the Dragonfly journal

Can you help with an ‘immediate’ problem?

By Steve Chapman

Something a bit weird is happening in the classroom this year and I’m wondering if anyone else has come across the same thing…or can shed some light on the root of it?

Author, Cathy Farr, and I have recently started a joint presentation of The WriteKey at a local primary school. (I mention Cathy not only because we are using her book, Moon Chase (Bridge Reader version), in class this year, but also because as a writer she has spotted the same thing and is equally perplexed).

Although Year 6, many of the children in our class are level four (some not even that) readers and writers.  This, as many of you will know, is not a surprise in less advantaged areas of the UK (and I’ve taught in quite a few over the years). What is new though is that almost all of the children, when given a piece of free writing to do are writing in the present tense, and often in the first person, with only an occasional nod to the past tense.  Yes – there are plenty of occasions when the past and present tense can bump into each other in the same paragraph.

Now, the present tense can be a bit a tricky old so and so, apart from being quite difficult to maintain, it makes for quite a hard read; as Phillip Pulman said recently about this style, ‘I feel claustrophobic, always pressed up against the immediate.’

I, like Mr Pulman, am wondering if film, or even You Tube – that shaky camera, ‘we’re here now, this is real’ style of cheap, DIY filming that is the style of the day – are influencing children’s writing?  True, The Hunger Games trilogy by Suzanne Collins and The Maze Runner by James Dashner are written in this genre and even Charlotte Bronte dabbled with it though Jane Eyre; but I suspect that these children, while they may have seen the films, may not be quite up to wading through a lengthy YA novel just yet, let alone an all time classic.

So is it really so passé to write about what happened, what might have happened, what you thought would happen but didn’t, or even what you think is going to happen and are waiting for the outcome?  This filmic style certainly restricts description of events and the explanation for those events, and don’t even get me on to back story!

What we were reading before Cathy and I started working with this in class was often so one-dimensional.  There is also a violence that is rather depressing.  Zombies, Cathy and I have both experienced before in their droves (if that’s the collective word for a group of zombies…a huddle, perhaps, or a lurch?) but the violence today seems relentless or at best random and misplaced, as if its omission would in itself be erroneous.  Here’s an example (verbatim, naturally):

I sneak up on my pray and eat them.

My prey screams my name.

I find a beach and look for juicy meat it is taking a long time to find some food, not knowing where everything is but then there it was it was a group of people I rush up to them but then a strange shadow appeared in the distance.  I don’t know what it is.

I get closer to the mysterious shadowy figure it look like an enemy looking for food as well, he comes up to me and looks at me and a spiteful look “why are you hear you filthy creature” the shark said  “I am here for food”

(Although, I must admit, I do really like the last piece; it has a certain charm due to the ‘Dominant Pronoun’ being revealed in the last paragraph).

What is interesting though is that when we use the narrative framework approach that is the cornerstone of The WriteKey, (i.e. we give them a piece of text from a published novel to use as a template) the children seem to find it easier to shake off their present tense, immediate narration bonds and start actually producing some great creative writing; and yes, there are even hints at back story!! Here’s an example: take a look at the text we gave the children (extract from Moon Chase Bridge Reader by Cathy Farr):

Wil sat on the floor in his cell.  He was cold, tired and hungry.  He was also cross.  He picked up tiny stones from the floor and threw them at the wall.  Why didn’t anyone believe that he had been trying to help Seth?  He thought about the dead bodies – so much blood …. errch!

Just to make sure he really wasn’t dreaming, Wil pinched his arm again.  It still hurt and his fingers left a bright red mark on his skin. He was definitely awake.  

He thought about his mother.  It was late; she would be worried.  Wil began to wish he’d listened to Garth and waited for the others.  

And Ta,da….this is a sample of what they came up with (and I promise, there were lots as good!):

He was sitting in the NISAN GTR still very dizzy after being crashed in the library entrance, he was also quite tired and hungry,  Tom was annoyed about the drunk drivers driving out in the night after coming out from the pub.  He tried to take out his car keys from his pocket, it wasn’t there until he found them lying on the car mat, “Why did the driver have to crash into my car.”

Tom thought about what kind of situation the driver had been through at the pub last night.  He also thought about his car, he would probably have to pay a lot for his car.

So, if any of you are experiencing the same or similar phenomenon, or have a theory about its influencers, we really would like to hear from YOU.