Of the many jobs I had prior to becoming a teacher, the first was as a cabinet-maker. The small firm I worked for specialised in designing and making exquisite bespoke, to-order furniture. Alongside me worked incredible craftsmen, artists,almost, who used their skill, knowledge and experience to transform simple lengths of timber into intricately detailed objects of which they were justly proud.
As an unskilled newcomer, it was, for a long time, beyond my ability to produce finished pieces of furniture. I could visualise a rocking chair but hadn’t the skills to fashion the manifold component parts required to construct one. Had I attempted to do so, I might have ended up with a rough approximation, but the most cursory of inspections by even an untrained eye would quickly have revealed the faults in my work.
And so, how to improve my craftsmanship? I could, of course, have stumbled from one project to the next,repeating and entrenching my errors as I went, each finished product being no better than the one previous. Instead, I ceased making whole pieces altogether and focused rather on mastering the small joins,turns and touches I would later be able to use in making anything I might be asked to. This involved frequent repetition and rehearsal of skills and could often be tedious. But over time, I acquired an array of small tricks which, when combined, eventually allowed me to make the same furniture I had seen my colleagues producing in my fledgling days with them.
At that time, progress was little more than a word stuck about two thirds of the way through the dictionary. It certainly didn’t ever cross my mind that although I didn’t improve every single day, and although some small improvements took days or even weeks to become apparent, my progress over time was
Now it does.
In January, I took over a year three class whose writing I have been grappling with ever since. A small number of the children use magical words, phrases and sentences from which they can then already craft and construct extended pieces of writing in all manner of styles. Far greater in number though are the children who remind me of my nascent cabinet-maker self; those who know roughly what a quest myth, a non-chronological report or a set of instructions should look like, but those who don’t yet have mastery of the smaller skills required to create a high-quality outcome.
And so, because of my own experiences as a learner in an entirely different situation, I will be approaching the teaching of writing in a very different way this term. For those who need it, I will step back from asking them to write extended pieces in which structure and cohesion quickly become lost. Instead, I will focus on gradually achieving success, accuracy and precision on a smaller scale, with carefully chosen and crafted words, phrases and sentences, before attempting anything grander.
It worked for a cabinet-maker; why can’t it work for writers?