Hope for abetter worst day

18th May 2007 at 01:00
Carol Gow lectures in media at Dundee College

Patrick was stuck on his formative assessment - a reflective essay about himself and his family. I was covering his class and, though I could see that the task wasn't inspiring him, there was no time to change it. The sun was streaming in the window, the computers were down, and he'd already made three exasperated trips to the waste bin. "Why not finish with 'the best day and the worst day of my life'?" I suggested.

Not blindingly inspirational, but it seemed a satisfactory way to finish his squeezed-out pages and end his misery.

The best day of his life, he wrote, was the day he started college. As far as I could ascertain, there was no irony. The worst day of his life was when he was standing at a bus stop when a bus went past, through a big puddle and splashed him all over.

Not Man Booker stuff, I agree. But then, given the topic, given that he was a happy, uncomplicated 16-year-old who just wanted to be playing football, that was probably the best he could come up with.

Setting writing topics isn't easy. I hesitate to ask for a reflective essay because not every student has had as sunny a life as Patrick. And faced with a blank page or a blank computer screen, many students have sussed that to write a good piece, they need something powerful to write about.

That something can frequently be distressing or uncomfortable to read.

I understand the gap between the "..." who writes and the "..." on the created page, but they do not see the difference and so are not shielded by such distinctions. It's therefore difficult to quibble about grammar and spelling when someone has opened their heart and written about deeply personal experiences.

There is the apocryphal story about the lecturer who received a heartfelt and tear-stained billet-doux from a young student and returned it with spelling and grammar corrected in red pen, along with helpful suggestions for improving the structure.

Yet if we avoid topics that might prove difficult and stick to safe, standard fare, we can stunt creativity. Not many students would have the cheek of American novelist Jodi Picault, who revealed in her Dundee lecture this week that her writing career only started when her teacher asked the class to write about "What I Did On My Holidays". Picault rebelled and wrote a piece from the point of view of a piano. She failed. After some heated discussion between her parents and the school, she was moved to another class where, she says, the teacher nurtured her ideas and, well - 14 bestsellers in 15 years is a pretty satisfactory result.

The trouble is that the writers we read, such as Picault, know that "happiness writes white". It's been said that there are only two topics for writers - sex and death. Certainly, when I trawled through the bank of reading for my young Literature 1 class, the selection of poems on offer were big on death and destruction. "Why are there no happy poems?" Lisa asked as the last line of Seamus Heaney's Mid Term Break hung over us like a big black cloud. There are, Lisa, but they're less likely to elicit a good essay from you. And so we seem to be stuck uneasily with big themes for little learners. While the summer sun blazes outside, inside our young learners grapple with the darkest emotions.

Except sunny Patrick. You'll be glad to know Patrick completed his formative assessment and it was fine. But, if only for the good of his future writing career, I hope that he has a much better worst day of his life ahead of him.

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