Is your pen sitting comfortably? Write away

1st May 2009 at 01:00

"Ain't got a pen, Miss."

"So what's that?"

A viciously chewed Biro appears. It probably wrote once, but is now too traumatised to remember how.

The fidgety lad in front of me does not want to write. He hates writing, especially by hand. He hates his chewed up pen and just wants to be out in the sunshine playing football. What can I do to help him?

First, give that miserable Biro a dignified exit. Let it retire with the other walking wounded of the school stationery cupboard. Biros that have spent years in schools have a scarred, streetwise look that you find nowhere else. They have two forms of self-defence against being chewed: instant blobbiness and vicious cracking. Instead of being a tasty, rhythmic aid to thought, the Biro becomes a sticky, spiky disruption of it. And writing becomes harder than it needs to be.

With the Biro safely led away, let the lad try out a nice pen. I know - will you ever see it again? Yes, you will. To be trusted with a teacher's pen can come as a shock. In this split second when you have your pupil's attention, tell him something simple but true: it is very important to write with something you enjoy using.

In a few weeks from now, pupils will spend more time writing by hand than they may ever do again. This has been called the keyboard generation. By a strange irony, though, their future success depends on how they write by hand for a short period this summer.

This is why helping them to choose something they like writing with is so important. Pupils write better with a pen they love. They even sit differently. It helps them enjoy the process, rather than just fretting about the product. The product looks better anyway - so their pride increases, and they take a little more care.

Must it be a fountain pen? No - as long as it is smooth, clear and you love it, I don't think it matters what it is. Sir Alan Steer, the behaviour tsar, would not agree with me. He recently suggested that schools adopt a no-Biro policy and that teachers refuse to mark work not written with a fountain pen. Hmm. Parents would love that.

I love fountain pens as much as Sir Alan, but not everyone feels the same. What matters is to write with something smooth so that you can write quickly but clearly. Rather than insisting they use a fountain pen, I let my pupils try one out to see if they like it. Pupils today have a dazzling choice of writing tools - fluffy, spangly, scented, neon - but many of them have never tried a fountain pen.

To them, it's probably a bit like being offered a quill pen - they're amazed that it works. Perhaps that's why they assume fountain pens are expensive and are surprised to learn that my favourite one, a Parker Frontier, cost me Pounds 11. "I like this pen, Miss," said one of my pupils recently. "It's like skating."

Once pupils are busy trying out different fountain pens, non-blobby Biros and rollerballs, they take it quite seriously. They even place them in rank order and vote on black versus blue ink. One pupil wears his beloved pen around his neck like a talisman.

"Miss, d'you like my new pen?" he says.

I do. More importantly, he does.

Catherine Paver, Writer and part-time English teacher.

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