I am an English teacher in an international school in Saigon. This means that I write more or less every day, but often not in the way that I might if I were sitting at home and working on my own ideas. This has led to some pretty fun projects (such as a sonnet designed to convince Year 9 that there are better role models out there than Miley Cyrus) but more often than not I find myself analysing the opening description of Curley’s wife in Of Mice and Men and telling students which elements of my analysis are making my work ‘Level 5’, ‘Level 6’ or ‘Level 7’ quality. This kind of writing makes me a little sad: it can feel like I’m chipping away at their enthusiasm and originality with a little brain-pick axe, one structured paragraph at a time.
Sometimes though, I get to be creative. This is a lot more fun and, although it is not always the most thought provoking stuff that I produce when I model writing for students, it can be challenging and interesting to invent stuff for such a specific target audience which must simultaneously capture their interest and demystify the writing process for them.
My greatest successes with teaching children how to write never come from paragraph outlines or punctuation and grammar check lists: they come from helping children to understand that writing is about communicating an idea, and the writing process is about gathering and using the tools you have to communicate as clearly as possible.
My Year 7 class and I are currently working on ‘Autobiography’. I’m trying to get them to understand that their identity derives from more than their height, hair colour and passion for computer games. I want them to realise that the things they think, feel and love to do are products of their past, indicators of who they are and the best clues to who they might become.
I modelled the following task by explaining that I love to run. I explained to them:
- Where it came from (my beginning)
- How it is a part of my life now (my middle)
- How I feel it will continue to shape me (my end)
I made notes on each section then used the notes to structure a piece of writing, in the hopes that it would bring some depth to their approach of the same task, for which they were thus far mainly listing hobbies. I wanted them to understand that turning statements into stories is just a device for making idea sharing more engaging; it is how people attempt to explain themselves and understand one another. This is what people mean when they talk about ‘showing not telling’.
Eleven year olds are very sweet. I thought it was a little cheesy (lesson: kids can be cheesy) but they clapped me when I read it aloud and told me that it helped them to understand a lot about my personality. One boy shouted out “I nearly cried, I’m serious!”They got it. They really got it! Then they went back to writing about how much they love video games and will continue to love video games forever because video games. Sigh. One step at a time.
How Running Has Shaped Me
I love to run. I never thought I’d say that: when I was a child I was far more interested in food and TV than getting up and moving; sports seemed to me like a hobby designed for muscly, athletic children who had been born into their trainers. P.E. was a lesson where I counted down the minutes and hoped that Mrs Steadman wouldn’t pick on me.
But a few years ago things changed. I had a sudden realisation: I was unfit. If I was late for a train, I couldn’t run to catch it without turning tomato red and panting like a hungry dog. Competitive and determined as I was, I hated to think that there was something so basic that I couldn’t do, simply because I’d never tried to. I realised: it wasn’t my genes that were stopping me from running. It was me.
So I set myself a challenge.
I entered the London half marathon. 21 kilometres through some of the most beautiful parks and gardens of England’s capital: past Buckingham Palace and the Tower of London; through Trafalgar Square and along the Thames. It would be a beautiful run and I was determined: not just to complete it but to enjoy it.
My first run was a disaster. I ran for 15 minutes and turned the colour of a beetroot. I had barely managed 1.5 kilometres and my goal seemed impossible. I had a long way to go.
But gradually, run by run, it got easier. My strides grew longer, my breaths grew deeper and I learned to push myself further and further. On the day of the race I ran non-stop for 2 hours and 7 minutes and enjoyed the beauty of the greatest city on earth as it zoomed past me. The feeling as I crossed the finish line was pure exhiliration: not just because I had run the race but because I had set myself a seemingly impossible challenge and I had made it achievable.
Now I know that running is not for other, more athletic and muscly people. Now, running is for me. I run often and I run for fun. I run fast and I run far. I set myself challenges, I meet them, and every time I feel I’ve run a few steps closer to the ‘me’ that the my childhood self didn’t believe existed.