Getting the challenging boys to write

This is the the blog post published on the Scottish Book Trust site Thursday 6th October 2011. Due to a word limit of 500 words on the SBT, here’s the full version.

Over the years one of the main problems we have experienced in education is the huge effort that goes into getting boys to write, especially at secondary level ready for their Standard Grade English. The use of graphic novels, audiobooks and desperate searches for books that will engage the young male in S1/2 means that many English teachers spend a long time trying many things and find some that work and some that don’t.

One that works for ME is blogging. Four years ago as I started my first ‘official’ year as a fully trained teacher, I set up several blogs on blogger.com and used them to get my S2 and S4 challenging boys to write. The S2 class was a mid-level group with some very bright girls but also a small group of five boys who were disengaged and spent most of their time posturing or being disruptive rather than learning. There was also an EAL pupil, a Spanish speaking lad from the very bottom of Chile in Punta Arenas. Mum had married an RAF serviceman stationed in the Falklands where she worked. The grandparents and all his school friends remained in Punta Arenas.

On arrival his language was limited but he was keen to learn and yet wasn’t trying as hard as he could have because he was unsettled and missing his family in Chile. By being allowed and encouraged to blog daily, he left messages in English for his friends in Chile to translate and reply to as well as messages in Spanish for his family. So he learnt English, his friends also learned a bit more English and he was allowed to keep in touch with his family rather than be restricted as many EAL kids are. His work rate, overall language skills and comprehension all improved dramatically over the course of the year. He is currently in S6 sitting Int 2 English three years after arrival. I’m told by my EAL experts that it takes about three years to learn the basics of a language so that you can converse and around seven years to really grasp the nuances and social mores which help the EAL student to fully engage with his peers in his new home. By blogging, retaining a link home to friends, family and his heritage the student became much more confident and his English language levels are at least a year ahead of where he would normally be.

In the same class there was a group of five boys (which shrank to four when one moved to Ireland) who were wholly disengaged and unwilling to write at great length or with descriptive sentences. After chatting to them about hobbies and their favourite things we decided to set up a blog which would deal exclusively with Rangers and Manchester United football match reports. These lads were given a clear set of guidelines to follow with the sanction of the blog being deleted if they did not follow the safety rules and show manners and etiquette. Once we agreed these rules they were given the usernames and passwords and given free rein to report twice a week on the weekend match or the mid-week one in turn. Initially they worked in pairs then individually as the competition became more intense about the length and quality of their reports!

Allowing these lads to blog rather than write long pieces in class meant they were engaged, and learned just as much about grammar, punctuation and HOW to write (and with their own styles). One lad was particularly challenging and disruptive, but he has settled down now in S5 and doing very well (Credit level at SG, Grade A/B estimate at Int 2 with Higher next year). The others left with better Standard Grades than expected and one has recently come BACK to school, having left for employment. Obviously I can’t claim that blogging helped them achieve this; albeit I was their teacher for S3/4 as well 😎 IT DOES however, in MY experience, settle most boys down into a disciplined routine of daily or weekly blogging which they have to plan, draft and then edit/publish knowing that I and other members of their class would be reading what they wrote afterwards. I also used it as an incentive – get the other writing work done that the rest of the class were doing and THEN they were allowed to disappear to the PC.

Why did it work? By giving THEM ownership – it’s theirs not yours. The football group loved adding widgets, images and videos as well as audio match reports from radio stations. When one left the blog turned into a purely Rangers one and was seen by several people outside the school (I’d alerted them without telling the lads) which encouraged them in their efforts. The thought that Rangers fans from all over the world might be reading their blog and leaving kind comments really enthused the group and spurred them on. In the case of my EAL student, his blog was commented on by people he didn’t know from Punta Arenas and a teacher from his old school very kind sent a message of encouragement in Spanish and English to him.

Blogging opens up students’ efforts to a wider audience. Obviously as the teacher, you retain overall super editor powers and can intercept any cruel or nasty comments and also quickly take down a post if it doesn’t come up to standard and get them to correct it next day.

Since the initial scheme four years ago I have continued to encourage my students to blog; more so with the recommendation to blog that is part of the instructions for the new Higher English writing folios. I had S6 girls last year writing blog posts thousands of words long at times as they wrote a full-blooded novel and honed their writing skills and style.

Blogging not only helps creative writing it can enable students to perfect their formal writing skills too by writing factual reports or discursive pieces; all of which helps when they do their UCAS personal statements as they try to make universities pick them out from the chaff.

I strongly recommend you give it a go. There are hundreds of teachers out there doing this with their students – join us! You won’t regret it!

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