28 minutes, a blank page and a piece of writing that needs completing. Seems a bit daunting to me: as the minutes tick by and I don’t know what to write, I feel the panic slowly setting in. So, I continue to stare blankly, hoping for some inspiration. I start looking around the room, hoping some magic words will appear on the wall in front of me. It takes a while, but gradually, I start to think about what to write. I suppose I just needed time for an idea to formulate and for the words to start to gather in my brain.
Suddenly, the whole scenario seems familiar. It’s what happens every day in my classroom. 30 minutes, a blank page in a book and a vague idea of what should be written about. And I then expect 30 children to just get on with it, to sit down at their tables straight away, and to write. Those children who sit staring into space just get moaned at, rather than being encouraged to think. Some of them I know need time to digest what has been taught beforehand. Others need time to get their ideas together. Some just need a chance to sit and to get themselves focussed. I know these children, I know what they need, and yet I still expect them to sit down and to write straight away. Admittedly, unlike me here, they have had an opportunity to share ideas with their peers, but there is still a huge amount for them to digest: what should they be writing about? What genre? What are the numerous things listed on their success criteria? Do they actually know what these things are – what’s the difference between a fronted adverbial or a prepositional phrase (a very good question)? Which sentence types should they be using? What’s their target? So many questions that need to be answered before they can even begin to contemplate putting pencil to paper.
And then, there are those children who are the complete opposite – they sit straight down and start writing WITHOUT answering all of those questions. What happens to them? They get moaned at for rushing in too quickly. These poor children are facing a ridiculous balancing act – getting the balance write between thinking and doing. As an adult, we can do that: we can divide up our time and prioritise what we need to do and for how long. But for many of my year 4 children, they can’t take on the burden of watching the clock as well as everything else. Many of them have little concept of time (“Is it home time yet?” is a regular question only a few minutes after I’ve done the register. Perhaps it’s just wishful thinking on their part!). Keeping an eye on the time would actually end up wasting precious minutes, rather than being of benefit.
So how can I help them? Giving them a chance would probably be a good start. Let them think if they need to. Let them dive in if that’s the way they work, but teach them how to go back to the beginning and review their work when they are part way through. Teach them how to plan their work quickly and efficiently so they have a clear idea of what they are going to do. I often stop the children part way through the lesson to get them to read through their work, set themselves a target of what they need to do next, and then carry on. I’ve just done that myself, and found it really disruptive. I was reluctant to stop writing, because I thought I’d lose my train of thought. I did. Yes, I found a few mistakes, but I could have spotted those once I had finished. Mini-plenaries throughout the lesson have always gone down well in observations, and I’ve always thought of them as being of benefit for those children who find it difficult to concentrate for sustained periods, but I should imagine that some children hate them. Perhaps the way forward is to tell them what they need to do during their writing, and encourage them to independently choose a good time to read their work through. Some of the children would find it difficult to cope with this, and so would need guidance, but certainly some of my more able writers would relish a bit of independence. We are always trying to encourage our children to be independent in their learning. Perhaps we just need to give them a bit more of a chance.