EK Books, 2018
32pp., hbk., RRP $A24.99
When he is at home the stories running through his head keep him awake at night – stories about dragons and rainbow eggs at the bottom of Grandma’s garden; his teacher being eaten by a gruesome ogre; unicorn detectives chasing robotic pirates up alien volcanoes. The wonderful, magical ideas just keep flowing and he writes and writes and writes. It’s all about the adventures and not about the writing rules.
But at school, the adventures dry up because the writing rules rule. And the red pen is everywhere,
“But at school their are too many riting rulz and with all the rulz I can never find my dragons.”
At school he doesn’t like to write
Until a new teacher comes – one who is a storyteller himself and knows writing is about the story and not the rules.
In the 80s I was lucky enough to be deeply involved in the process writing movement where we truly believed that writing had to be about the ideas and the adventures and that the processes of reviewing, editing and publishing came later once there was something to work with. Children were just happy to express themselves and as teachers, it was our job to guide them with spelling, punctuation and grammar, semantics and syntax, so that if one of their ideas grabbed them enough that they wanted to take it through to publication then we would work together to do that. Words were provided as they were needed in context and punctuation and grammar tackled on an individual’s needs rather than one-size-fits-all lessons. And if the effort of writing was enough and the child wasn’t interested in taking it further, then we had to accept that – flogging a dead horse was a waste of time. In pre-computer days, how many nights did I spend on the typewriter with the big font so a child could have the joy of their own creation in our class library? Children enjoyed writing for writing’s sake, were free and willing to let their imaginations roam free and were prepared to take risks with language conventions for the sake of the story.
But when publicity-seeking politicians whose only experience with the classroom was their own decades previously declared that “assessment processes need to be more rigorous, more standardised and more professional” (a quote from Teacher ) we find ourselves back to the red pen being king and our future storytellers silenced through fear. While the teachers’ notes tag this book as being about a dyslexic child, it really is about all children as they learn how to control their squiggles and regiment them into acceptable combinations so they make sense to others, a developmental process that evolves as they read and write rather than having a particular issue that is easy and quick to label and therefore blame. We need to accept what they offer us as they make this journey and if they never quite reach the destination, or are, indeed, dyslexic, then as well-known dyslexic Jackie French says, “That’s what spellcheck and other people are for.” So much better to appreciate their effort than never have the pleasure of their stories.
So many children will relate to this story – those whose mums have “to wade through a papar ocean to wake [them] up” – and will continue to keep writing regardless of adults who think they know better. But who among those adults will have the conviction and the courage to be like Mr Watson? Who among the powers-that-be will let them do what they know works best? If the red pen kills their creativity now, where will the storytellers and imaginative problem-solvers of the future come from?