting and spelling.
  • I agree. We definitely focus more on grammar and content instead of imagination and writing for pleasure, especially in 6 with moderation expectations – so this would be invaluable to grow a love of writing for pleasure.
  • I’ve worked in Y6 for years. I put the writing for pleasure principle first and the ‘moderation stuff’ second. It’s wonderful because so much of the expected and greater depth level stuff happens quite *naturally* when you do this + the writing is real AND good quality. Win-win!
  • Yes, I agree that the moderation stuff can be taught easily enough. Without the opportunity to write for pleasure they struggle to use their imagination and have the word choice and flow that’s needed. It needs to be modelled and the writer’s brain needs to be shown
  • I think whatever age we teach, we’re teaching children to develop as writers, not checkbox some objectives. When we do the first well, the checkboxes happen!
  • Yes, I completely agree and it is nice to see children finding the techniques they have used without even thinking about them – knowing they can do it naturally is such a reward for both the pupil and the teacher
  • Absolutely! Freed up and ready to write!
  • I suspect children love this and are probably ‘better’ at it than adults. As an idea generation technique, I imagine it’s right up there with some of the very best.
  • I wonder in a classroom if they might feel there was more of an expectation?
  • Yes, perhaps. Depends on the culture I suppose. It has echoes of a ‘vomit drafting’ approach which I know is very popular with a lot of kids.
  • I agree here Tobias. I thought it sounded great for vomiters, but some sentence stackers/paragraph pilers would find it more difficult.
  • I haven’t used this before but it is something that I will do in the future. It is a good way of children expressing themselves without feeling judged or worrying about editing etc.
  • I think this too!
  • I have used this when I get them to respond to a text or write a diary entry – but it isn’t often or for more than a few minutes
  • It’s quite strongly linked to our dabbling technique. Dabbling is where you can invite children to write in personal response to what you’ve read to them.
  • Flannery O’Connor once remarked that she wrote because she didn’t know what she thought until she read what it was she had to say.
  • I use this all the time with student teachers. It’s a brilliant little way to generate ideas and get the creative juices flowing, but it takes a few rounds before everyone really gets into it. It can be difficult to open up through writing when we’re used to such structured appr
  • I do this through my journal writing, as I know it’s just for me, it is almost like having the discipline to sit down and write. It’s interesting what comes out of it, things you didn’t realise you were thinking and connecting.
  • You get to know a lot about your own thought process. Very interesting!
  • I think sometimes you get rubbish and others little gems. I’ve done 1, 3- and 5-minute writing stunts with children but usually with a stimulus. They need training in it but it gets them into a flow.
  • I use the ‘doodle if you don’t know’ option but have a few children who then just constantly doodle and don’t ever get into a piece of writing…how do we bridge that gap?
  • I tell them that I write, “I don’t know what to write” repeatedly when I don’t know what to write. I’ve never written it more than twice. Trial it yourself and see what happens.
  • I will!
  • What helps teachers most is to make sure they are doing a good deal of writing themselves. Even if it’s very informal; private and just for friends where you don’t ask for any response — i.e., the safest kind of writing.  If the teacher isn’t writing, she’s in a bad (too safe) place for teaching.  They need to feel what students feel.
  • I very much agree. The actual feeling of nervousness when you are share your writing, getting stuck, not knowing what to do next, makes you part of the writing community of you class.

Question 2

  • To edit well, you also have to be a big spender: that is, you have to write LOTS and have lots of freewriting material. In that way you feel like you have “money to burn”–unlimited words and thoughts.  When you feel that way, you’re not scared to cut and edit. You know “there’s plenty more where that came from.” 
  • Well, indeed! That’s a high volume of writing that many children don’t get a chance to produce before there is an expectation to edit.
  • They’re gonna be tightass if they ain’t got much dough!
  • I’ve always said to children that drafting is about finding out, perhaps for the first time, *what* it is we want to say. Revising, on the other hand, is about finding out *how* best to say it.
  • You’re so right. And boy do I find *how* to say something really hard. Do children? Or do they worry more about *what* to say?
  • In my experience, but I appreciate that this is rare, the children I’ve taught have thoroughly enjoyed playing around with their existing writing.
  • Getting the *what* out of the way is the taxing bit – the rest is fun and games with friends.
  • Interesting point! Maybe because I find it a tough process, I don’t see it so much as ‘fun’!
  • Do it with some pals!
  • So much of my emphasis with children is often on making revisions to build on what has already been written: develop a best line; slow down-add more detail; experiment with an opening/ending etc.
  • This is quite a contrast with the ‘free-write’ Tobias, isn’t it? Are you personally a ‘sentence stacker’?
  • I’d say it’s a mixed picture for me Ben sometimes depending on the piece I’m working on. I do revise things to death though!
  • I get detail fatigue. One essay I wrote last summer I read, and read, and read and revised over and over. I looked at it again last week and barely recognised it was my own!
  • Ha! I love this! I’m absolutely awful at cutting back my own prose. When I do, I keep thinking ‘It won’t make sense now’, but all the best writers have this crystal-clear prose. Cut back, pared down. I can only wish!!
  • When writing I always write too much, even in emails- then I have to go back and edit the main points into bullet points. I would rather cut out ideas than have to find things to add in because it then feels forced.
  • I’ve not considered it before but I do this too!!
  • In our book Real-World Writers, we call it your ‘yawny-bits’. This is where children must consider what needs to be cut for the sake of their readers. Obviously, this is in discussion with their peers.
  • Exactly this! Just made this point. Ha! It’s why talking about writing is such an important principle in any classroom.
  • This is particularly tricky when you want the children to have ownership and if they think it’s finished, not pushing them to edit it even if you can see where improvements can be made. Editing during the writing process, through conferencing, has helped with that I think.
  • I see with children that they can be very hard on their writing, cutting whole paragraphs, pages even. I think often they do it not because it’s not needed but because they didn’t feel it said what they meant. That’s hard for any writer if you can’t quite *express*.
  • The key to being a big spender is playing the believing game with yourself. This means believing that you are smart and have lots of words and thoughts at your fingertips.
  • Great advice!
  • Cutting is the hardest of revisions for me.
  • Unbelievably awful process!

Question 3

Question 3 was supplemented by this image:

  • “Did I hear someone say recursive?” More arrows than Robin Hood’s quiver. This is a lovely illustration of what can go on when working on a piece of writing.
  • This is quite a web and definitely worth showing the children, so they realise writing is a messy but connected process.
  • Here’s one that has organised lots of the terminology children will be familiar with (inc. some American ‘z’s just to annoy me), so they can see that they should be focusing their energies on particular elements of their writing at different stages in the process.

  • Reading aloud and staying alert for a sense of when your MOUTH and EAR clue you into a feeling that the words aren’t right or clear or strong. The mouth and ear are the most powerful organs for writing.  And they are part of the BODY and the body tells you when writing is strong or weak.  So, you have to (1) take time to read aloud, and 2) be guided by the mouth and ear when you edit and rewrite.  Oddly enough, the mouth and ear are the main organs for editing writing.
  • My goodness! Best thing I learned about this was from @DouglasKKaufman: “Get them to read aloud their writing to you in conferences. They will notice their own mistakes for most stuff.” EVERY teacher should do this. It always solves the majority of writing problems.
  • I saw a lovely example of this today which shows your class are well practiced in this Ben! Two of the girls were creasing up with laughter reading each other’s primary school memories and it was so great to see such positive sharing
  • That’s SO great to hear, Lois!
  • I’ve been really impressed with the way they talk about their writing. It’s just hard cos I’m standing above or next to them rather than at their level, so it doesn’t quite feel like a collaborative conference yet. 2m metre rule and all that. (This chat took place during the Coronavirus lockdown)
  • Quite!
  • I love to see the progression when establishing this: the chn who repeatedly stop & amend & re-read & stop & amend. They soon learn how this impacts on their writing and do so independently before the conference. I can then listen to the content our focus is on arms not cups.

  • Model this process and the children enjoy giving feedback. One boy in my set loves to read his writing out to the class or his partner – he thrives on the reaction& feedback and it helps him develop his writing.It’s a good way of promoting discussions
  • What’s the point otherwise?!
  • I agree! Instant feedback is great.
  • No point in telling a joke if there is no one around to hear it right?
  • haring, I think, is vital. Writers write for audiences, pitch ideas, get feedback, and in many ways work in communities. Our classrooms should involve this… besides, it helps to break the tension and thinking your writing has to be perfect all the time!
  • Yes, writing communities!
  • I think that reading drafts & bits is incredibly powerful. It’s honing the drafts & bits that ultimately contributes to quality writing outcomes. If you wait until you have a final draft, you miss out on these valuable opportunities.
  • It may seem counterintuitive, but my students seem to become better peer editors when they understand that the feedback they give others can also become evidence of their own learning and mastery of the content.
  • This is why children are just better people than adults. I’ve never met a child who has been mean about my writing…. adults on the other hand…
  • I’d share my writing with children over adults any day. Opinionated? Sure. Kind about it? Absolutely!
  • These are my guidelines:
    • Be kind
    • Be honest
    • Be helpful
  • No one is as mean about my writing as I am; Peter Elbow’s read aloud advice has empowered me.
  • I think it also relates to how writing can happen in short spurts (and doesn’t always have to be extended, even though that might be the end game) and the act of sharing part of the overall process of text production.
  • Reading aloud is the crucial step for editing.
  • Peter Elbow’s read aloud advice (for me at the end of a paragraph or if I’m playing with a sentence) is freeing, as I can literally hear what could do with an edit. As I know this stage will come, I’m slowly becoming more able to produce content without judgement.

Question 4

  • I love reading children’s writing as what it is – writing. Not an exercise. The kids are currently writing some memories of primary school and they are genuinely beautiful pieces to me. To be part of their sharing bits of their histories is humbling.
  • Also, if something in a kids’ writing reminds me of a piece I’ve read by an established author, I’ll say “There’s a poem by Ted Hughes (etc) that does that. I’ll find it and show you”.
  • Placing their writing alongside other writers as *equals* establishes good stuff.
  • Yes, this is something I love doing, I say that’s a sentence that … would write or your style reminds me of … and they always want to look at examples.
  • This is the problem I have when writing across the curriculum doesn’t allow children to transform the knowledge they’ve learnt with a personal response or else they are not allowed to craft their knowledge into something new and unexpected.
  • Working on this one, Ross, as you know!
  • I know. I’m so excited to read your curriculum once it’s done. It’s going to be world-class. Every teacher in the country is going to
  • Cheers Ross! With your support!
  • I love this question. All children need to see themselves as a writer and that their writing can be published and is worthy of being read and not just to be marked.  I tell my class ‘I’m looking forward to you making me laugh/cry’ etc. and I use this in my response to them. I show them that I value their writing. I also use examples of their work during the next lesson and the buzz in the classroom is always great as they are always happy to find out whose work I have used. During lessons I magpie words/sentences &share their good examples
  • I like to push students then to write a response to just 2 or 3 pieces. Not to criticize or “fix” but rather to tell the writer what thoughts or memories or feelings the writing led to.  “When I read your  — piece, I felt, I remembered, I wanted to  . . . . It helps writers to see that their words can make something happen in readers.
  • I completely agree – this helps them to write for the audience and think about how they want their audience to respond – very powerful.
  • Well, here’s a humdinger! Dare I use the words ‘purposeful and authentic writing projects’? And can I drop in a little bit of agency for good measure? If you don’t know what they’re going to say there’s a good chance YOU can be affected by your pupils’ writing.
  • It helps enormously if you can put student pieces together into little magazines. If there are too many students, then “sub” magazines with no more than 10 or 12 students in a magazine.  This helps ensure that students read them.
  • Here’s an example of practice to get people started.
  • Yes, this is a target for me in future. I’ve developed my class reading culture this year, and I really want to really get the children’s writing to be a true part of it. My own kids’ writing sit on my bookshelves at home and is the most read stuff on there!
  • It’s amazing when you see the children in their own writing, you hear their voices and learn something new from them. This is real writing and reading.
  • Yes, I agree – reading how they see the world etc. is priceless
  • This reminds me of when the children chose a topic close to their heart to write a poem &I told them I didn’t want to know what they were about – when they read them out loud they had an instant response – I laughed and even cried – it was a safe environment to do so.