Light up the sparks

Sue Cowley, above, has poured her teaching experience into her practical and inspirational book on developing pupils' writing. She talks to Diana Hinds about her work.

One of Sue Cowley's most successful experiences with children and writing was in her first year as a teacher, when she asked a "difficult" Year 9 class to produce a modern-day version of the party scene in Romeo and Juliet, where the lovers first meet.

The class had been discussing slang and dialect in the context of Shakespeare. Two Afro-Caribbean pupils came up with a stylish version of the scene in patois: "She kinda nice you know. We warn fi teck her to mi yard tonight. Mi just go teck a little breeze over deh so", and so on. This was later performed in class.

"It was fantastic," remembers Sue. "The deputy head had been observing the lesson, and she said she'd never been able to get anything out of that class. But they knew I was interested in finding out what their talents were."

This episode, noted in Sue Cowley's new book, Getting the Buggers to Write, sums up her whole approach to English teaching: the need to get on the same wavelength as your pupils, to spark their imaginations and give them a reason for writing, and to never underestimate them.

"It's about being a bit of a kid yourself, being able to empathise," she says. "And I think you should always overestimate what they are capable of."

Sue Cowley is the kind of teacher who makes the job sound easy. She grew up with teachers in the family - her mother and aunt - and took the four-year BEd at Kingston, specialising in English and drama at primary level. She soon realised that what she wanted was to teach her subjects, so she opted for secondary teaching instead, getting her first job at a "challenging" school in west London.

She later taught English and drama at an international school in Portugal. ("There was more freedom there, a sense that you could be a bit more experimental.") She returned to a job at another "tough" school, close to Heathrow. Sue Cowley now lives with her partner outside Bristol, and full-time teaching has been replaced by writing about teaching, combined with part-time supply teaching and training.

"I wanted to write, because I think I've got something to say that isn't being said. There is not much practical, honest, realistic advice being given to teachers, about what you really can do to make it a better job. There is obviously a place for theory and research, but in a teaching job you don't have time to worry about all that. What a working teacher needs is tips and advice." All Sue's ideas derive from her own experiences in the classroom. There is no jargon, no obfuscating research references, no beating about the bush.

Never far from the author's thoughts are the children who find writing a torment or drudgery. "Some children find writing difficult because the basics have gone wrong; because they don't see any reason for what they're writing, and don't get any pleasure from it. They don't know the techniques of writing and are frustrated by their inability to express themselves."

Teaching writing technique comes high on Sue Cowley's list of practical instructions, from the basics of helping children find ways of learning their spellings, to a four-step guide to constructing GCSE essays. "English should be taught as a technical subject," she emphasises.

But her other watchword is "spark" - the burst of imaginative, creative energy needed to fire children up to write with purpose and enjoyment. She has all sorts of practical suggestions to help inspire them - many of them drama-based - involving "warm-up" exercises and "focus" exercises; games with sound effects and the use of different props.

"If they come into the classroom and see something that's not usually there, they know they're in for an interesting experience. Secondary teachers can sometimes think that their pupils won't be interested, but they are - they love it."

This is not to say that every English lesson has to be the whackiest lesson out. But every once in a while teachers should be prepared to throw the lesson plan out of the window, she says. "Teachers shouldn't feel they are wasting time if they do weird and unusual things. You will always be successful as a teacher if you do something that the children will remember."

Getting the Buggers to Write by Sue Cowley Continuum pound;12.99, plus pamp;pTel: 01202 665 432

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