Cabinet-making and Writing- are they the same thing?

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
huge.

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?

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5 thoughts on “Cabinet-making and Writing- are they the same thing?

  1. Appropriately enough, this is a beautifully written post. Just to toy with your metaphor, as well as your little cabinet makers focusing on mastering the small elements that eventually comprise a whole (the carefully crafted words, phrases and sentences you describe), I’d say it is still important that they get exposed to a range of beautiful cabinets in order to sharpen their sense of what it is they are working towards.

    The turning of a cog is a much prouder work-practice when the labourer realises that their action is a vital part of.the running of the whole machine.

  2. I agree that we try to do too much too soon too often in the attempt to : show progress,; build on prior learning ;apply skills and so on. Practice is key!
    Writing in as many different ways as possible, for as many different reasons and for a wide range of audiences (aren’t blogs great for this?) will all reap rewards. But it takes time- lots of it! It’s a balancing act that I am still trying hard to get right. The only thing I would add would be to immerse the children in a literacy rich environment where they have access to a wealth of great examples of written work (lend me your literacy is great for this) , hear stories often and have a real sense of pride in their work. Easy for some,a massive challenge for others.

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