The Incredible Power of Writing

powerI sat down to write about the amazing transformation I’m seeing in some of the kids I work with in my Writers’ Groups. Then I remembered I’ve written this type of post before. Rather than link back to the original post, I’m going to repost it below. 

The kids I’m referring to today are a mixed bag of young teens. They were from different schools, different grades (some Year 7 and some Year 8), different genders, different cultures, and different abilities. When they first began, they were nervous —of me, of each other, but mostly of themselves. They didn’t want to stand out. They were so nervous about sharing their writing, that sometimes getting them to read it aloud was like pulling teeth.

Today, they were all keen and enthusiastic and happily volunteered to be first to share their writing exercises. Today was the day they gelled as a group. And it was awesome to see. These kids are not only developing their writing skills, and their confidence in their writing. They are developing friendships, across their differences,  that I’m sure will last much longer than the Writers’ group that brought them together. 

Writing has an incredible transformative power. Not just for the people whose thoughts, feelings or attitudes are influenced or impacted by the writing, but for the writers themselves.

It’s been acknowledged historically that those wielding the pen wield an enormous amount of power. It’s been said many times in many different ways over the ages. From as far back as the Islamic prophet Muhammad, quoted as saying “The ink of the scholar is holier than the blood of the martyr,” to Shakespeare in the 1600s in his play Hamlet Act 2, scene II, writing “… many wearing rapiers are afraid of goosequill,“ and a few hundred years later Edward Bulwer-Lytton said ‘the pen is mightier than the sword’.

And we know that the power of the word, and therefore the process of writing, is a far more effective way of influencing thought. And while those quoted above were referring to acts of violence being less effective than writing in achieving compliance or influence, they couldn’t possibly have known just how powerful the written word would be in a technological age where words influence —positively or negatively—on a much grander scale.

But recently I’ve witnessed how powerful writing can be on a very different level. Convening writers’ groups for teenagers, I continue to be astounded by the incredible power writing has for kids. I’m not talking about the power it gives them over other people; I mean the amazing transformative power writing gives these kids over themselves.

I saw it last year when my writers’ group was made up of disengaged young men in Year 10, and I’m seeing it again this year with a completely different cohort of kids. One of my groups this year comprises a dozen 13-year-old girls in Year 8. I started with them last year when they were in Year 7. They are the brightest in their year and were nominated for writers’ group by their Year Advisor.

These girls have reading ages way beyond their chronological ages. They are intelligent, engaged in the learning process, keen and enthusiastic students. And when they first came I wondered how beneficial the group would actually be for them.  I thought a writers’ group for these exceptional students may be a little redundant and that I could be better utilised working with students that needed a literacy boost. I was wrong. Again.

While all of these girls are academically gifted, some of them struggle with a social phobia and dislocation that makes functioning in a societal context quite difficult for them. Acute anxiety affects one or two, and intense pressure from home to achieve hangs over the heads of many of them.

Last year the writers’ group sessions with these girls were more about encouraging them to suspend their realities enough to tap into an imagination that I’m sure must’ve existed in them at some stage of their childhoods. It was hard work. But now, now they are writing. They’re writing fiction — fantasy, science-fiction, fan-fiction, romance, mystery, adventure. And I am so excited by it!

When they first came, their eyes were dull with trepidation, or fear of the unknown, or the weight of expectation. Now they come to group with inspiration bubbling from them in an effervescence of enthusiasm. Once silent, they now chatter happily, with sparkling eyes and big smiles. It is wonderful.

And they write. Prolifically. And they tell me they look forward to coming to writers’ group.

Writing has given some of these kids a means of social expression and interaction that they didn’t have before. Sharing their writing within the group has broken down some of the social barriers and awkwardness and opened up a world of newfound respect for each other. It’s created a space where they all interact on equal ground not just academically, but creatively and socially.

I am the luckiest writer on the planet because I get to share the joys of writing with these amazing kids.


When Writing Becomes Destructive


sadgirlwritingThis week I’ve had the (dis)pleasure of supervising the NAPLAN tests in a primary school I teach in sometimes. 

Yep, it’s that time of year again. Standardised testing. A process where some bright spark who has probably never set foot in a school, thinks it’s a good idea for every student in Years 3, 5, 7 and 9, to sit the same exam at the same time across the country. Every year students, parents, and teachers raise the same issues and concerns. And every year I write, politely, about it.

But this year, I can’t, won’t, disguise my disdain for an antiquated ‘educational’ practise that again and again proves to be a counter-productive and misleading exercise that does more damage than good.

Let me share this year’s experience of NAPLAN. For the last few years, as well as running Writers’ Groups, I’ve been teaching digital literacy in a primary school on a part-time basis. The other day I was asked to supervise the NAPLAN writing test that Year 3 students were undertaking. I’m talking about 8-year-olds. Little kids. Eight. Years. Old. 

The kids are sitting at tables in rows. They have a pencil and the NAPLAN answer booklet in front of them. The teacher reads the instructions from a handbook provided by the Department. She writes the time allowed for each section of the test on the board. 40 minutes for the language conventions section and 40 minutes for the writing section. They have a short break between the tests. 

The kids are nervous. They sit jiggling their legs, fiddling with their pencils or hems or hair. Some are staring out the window, others are looking imploringly at me as if to say ‘why?’ I have no answer. I’m wondering the same thing. 

The teacher tells them to begin. I wander through the rows looking over their shoulders. Some are drawing pictures. Some are colouring in the headings on the front page of the booklet. One kid has his head on the desk, I crouch down and ask him what’s wrong. He glances sideways and shrugs before turning his face back to the desk. He hasn’t even picked up his pencil. I notice the girl behind him sitting, staring at her blank page with tears streaming down her face. I know this kids is an excellent writer because I have her class for computers and for an 8-year-old, she writes complex, rich imaginative stories when we’re creating digital narratives. I’ve often thought she might be destined for a career as a writer. 

I crouch down next to her and she looks at me, pale-faced, and whispers “I can’t do this,’ I tell her she is an excellent writer. I remind her of the fabulous writing I’ve seen her do. She just shakes her head. I gently encourage her to re-read the stimulus, pick up her pencil and at least write something. I assure her that if she can just start writing, the rest will come. She is frozen. There is nothing I can do. As I walk away, I wonder what went on in her household this morning. What was said that contributed to this state.

Halfway through the test, there are still kids that haven’t yet started. They’re just sitting staring at the booklets in front of them. I move toward them and encourage them to at least write something. Anything. They don’t. They can’t. They stare at me, blankly. After the test, the teacher tells me those kids are in the enrichment class. They won’t score well on their test at all. And their results will impact on the class results, the teacher, the school results and the regional results. I’ve been part of a staff that analyses NAPLAN results, I’ve heard the discussions, I’ve seen the disappointment on the faces of class teachers whose kids didn’t do well, of Principals whose school results didn’t improve, and of parents who think their kids have failed.test kid

These stupid tests take bright, enthusiastic YOUNG kids who love school and enjoy learning, and turn them into nervous wrecks. They take the fun out of learning. They inadvertently create stress in kids who are under pressure to perform. Writing is regarded as a chore, as something that is to be done to prove they are ‘good’ enough or ‘clever’ enough or ‘hardworking’ enough. Writing becomes a tool for students to prove their worth, to prove to their parents and teachers and friends that they are ‘enough.’ These children are EIGHT YEARS OLD. Not much more than babies. They should be free to learn to write for fun. They should be enjoying taking risks with their writing, trying different things. They should be experimenting with the language, writing to reflect their play, their families, their experience, their love of life. They most definitely should NOT be sitting in a pressure-cooker being made to write about ‘changing a law or rule,’ as they were this year. 

Teachers know how destructive these tests can be for young kids. Why don’t those who create these ridiculous regimes listen to them?