Writers are explorers: Why not go where no-one has ever been before?

While reading the other day I came across a quote from American astronaut, Alan Bean, the fourth man to walk on the moon:

“I find it curious that I never heard any astronaut say that he wanted to go to the Moon so he would be able to look back and see the Earth. We all wanted to see what the Moon looked like close up. Yet, for most of us, the most memorable sight was not of the Moon but of our beautiful blue and white home, moving majestically around the sun, all alone and infinite black space.”

That quote immediately struck me as being so very relevant to encouraging a child to write.

So often our school children (from their youngest years to senior ages) have to write within the constraints of themes or formulas. Of course there are times and places when these constraints can give a child much needed structure and focus, just like the moon did to the United States’ lunar programme. But (and it’s a very important ‘but’) our children’s writing shouldn’t be limited by the apparent need to reach a destination. That destination can be interpreted in various ways. Perhaps it is a complete piece of writing with a beginning, middle, and an end? Or maybe it is a high-grade mark that only the privileged few will ever reach? Either way, in the pursuit of this destination students (and their teachers) may forget to look out the window and see that there is a whole world out there; indeed there is a whole universe (and beyond) to be explored.

And exploration is what should be enthusiastically encouraged when teaching a child to write. Writers are explorers whose maps are their imaginations. There needs to be times when a student should not be concerned with grammar and structure and planning and reviewing and, well let’s be honest, all that boring stuff that can take away the fun from writing. There needs to be times when students, no matter what their age, can explore and express in whatever ways they choose. Let them string nonsensical words together. Let them put an exclamation mark in the middle of a sentence. Let them use adjective after adjective after adjective. And, importantly, in this digital age in which our definition of ‘literacy’ is constantly evolving, let them record random thoughts into their smartphones, or create a multimodal text in which they tell a story of an astronaut landing on Mars and finding a plastic bag and a can of soft drink on an anthill the size of Mount Everest.

Let them…

Just let them.

Think of it in terms of giving a young child a blank piece of art paper, a few tubes of paint, but no brush. Alright off you go. See what you can do.

When given the opportunity to let their minds run free, some students will probably still choose to shoot for the moon, while others might be lost in space and be uncertain what to do. That is the beauty and precariousness of giving them the freedom to explore. And, as we know, exploration can lead to discovery. Let the children have the chance to discover what they can do (and can’t do) when writing. Don’t mark them. Don’t judge them. Just encourage them to do what they want. And you just never know what may happen.

I’m writing this piece because of something that a lower primary school student recently confessed to me. He had to present a topic talk in class, but was convinced that his presentation would be ‘terrible.’

“Why?” I asked him.

“Because it doesn’t have a sizzling start. And all good stories have a sizzling start.”

Gently, I told him that wasn’t true. “Every story is different, mate. And the story you will tell is special because you are the only one who is telling it in your way. And that makes you special too.” Put simply, there is no such thing as terrible writing. Each individual writes according to the way he or she thinks. And that is to be treasured.

I don’t know how the boy went with his presentation, but I do know his comment made me think about how careful we have to be when instructing our children about writing. By and large, writing is a craft undertaken by individuals. And amidst the necessary instruction of the ‘boring stuff’, it is absolutely essential that we allow time for that individuality to be explored. After all, it would be a dull old place if we all saw nothing but the moon.