As a Primary School teacher, I have become increasingly frustrated over the last couple of years with how we are expected to teach English/Welsh to the pupils. Creative writing has become crippled by the weight of key skills and success criteria. ‘Should we use adjectives and similes in our story?’ pupils ask eagerly, then, ‘Miss, why are you banging your head against the wall?’ Or, ‘How many WOW words should we use?’, followed by, ‘Miss? Miss? Where did Miss go?’ (Drives away in a fog of frustrated fumes).
Please don’t worry, I haven’t actually whacked my head against the classroom wall (well, not in front of the pupils anyway), or driven away and left a classroom of pupils to stare in wide-eyed wonderment at my squealing tyres. Yet, I have wanted to. Oh boy have I wanted to.
As a child, I was so lucky to be immersed in the magic of stories. When I held a book in my hands, my fingers would tingle with anticipation of the adventure that awaited. I would constantly create stories. The crab apple tree at the foot of our garden was home to the Crabble Fairies. Our back patio was a pirate ship, my hula hoop balancing on the hedge its helm; my pet rabbit my trusted parrot. I can’t remember ever worrying about how many similes I should include in my stories, or whether I had used enough WOW words to warrant success. What my stories had were adventure and magic, imagination and wonderment. These were my success criteria.
But now, as a teacher, if a child hasn’t grappled painstakingly with a thesaurus and included at least five WOW words in their story, then I have failed. I was externally assessed a couple of years ago and I was so thrilled that the lesson, in my eyes, went brilliantly. The pupils were fully engaged, they were excited, they wanted to carry on working at playtime, I was bubbling with enthusiastic energy. When I finally managed to shoo them out, with a promise that we’d carry on after play, I turned bright-eyed to my assessor, who peered at me over her glasses and said, ‘It’s such a shame that you didn’t ask them to write down the success criteria at the start, because it could have been an outstanding lesson.’ Pop. The pin stuck in. How could I have been so careless? In the excitement and enjoyment how could I have forgotten to write down the success criteria?
I think that was the start for me. The realisation that I couldn’t enjoy being a teacher anymore. I’ve never been mathematically minded, so to have my profession become so rigorously governed by data and targets, test results and tables, my confidence has plummeted, my energy has zapped and my vision has become blurred by tears of frustration. I can’t turn writing creatively into an equation of 5 similes + 10 adjectives + 3 WOW words = a successful story. It goes against everything I believe in.
One of the worst examples of the dreaded WOW words came about last September, after I returned to teaching having been on maternity leave for a year. The pupils were writing about their favourite day of the Summer holidays. One girl was writing about the first day of her holiday in Ibiza … ‘After breakfast, we promenaded to the beach as it only took five minutes from our hotel.’ I asked her why didn’t she just say that they had walked to the beach. ‘Walked isn’t a good word. It’s not a WOW word,’ she said.
Now had she been writing a historical piece set in Victorian times, I would have congratulated her for using her imagination and exploring language and its effect. But sadly in this instance, it simply made me cringe. It was nothing more than a building block for her to reach what she believed would make her writing successful. Story writing has become a recipe – a list of pre-agreed ingredients that need to be thrown into the mixing bowl. Leave one ingredient out and your story will be bland. It should also come clearly labelled with a health warning – ‘Seriously damages your creativity.’
I have always loved language. I love words – the way they look, the way they sound, the way they make us feel. I love playing with language – turning old-fashioned idioms upside down to create new ones, creating new words, finding words that I’ve never heard before. My 8 year-old was reading ‘Pete and the Five-a-side Vampires’ by Malachy Doyle and came across the word ‘discombobulate’. It was like finding a piece of buried treasure. He laughed at it, rolled it around on his tongue, used it in conversation for days. That, for me, was a perfect example of a WOW word.
I’m always telling my pupils that WOW words are not the words we pick at random from the thesaurus for the sake of forcing them into our writing like the wrong missing pieces of a jigsaw puzzle. WOW words are words we create, words that have special meanings to us, words that make us feel something. I remember my pupils writing autobiographies a few years ago after reading Roald Dahl’s ‘Boy’. A boy named Finn called his autobiography, ‘My Finntabulous Life’. And there it was – his WOW word – created naturally by him for the sole purpose of entertaining the reader. He was using his imagination, not a thesaurus, to write creatively.
It is so important to nurture a child’s imagination. They can become so dependent on seeking entertainment from their technological devices these days that they become numb to the magic around them. If I were a child today, would I have noticed the fairy door on our crab apple tree and scrunched my eyes closed, tapped on it three times and entered the Crabble Kingdom? I hope so. And that is what I want to give to children. The power to do just that. The power to not see the patio through the window, but a pirate ship ready to sail the seven seas.
I want a child to read aloud their story in breathless excitement. I want that child to realise that it’s their imagination that has made their story a success. I want that child to see that their work is an abundance of WOW words, rich in adjectives and similes, without even having thought about it. I want that child to have the freedom to tell their story creatively.
Hwyl am y tro x