It's relatively common for teachers – especially English teachers – to give a "where I went on my holidays" writing activity to their pupils on their return after the summer break. It's the teachers' equivalent of a warm-up or throat-clearing exercise. It keeps the class preoccupied for a lesson while the teacher thinks of something more educationally interesting, prescriptive or useful.
But this isn’t the best way of engaging with pupils. Such writing tasks, based on a monetary value of what pupils' families can afford, go against the perceived wisdom in regards to equality and social mobility.
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We know for a fact that there is poverty in the UK. This has been documented by various government and independent sources. Children's charities and organisations have highlighted the plight of pupils from disadvantaged backgrounds or whose parents are reliant on social benefits. You only have to look at schools' figures relating to how many pupils have free school meals to get a sense of the economic health of our society.
Poverty and disadvantage
As such, there will be some students in class who would not have gone anywhere for their holidays – not even to Blackpool for a day. In the past, I have taught pupils who – even at the age of 16 – hadn't been to London or any of our coastal resorts (and this in the early decades of the 21st century).
For that reason, giving such a writing task as "where I went on my holidays" could be seen as a bit insensitive. It is bound to make those disadvantaged students self-conscious and uncomfortable, especially when their peers are talking about going on expensive foreign holidays.
So instead, try the following writing tasks which might be more engaging and imaginative as diagnostic exercises:
Ask students: if you could go anywhere in this country or abroad where would you like to go? And why? This kind of open-ended question will allow students to write about places they've been to but, at the same time, invites them to think about places they've only heard or read about or seen in films. It's not directly autobiographical but there are opportunities to make it so, depending on how comfortable the children feel.
The point is that the students are not compelled to say "I didn't go anywhere" or made to feel guilty about making up a holiday they've not had. This kind of title will help them to be less self-conscious about their background.
Such a topic will also encourage students to research places they've only come across in their reading or heard about in conversations. As a result, it's a very effective way of introducing independent study – to build specific/general knowledge relating to their individual interests.
Since our young people are constantly on social media and reading about and/or viewing YouTube stars, why not get them to discuss a celebrity of their choice? Ask them: what advice would you give to someone you have seen on YouTube? Give a description of who they are, what you like or don’t like about them. Remember to remain non-judgemental, there’s nothing more off-putting than a teacher imposing his sense of right/wrong. But the task will enable students to discuss the merits of instant celebrities, their value/worth and/or the importance of their talent. It will also help to clarify the importance we – as a society – attach to fame, money and popularity.
It's important to use every opportunity to get students to think about their world and the challenges modernity imposes on us all. So how about a writing task with a title like: what three things would you change about the world in which we live? Explain how and why you would do this.
Depending on the age of the students, there are plenty of topics to choose from – climate change, pollution, famine, war and conflict, racial/cultural suspicion, sex education, religion, the notion of democracy, power of the media, internet and the dangers of social media...
The point about such tasks is to move away from the immediacy of the family or individual circumstances and shift instead towards the general or the universal. At the same time, it's broadening their mind.
You can use abstract topics such as: if you were a shape/colour/superhero, what/who would you be? Questions like these may appear clichéd but will ignite conversation where students are chatting and exchanging ideas about imaginary ideas/concepts.
Or how about: if you could interview a figure from history, who would that person be? What would you ask them and how might they reply? This kind of question enables the students to be introspective, to think about what they know about the person or that moment in the past. It helps them to make links between history and the present day, to extrapolate strands and make comparisons.
Again, depending on the age of your pupils and/or their ability levels, we should encourage pupils to explore questions, ideas and concepts that are more philosophical. So try giving titles where answers can be debated such as: would you lie to keep friends or tell the truth but lose friends? Titles like these will make students think about scenarios where they might need to grapple with truth or lie.
Or: if you found a wallet with £1,000 in it and were given two options: leave the money where it is and a random person of good character (but worse off than you) could benefit or you spend it but the random person will never be able to improve her standard of living, which option would you choose?
This may lead them to weigh up the value of each option. Such ontological topics probe us to think – they sharpen students' critical-thinking skills. It helps them to develop confidence and become independent learners while at the same time – inadvertently – teaching them about, philanthropy, humanitarianism and altruism.
Whatever you might think of the above suggestions, they certainly beat the uninspiring, what-I-did-on-my-summer-holiday kind of task.
Dr Roshan Doug is a visiting professor, strategist and educational consultant at the University of Birmingham