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How children experience creative writing in the classroom

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The structure of a child’s writing experience stems from the affect, embodiment and materiality of their immediate engagement with activities in the classroom. When a child’s movements and emotions are restricted, so too is their writing. This engagement shapes the experiential landscape of classroom writing, and the way that children perceive, value and feel about writing affects their motivation which predicts their writing attainment. This paper reveals the structure of children’s consciousness while expressing ideas through creative writing. It does so by presenting an Interpretative Phenomenological Analysis of the writing experience in the classroom. In the study, eight Year 6 (11-12 years old) children from a school in Perth, Australia were interviewed and qualitative data were analysed to interpret the essential components of the writing experience. The results produced three main themes (sub-themes noted in brackets): The Writing World (Watching, Ideas from Elsewhere, Flowing); The Self (Concealing & Revealing, Agency, Adequacy); and Schooled Writing (Standards, Satisfying Task Requirements, Rules of Good Writing). The themes indicate a binary experience of writing where the child’s consciousness shifts between their imagination (The Writing World) and the task before them (Schooled Writing), and each affects the way the experience of the self appears to the writer. When comparing the experience with that of authors, one notices that the experience of words as authorial tools is missing. The results imply that the writing environment, and the individual’s response to it, may restrict the engagement and the phenomenality of writing.
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How children experience creative writing in the classroom
Healey, B. (2019). How children experience creative writing in the classroom. Australian
Journal of Language and Literacy, 42(3), 184-194.
Brett Healey
Curtin University
Abstract
The structure of a child’s writing experience stems from the affect, embodiment and
materiality of their immediate engagement with activities in the classroom. When a child’s
movements and emotions are restricted, so too is their writing. This engagement shapes the
experiential landscape of classroom writing, and the way that children perceive, value and
feel about writing affects their motivation which predicts their writing attainment. This
paper reveals the structure of children’s consciousness while expressing ideas through
creative writing. It does so by presenting an Interpretative Phenomenological Analysis of
the writing experience in the classroom. In the study, eight Year 6 (11-12 years old) children
from a school in Perth, Australia were interviewed and qualitative data were analysed to
interpret the essential components of the writing experience. The results produced three
main themes (sub-themes noted in brackets): The Writing World (Watching, Ideas from
Elsewhere, Flowing); The Self (Concealing & Revealing, Agency, Adequacy); and Schooled
Writing (Standards, Satisfying Task Requirements, Rules of Good Writing). The themes
indicate a binary experience of writing where the child’s consciousness shifts between their
imagination (The Writing World) and the task before them (Schooled Writing), and each
affects the way the experience of the self appears to the writer. When comparing the
experience with that of authors, one notices that the experience of words as authorial tools is
missing. The results imply that the writing environment, and the individual’s response to it,
may restrict the engagement and the phenomenality of writing.
Introduction
In Australia, the way children experience writing is shaped by their response to the
classroom writing culture. The following true anecdote of a Year 6 child’s typical writing
experience illustrates this:
When he began to write, images flowed in front of him, one after the other. Then he heard his teacher’s
voice reminding him to use similes. The images were replaced by the classroom walls, his desk and his
paper. He looked at his four lines of simile-free writing and knew he had to try something else so that
he could write like a Year 6 should.
This type of experience is unobservable to teachers externally (Healey & Merga, 2017) and
extant theorising suggests there is cause for concern about how children experience writing.
For example, many children experience negative emotions while writing (Zumbrunn,
Ekholm, Stringer, Mcknight, & DeBusk-Lane, 2017), have deeply entrenched identities as
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poor writers (Gardner, 2013), and possess unsophisticated knowledge about the writing
process (Gillespie, Olinghouse, & Graham, 2013). Indeed, theorists have been concerned
about children’s attitudes towards writing, with studies suggesting that children comply
with writing as a school activity without developing their own writer identities (Grainger,
Goouch, & Lambirth, 2005). These attitudes may stem from the fact that classrooms are often
places where children “may be engaged in performing a schooled version of artificial
writing, which has little connection to the real world in which they live” (Cremin & Myhill,
2012, p. 80). In this paper, I draw upon poststructuralist orientations to understand the lived
reality of classroom writing examining the experience from the standpoint of affect,
embodiment and materiality.
Affect in writing
Writing happens as an immediate felt experience. The writer does not reflect and form
judgements to perceive the moment of writing; instead, the complexity of the lived world in
the moment is directly perceived. Ehret & Hollett (2014) describe this directness of
perception as cognition passing through the writing body (the writing hand for instance)
making rational reflection inseparable from the “bare-active firstness of experience”
(Massumi, 2011, p. 11). Affect, then, rises in intensity with the movement of the body. In the
classroom, affective intensities appear to the writer as a result of the writing medium, the
classroom space and past histories, among others factors, that form assemblages of new
experiential objects (Leander & Boldt, 2012). The writer in the act of writing thus perceives
these new experiences as they build “relations among previously unconnected elements”
(Leander & Boldt, 2012, p. 36).
This brings into question the way in which writing is taught as a set of positive regulated
emotions (e.g. joy and enthusiasm) compared to emotion as a mediated action (Boldt, Lewis,
& Leander, 2015). Emotions that arise due to the presence of object assemblages mediate
emotions, and teachers cannot regulate these. Emotions are “actively in motion” (Boldt, et
al., 2015, p. 434), changing in response to the experiential landscape. Indeed, this landscape
is differently textured with each experiential object rising to and falling from the writer’s
attention at different moments (Manning & Massumi, 2014). Each idea expressed through
words brings with it thought and feeling, yet these feelings are mediated by the moment in
which these words are expressed, for a child in the act of writing is involved inthe ongoing
realisation of potentialities, many of which may never have been consciously apparent
beforehand” (Burnett & Merchant, in press, p. 7).
Embodiment and materiality in writing
The affective experience is interwoven with the body and the materials the body interacts
with and this necessitates movement. For Manning & Massumi (2014), perceiving converges
with movement, and we think through movement. In this view, a writer does not make
decisions about how to sit, type or scribe and then enact these movements. Rather, their
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movements are organic features of thought itself. For example, a child’s body restricted to a
chair with their hand restricted to a pencil in turn restricts their engagement of the semiotic
resources that comprise the stories they wish to create (Ehret & Hollett, 2014). Enriquez
(2014) draws upon performativity theory to suggest that over time, these daily movements or
performances of writing “become perceived as expected, “natural,” “normal,” and thereby
invisible” (p. 106).
Leander & Boldt (2012) suggest that children’s bodies instead live through these literacy
events in unpremeditated motion. They posit that the body is always an assemblage, such as
the body and words, the body and ideas, or the body and the pencil (Leander & Boldt, 2012).
Indeed, with the inclusion of technological devices in the writing process, the possible body
movements and assemblages with the devise and relational movements within the virtuality
of the deice afford a kind of writing semiosis of which teachers may yet be aware (Ehret &
Hollett, 2014).
It is clear, then, that a theoretical conception of embodiment is inseparable from the materials
with which the body interacts. These materials affect and are affected by the writer, giving
them experiential agency (Thrift, 2010). For example, a piece of writing paper become a
thing – it acquires “thingness” – when it is blank (Brown, 2001), reminding the writer that it
needs to be written on, thus urging the writing hand in a sort of inert assemblage. Yet once
writing commences, the paper assembles with the hand, words and writing ideas with each
of these objects coming and going from the assemblage, leading to the entanglement of
things and affect (Burnett & Merchant, 2018). This changing experience highlights the
textured nature of writing in the classroom as “consciousness flickers with the tension
between background environmental awareness and foregrounded cognition” (Manning &
Massumi, 2014, p. 15). Here, the foregrounded cognition happens in the moments when the
writer becomes cognisant of objects, such as the writing pen, as a tool rather than thinking
through the pen in an act of writing flow (Manning & Massumi, 2014; Boldt, et al. 2015).
This affect-embodiment-materiality perspective of writing research positions the present
study in light of the interconnectedness of objects within the writer’s experience. It draws
“attention to the multiplicity of ways in which the material and immaterial are caught up
with one another as well as the interwoven stories, discourses, values, and memories that
pattern individuals’ understanding of production of texts” (Burnett, Merchant, Pahl, &
Roswell, 2014, p. 101). The present study thus accepts the totality of the experience as the
individual makes sense of it, the assemblages of experiential objects which texture the act of
writing. How, then, do we research such an ephemerality of writing?
Towards a phenomenology of children’s writing
While studies have examined children’s writing experiences through particular theoretical
lenses, none have yet described the experience in the way children make sense of it. In
response, I offer an interpretative phenomenological analysis of the expression of written
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ideas through creative writing. Phenomenological approaches have been used to detail the
writing experiences of adult authors, highlighting rich writing lives filled with emotional
connection, the value of words, interpersonal relationships, and a sense of self-worth
(Collins, 2003; Fine, 2015; Harrell, 2006; Wilson, 2009). Given authors’ choice of profession
contrasted with children’s classroom compelled writing, it cannot be assumed that children
experience writing in the same meaningful and authentic ways. Therefore, the structure of
writing experience is of particular interest given the classroom context from a child’s
perspective.
The study presented in this article examines what the writing experience is like for
children. To do so, I answer the research question: How do Year 6 children experience and make
sense the act of expressing ideas through creative writing in the classroom? Creative writing here
refers to the narrative genre. The question’s purpose is to map the structure of children’s
writing consciousness (i.e. reveal the essence of the experience). Creating a complete view
requires a description of what the experience is like and then a further interpretation of the
details of these descriptions (van Manen, 1997). In this article, I attempt to show how the
structure of children’s creative writing experiences reveals a tension between school-based
and personal concerns about writing. To begin, I establish the theoretical perspective of
phenomenology applied to the present research. Then, I articulate the details of the
phenomenological study of children’s writing experiences undertaken with eight Year 6
children (aged 11-12) as part of a graduate research project. The results are presented
followed by a discussion which interprets the findings. I elaborate on the overall meaning of
the findings with a model of the phenomenology of writing, illustrating an experiential
tension. I posit the missing experiential object and how this may contrast with that of adult
authors. The article ends with a conclusion describing pedagogical implications.
Phenomenological framework
Phenomenology is the study of lived experience. This qualitative methodology is adopted
to reveal what writing is like through the eyes of children. The theoretical lenses of
psychology and sociology are withheld until the analysis is complete. Specifically, this study
borrows from the Heideggerian tradition of phenomenological interpretation which claims
that all acts of experiencing are acts of interpreting one’s lifeworld (Heidegger, 1962). It
assumes that such acts - for instance: perceiving, thinking, feeling – are directed towards an
object of experience, a process known as intentionality. During the act of writing, the
experience may include such objects as the mental representation of words, imaginings of
characters, or the grip of the pencil. The writer makes sense of these objects through the act
of interpretation, and so this interpretive view distinguishes objects of experience from their
meaningfulness, or phenomenality (van Manen, 2014). Therefore, this study focuses on the
ontology of writing, or how writing shows itself to the writer and understanding the meaning
of such an experience requires a secondary interpretation – known as the double
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hermeneuticwhere the researcher attempts to make meaning from the subject’s
meaning. In this sense, Heidegger’s concept of language as the house of being best describes the
way in which the ontology, or meaning of experience, exists beneath what the subject says,
requiring interpretation to understand it (Heidegger, 2012).
Method
This study employs an Interpretative Phenomenological Analysis (IPA) method to explore
the structure of children’s writing experience. IPA explores “how participants are making
sense of their personal and social world, and the main currency for an IPA study is the
meanings particular experiences, events, states hold for participants.” (Smith & Osborn,
2008, p. 53). Thus, IPA treats participants as experts of their own experiences, situating this
research within a critical constructivist paradigm (Goodman, 2008). IPA acknowledges that
people, especially children, find it difficult to express their inner world; therefore, the
interpretative component attempts to bridge this gap between experience and
understanding. To interpret the individual’s experience, I acknowledge and apply my prior
understanding of the writing process as an adult and child writer, along with my experience
of classrooms and students as a primary school teacher (van Manen, 2014).
Participant selection & context
Participants were selected from a co-educational private Anglican school in the metropolitan
area of Perth, Australia. The school has an Index of Community Socio-Educational
Advantage score slightly above the national average with 32% of all students coming from a
language background other than English. The school follows the Western Australian
Curriculum for all subject areas, and the grade level teachers create the English teaching
programme according to the curriculum documents.
Eight Year 6 (11-12 years old) children (four girls and four boys) from one school were
chosen for the study. This number is reasonable for an IPA study, as it allows for similarities
to be compared between individuals, while not allowing the data to become overwhelming
(Pietkiewicz & Smith, 2012; Turpin et al., 1997). The participants were chosen for their
shared experience in classroom writing, having already lived through enough primary
grades for them to have acquired a strong sense of what writing in school is like. Classroom
teachers assisted with the identification of native English speaking, able writers. All children
who fitted these criteria were sent consent letters to participate voluntarily in the study, and
eight participants were selected randomly from this sample. While Smith and Osborn (2008)
suggest that IPA samples consist of similar participants, ethical reasons surrounding children
restricted the degree to which the sample could be homogenised beyond their shared school
and grade level. The participants were provided with the following random pseudonyms:
Kathleen, David, Anne, Joe, Marie, Henry, Rose, and Philip.
I met the eight participants in a room connecting the Year 6 classrooms (a room familiar to
the children). This initial meeting was intended to make the children comfortable with the
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research topic and the interview process by providing the necessary details. It was also
intended to establish an early rapport between the participants and me. I drew upon my
experience as a classroom teacher to get to know the children. To do so, I shared information
about myself (such as hobbies) and the children did the same. This discussion then focused
on writing where we discussed what we liked and did not like to write about.
Interview process
IPA studies require flexibility in the data collection method, so researchers can “analyse in
detail how participants perceive and make sense of things which are happening to them”
(Smith & Osborn, 2008, p. 57). Such flexibility was achieved through semi-structured dyadic
interviews, comprising mostly dialogue between the interviewer and the participants along
with written lived experience descriptions and drawings designed to elicit conversation. The
structure of the interviews allowed me to establish rapport with children, reorder questions
to suit the interview flow, and probe areas of interest that arose (Smith & Osborn, 2008). The
interviews took place in the same private space where the students first me.
The interviews took place over three weeks during which the participants were writing
poetry as part of their writing focus. Prior to this, they had completed a narrative writing
unit. The focus of the interviews centred on the experience of writing narratives. During
their narrative unit, the students were often provided creative prompts which they were
required to address. One such prompt – an assessment piece – was the word “Trapped!”.
Students were required to plan their ideas, and then write a story about being trapped.
I interviewed each participant three times for 30 minutes each. This three-stage interview
process borrows from Seidman’s (2006) method of phenomenological interviewing. In the
first interview, I asked questions to explore participants’ life history with writing,
establishing background and context; for example: “Tell me about some of your
favourite/least favourite pieces of writing.” In the second interview, I asked questions that
elicited a recount and reconstruction of a specific writing experience based on a narrative
that the child brought along; for example: “How did you write this story? What was it like?”
In the third interview, I asked questions that elicited a reflection on the meaning of the
experience; for example: “What is it like to write a story in the classroom?”. Each interview
built upon understanding gleaned from the previous to probe deeper into the structure of
consciousness, and as such the majority of questions asked arose in response to the
participant. Thus, the phenomenon of writing was contextualised, apprehended and then
clarified (Bevan, 2014) as a form of phenomenological reduction. I transcribed all interviews
before the next to work closely with the data to tailor subsequent interviews.
Analysis
Analysis of the results generated themes drawn from the data rather than organising data
based on prior categories (Dickson, Allan, & O'Carroll, 2008). The process followed Smith,
Flowers and Larkin’s (2010) IPA model. First, the individual case’s transcripts were read to
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glean a sense of the whole; second, notable quotes were highlighted based on free
associations and descriptive, linguistic and conceptual comments were made; third,
emergent themes were developed within the case, along with sub-themes (these three stages
were repeated for all cases); finally, connections across cases were made based on emergent
themes. The analysis focused on the participants’ reflections of their experience which was
the focus of the third interview. However, reflective statements were offered during the first
two interviews.
My interpretations drew upon my experience of writing, both as an adult and child writer,
assuming the role of both participant and observer (Bogdan & Biklen, 2003). I adopted this
position as a way to negotiate the meaning of the experiences of the participants. Such a
position adheres to Heidegger’s notion of being-in-the-world: the co-constitution of the
person and the world, where the individual makes sense of the world while existing in it
(Glesne, 2011).
Results
While each participant's data produced themes unique to their own experience, the cross-
case analysis generated three broad themes apparent to all. These themes and their
associated sub-themes are outlined in Table 1. Each sub-theme is described followed by
examples from the data illustrating the description.
<INSERT TABLE 1 HERE>
The writing world
All participants described the experience of being someplace else while writing, a mental
space of ideas seemingly separated from the physical space of the classroom. In this writing
world, the children experienced a sense of watching events playing out in their mind,
receiving ideas that come from elsewhere, flowing with the ideas, and writing words as they
appear.
Watching
Writing words opens the writer to a spatial and temporal experience of the imagination
afforded by the consciousness of idea expression (van Manen & Adams, 2009). Most of the
participants spoke about writing as though their mind was focused on this inner world that
they would watch, an assemblage of the writing objects and the imagination. Although
participants were aware of their physical surrounds, they experience this watching as though
going to a different place. While watching their ideas, participants did not think about
lesson objectives because their attention was centred on their imagination. Doing so was
experienced as a sense of escapism from the classroom reality. This escape was seen as a
passive act of relinquishing control of thought to the ideas of the imagination where images
seem to “play out”. For some, this playing out of the images can be controlled to some
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extent, as though rewound and watched in multiple iterations until the idea seems
appropriate to be written. Then, when the mental images no longer appear, the writing
world fades and the reality of the classroom reappears.
I feel like I’m in that place. Another world, another zone thing. So, I get into that place
where I’m writing. I take my characters to this place, this large meadow or something. When I
come back I’m like, where’s the meadow gone?” (Kathleen)
“Instead of looking at a classroom, I would be in the woods with the wolf, but I wouldn’t know
what the wolf is doing. My head is creating that and like not me.” (Philip)
It’s like an escape from your everyday thinking… And your everyday situations.” (Rose)
“It just started rolling like a movie in my head.” (Henry)
Ideas from elsewhere
All participants experienced the appearance of fully formed ideas in their mind without
consciously constructing them. Instead, the ideas “just appear”. Early in the writing
process, these ideas appear as seeds that sprout more ideas and they come as a relief from
the anxiety of waiting for inspiration. Many participants referred to similar metaphors to
describe this experience. Many participants mentioned that once writing begins, ideas “pop”
into their mind, as though they come from someplace other than the participants’
consciousness. It was evident that ideas came according to the writing problem, such as
character names appearing based on character traits. For some of the participants, the
coming of ideas was experienced as fleeting, as mental entities that needed to be caught and
written before they fade from consciousness. Some confront their ideas and grapple with
their meaning as they come in, while others relinquish control and write whichever ideas
appear to them. All participants experienced writing as some form of engagement with
ideas that come from elsewhere rather than an expression of words.
“They come out of the blue [...] one seed of a plant or one apple on a tree or whatever you
wanna call it.” (Rose)
“How am I gonna start it? What’s it gonna be about? (Snaps fingers). Then I get the idea
and it just happens.” (Kathleen)
“Ideas just come to me.” (Anne)
“Another idea constantly pops in my mind.” (Philip)
“The ideas pop in and out like a slideshow.” (Marie)
Flowing
Writing non-stop induces a flow experience where the texture of the experience is movement
itself (Manning & Massumi, 2014): movement of the pen, hand, words and ideas. All
participants described experiencing a sense of flowing while they write. This was
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consistently described as an intuitive process where ideas flow onto other ideas, into words,
and through the writing hand. Generating and expressing such ideas appeared to possess a
sort of inertia; writing begins slowly and progressively speeds up, often making it hard for
these participants to stop. Many participants felt as though the ideas come to them at the
same rate that they write them down. The connection of ideas-in-flow also appeared to
create connections between the ideas and the writing hand with some participants describing
an embodied flowing of their writing through their pencil. Rose’s ideas “rolled off the pen”
and Kathleen’s ideas commence with “a movement of the hand” rather than forming in their
minds separate from their bodies and materials, indicating that their consciousness was “in”
the pen and hand (Manning & Massumi, 2014). These participants described writing by
hand as a more natural or fluid experience than typing which was experienced in mechanical
terms. Some participants experienced flowing as though they themselves were flowing
along with the ideas, while others distanced themselves, seeing the flow of ideas in front of
them. Regardless, the flowing experience of creative forms of writing was essential to the
writing world experience due to its affordance of intuition and freedom from reflective
thought.
“Where the ideas just flow through your brain and onto your page. That would be how I think
my writing experiences are.” (Joe)
“I find that ideas come as I write them down. Like I’ll start writing a sentence and then an
idea will come for the rest of the sentence.” (Kathleen)
“It just starts rolling, from idea to idea.” (Henry)
Once I’ve got all these ideas to choose from, it kinda rolls off the pen. You feel where the
pencil is going.” (Rose)
“Everything happens in front of me. So then it like flows into words like water.” (Philip)
The self
In psychological terms, the self refers to feelings the writer experiences about who they are
as a writer. The participants experienced these feelings as a sense of writer agency and
adequacy, and they often felt as though they needed to conceal or reveal parts of themselves.
The majority of experience statements were tied, in some way, to such feelings.
Concealing & Revealing
The participants were aware of their social worlds, and creative writing meant they could
create social identities (Gardner, 2014). Participants tended to integrate their interests in
their writing and see it as a way of connecting with readers, but also withholding
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information about themselves. Their growing maturity as writers meant they were cognisant
of the social expectations of writing. For some, such as David, this meant proving
themselves, and for others, such as Philip and Joe, it meant a feeling of engaging with the
world. Often, writing afforded the experience of creating an imagined or desired self,
allowing the writers to be “agentic designers of their social futures” (Leander & Boldt, 2012,
p. 28). For example, Anne created a story that was like a “wish list” of her family becoming
wealthy. At all times, participants experienced a sense of negotiating how much of
themselves they pour into their writing and how much they withhold. This negotiation was
articulated by Philip as “giving hints” about himself, and by Henry as giving a “challenge”
to others to “find out” who the writer is. Therefore, this theme involved the most conscious
mental work on the part of the participant.
“Writing is a form of expressing yourself but not telling the whole world of who you are […]
like it’s a challenge for the reader to find out like who’s written this and, who are they, and
how they come up with these ideas.” (Henry)
“Like it could give hints about yourself, so people could get to know you better.” (Philip)
“I felt like this was a wish list and I just dreamed of it and it just came true once I
put it on my journal. And I felt like I wanted to write more, but when I thought
it wasn’t gonna come true anymore, it just popped in my head that it wouldn’t
come in anymore.” (Anne)
Adequacy
The experience of adequacy reflects the writer’s self-efficacy: the confidence one has in their
ability to succeed (Bandura, 2006). Participants described their ongoing thoughts and
feelings about whether they, as writers, were good enough. These feelings manifested in the
sense of parental disappointment, poor grading, and disappointment in oneself. Most
participants said they regularly compare themselves to their peers, noting how much faster
others write which distracts them from their own writing. Rose described this as being “too
busy worrying about everyone else” to concentrate on her own ideas. Other distractions to
the writing process include what some participants described as voices inside their heads
telling them they are not good enough while they try to express their writing ideas.
“At home, when I’m just writing there, it’s just so much more comfortable
because when I’m at school I’m just so tense and stressful, and I’m always afraid
that I’m gonna fail and my parents will be disappointed. So that’s why I get so
many mental blanks at school, because I always get stressed that my grades would
be so bad. However, when I’m at home I’m fine and I wish I could do that for
school, just forget about the grades and just write for the pure, like, fun of
writing.” (Joe)
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“So it’s [ideas] in my brain, it wants to come, but it just doesn’t appear; it’s like a
stage: the others [peers] are shining with the light and then the words is just fading
from… to the back stage or to somewhere else or to the dumpster or to the ocean
who goes far.” (Marie)
Agency
The creative writing experience is one of agency, otherwise known as a ‘literacy of the
person’ (Gardner, 2018). Participants frequently spoke about the creative writing
experience regarding freedom, control and ownership, and how these tend to contrast the
restriction of other forms of writing. Specifically, agency appears as the freedom to create
worlds, the control of ideas and the feeling that a piece of writing belongs to the writer. It is
a momentary escape from the usual experience of prescribed writing as the child
temporarily forgets the “task”, instead replacing it with choice. In this sense, the “task”
begs for compliance in which agency cannot exist, and so by escaping into the flow of the
writing, the student becomes an agent who acts upon the imaginary world, rather than
letting themselves be acted upon by the task. For instance, some participants spoke about
feeling as though restraints were removed, finally having the voice to express themselves.
As such, many participants saw creative writing as purposeful, even if they created the
purpose themselves. Interestingly, their freedom to create also meant freedom from words.
Needing to think about how words craft ideas is an experience of restriction, but the agency
experience means that the writer can focus on their imagination within their writing world.
“To choose what your character does and to choose what they say, it’s a bit like
having control over everything. I'm in that place, so I have control over that place,
so it kind of feels powerful.” (Kathleen)
“I prefer doing that [creative writing] more because I don’t have to use much time trying to
make the words shorter or change words for other ones. I just like sticking with the original
words.” (David)
“You don’t have to usually abide by the rules and you can just like make some weird things
up.” (Henry)
“I like to use my own ideas and I don’t like to get help from the teacher or anything, because I
don’t really feel like it’s my work anymore.” (Joe)
Schooled writing
The theme of schooled writing describes the meanings that participants attribute to writing
in school as opposed to other contexts such as writing stories at home, or mobile texting to
friends. It is comprised of the awareness of standards, requirements and writing rules.
Standards
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All but one participant spoke about the experience of striving to achieve a standard seen as
imposed by an external source such as the school or school system. Participants saw their
writing product as central to their writing experience because it is the thing that gets graded.
In this sense, schooled writing means working towards a writing product for the sake of
school, following models for what is expected, and thus requiring less intrinsic motivation
than writing without standards. Joe described this experience as “putting away good ideas”
because they do not align with what he sees as a high grade. Likewise, Rose and Marie
described their ongoing orientation towards Year 6 standards, although they were not aware
of what they were exactly. Rather, their experience of standards represented a general
feeling of their writing being on par with their classmates’ and having their writing
recognised as passable for Year 6. These feelings tended to result in participants searching
for what they perceived as interesting adjectives and similes.
“The piece is the most important; that’s the thing that’s gonna get marked.” (David)
“I just need to put away the sometimes good ideas. They’re not up to what I need.
And so I just put those away. And then I think of … what would give me say a B
or an A.” (Joe)
“That sentence was kinda tough, cos, like, I needed to kinda like get the Year 6 standards, cos
this was near the beginning of the year.” (Marie)
“I compare myself to other Year 6s. Like, I’ll be hard on myself if it’s not up to that standard of
what they’ve done.” (Rose)
Satisfying requirements
In the classroom, children tend to understand writing as a task with some requirements to
satisfy according to their teacher’s instruction. Participants frequently spoke about the
experience of setting aside writing ideas to complete activities satisfactorily. Many of these
participants felt as though they were restricted but accept this as the reality of writing in
school. Whereas, the free nature of their home writing experiences were described in
contrast to the need to follow language and text structure features of genres taught in school.
The acceptance of these restrictions stemmed from the acceptance of the perceived power
that teachers hold over a writing task as non-negotiable. However, each participant oriented
themselves differently to such requirements. Anne saw them as an enabling, as though
requirements guide her. Joe, Marie, David and Henry saw them as constraining their ability.
Rose and Kathleen saw them merely as suggestions to follow.
“I sometimes think, what’s the answer?” (Anne)
I don’t really understand it. I sort of just do it cos I think that’s what other people want.”
(David)
“I find it a lot harder and more repetitive to write these sorts of things [prescribed writing
frames], so like, I don’t really feel like I can add my own words, I feel like I have to do it to the
13
letter.” (Kathleen)
“My mind is just, it’s stuck inside, like a perfect writing thing, it’s like all those
sections where all my thoughts have been like… have to be caged up and stuff.
While all my formal stuff has to come out.” (Joe)
The rules of good writing
The third object of the schooled writing experience is the knowledge of writing rules that
exist outside of requirements imposed by teachers and standards imposed by the school.
This experience comprises what the participants referred to as the formality and grammatical
correctness of writing. This consciousness of good writing tends to occur only at school, as
participants often talked about the way they break these rules when writing in leisurely
contexts. While this school situatedness triggers the experience, the rules themselves are not
necessarily attributed to satisfying school demands but are instead internalised as “the right
way to write”. Each participant experienced this right way uniquely, with the more
confident writers tending to possess a more sophisticated awareness of the rules than less
confident writers. For example, Rose, a confident writer, experienced a sense of general
writing coherence, while Anne, a less confident writer, experienced the need to use correct
punctuation.
“I feel that in class, I do formal [writing].” (Henry)
“I write as if the Prime Minister was to read it.” (Joe)
“When we’re writing formal things, I can’t let my brain fly, which would mean I can’t let it
do whatever it wants, and… I guess a piece of writing has to be likethat has strict rules.”
(Philip)
“I get a feeling it’s wrong […] It just doesn’t make sense cos I don’t put the full stops in
(Anne)
Discussion
The writing world
The opening of the phenomenological writing space affords these participants a sense of
control negotiation over ideas. Some participants (Kathleen, Anne, Joe, and David)
relinquish control, letting ideas appear to them passively, while others (Henry, Marie, Rose,
and Philip) actively examine their mental images. In both instances, the writing act creates
an experience of dwelling momentarily in a reality that more closely resembles that of the
idea being written than the classroom surroundings. By writing their ideas, they take
14
themselves into a new spatial and temporal experience of “a world evoked by words” (van
Manen & Adams, 2009). This is a world of flow where “ideas may emerge, whole sentences
seem to write themselves as they move through our hands and fingers” (Merchant, 2017, p.
148). The flow experience is essential to this world creation.
This is why participants’ experiences appeared highly intuitive. Any semblance of written
words occurred when their consciousness was pulled away from their writing world, often
due to schooled writing demands or concerns of the self. To dwell in the writing world and
also to be conscious of words would require greater cognitive effort, one of which being the
ability to monitor the writing process – knowing when to switch between planning, drafting
and revising (Flower & Hayes, 1980; Kellogg, 1994). Such reflexivity of thought means
children need to manage the resolution of the rhetorical problem of language and the content
problem of ideas, a skill - known as knowledge transformation - which typically develops in
early adolescence (Bereiter & Scardamalia, 1987).
The self
The act of engaging with ideas and expressing them as words is an emotional one (Brilliant,
2005). The participants’ emotions and conceptions of themselves as writers tended to shift
between positive ones associated with agency found in the writing world, and negative ones
associated with inadequacy found in the schooled writing experience (see Figure 1). As a
result of these fluctuating feelings, the child negotiates how much of themselves they reveal
or conceal through their writing. Indeed, a child’s past experiences of writing in school may
contribute to their writing emotions, as their self-efficacy frames their views of themselves as
writers (Bandura, 2006).
As children develop through pre- and early-adolescence, they continue to become more
aware of their social worlds and their position within them. Writing affords them the
opportunity to explore and create new social narratives (Gardner 2014) as they draw upon
social-semiotic resources for expression (Halliday, 1978) rather than decontextualised school-
based resources such as writing topics and checklists. This tension of social and school
resources for meaning making may be the cause of the conflict these children experience
between their writing world and schooled writing, with the latter stultifying their writing
engagement (Cremin & Myhill 2012). When children are allowed to draw upon their own
semiotic resources, writing becomes an agentic experience. However, the data from the
present research suggest that this agency occurs only in the escapism of the writing world
rather than in broader contexts. Therefore, it is necessary to seek a rapprochement between
incongruent experiences for the child writer to find a balance of the self.
Schooled writing
15
The schooled writing experience spans the levels of the task, the writing and the self. At the
level of the task, children experience satisfying requirements specific to the present activity
and dictated by the teacher. At the level of writing, children experience non-negotiable rules
that generally govern what makes writing correct and formal. At the level of the self,
children experience the sense of standards that exist as an internal reminder of writing
quality. Together, these objects of experience shape the schooled identity of children as
writers. Coupled with the low power children possess in the classroom relative to the
teacher’s, their writing identity becomes fixed within the walls of the classroom, where the
writing world acts as a momentary escape. These interacting levels invite the writer to
comply with schooled performances repeated each time writing commences and affording
them certain writer identities that “regulate their possibilities for interacting with texts
[writing]” (Enriquez, 2014, p. 107).
A complete view of the writing experience
<INSERT FIGURE 1 HERE>
Figure 1, adapted from Healey (2018), illustrates the writing experience as a whole. The
writing world and schooled writing experiences appear to children independently. The self
experience appears during both, manifested as either agency or adequacy, with concealing
and revealing occurring during the reflective moments between the two. The distance
between the schooled and the writing world suggest an affective tension. Since emotion
cannot be regulated by teachers, schooled writing feelings are mediated by the task-ness
semiotic of the activity while the writing world is mediated by the agentive social semiotic of
the activity. This duel lived experience between schooled writing and the writing world
restricts the experience of words as writing tools. Studies of adult authors (Collins, 2003;
Fine, 2015; Harrell, 2006; Wilson, 2009) show that writers experience a close relationship with
words, as though the words themselves form the texture of experience. However, the words
experience is missing from the present study, for most participants stated that they either
don’t think about them or that words come automatically from ideas. In the writing world,
children write intuitively, engaging only with the ideas and images in their mind. Here,
words are assembled with the ideas (“words are the ideas”). In the schooled writing
experience, children have little ownership of the words because words are seen as things to
satisfy standards, rules and requirements. Words are embodied as an assemblage of
schooled objects (the desk, the fixed seating, the grades), making it difficult for attention to
flicker to the ephemerality of words while other schooled objects engage in the “dance of
attention” (Manning & Massumi, 2014).
Some participants drew pictures to help explain their experience. Joe drew himself being fed
by ideas on a conveyor belt, representing the largest space on the page and the greatest
importance (Figure 2). This space features ideas that are “not useful ones” for school.
Mediating these ideas is his “standard” for school which delineates the useful from non-
useful ideas, and his life experience and readers (people) contributes to the initial pool of
16
ideas. After I asked him “where do words fit?” Joe added the “words” portion extending
from the standards that “transform” his ideas.
<INSERT FIGURE 2 HERE>
Conclusion
The phenomenological view of children’s writing presented in this study reveals an ongoing
tug-of-war of experience, modelled in the opening anecdote of this paper. This experience is
shaped by primary school writing lives pitting writing for school against the imagination. If
children are to grow as writers in an authentic sense, then there needs to be a truce in the
tug-of-war conflict, where the experience harmonises the classroom as a workshop to learn
how to craft writing with the imagination from which inspiration arises.
Teachers can play a significant role in shaping the classroom environment to afford such an
experience. They can impact how their students view writing by being writers themselves
alongside their students (Cremin & Myhill, 2012). They can motivate students to take
ownership by providing choice of genre and topic promoting positive writer identities. This
means opening writing classrooms up to a choice of objects and movements leading to rich
affecting engagements with ideas and words. With these pedagogical moves in place,
teachers can allow children to write freely and conduct regular explicit teaching lessons that
show how authors think about words to express their thoughts. The classroom can be a
place to live and embody the writer experience.
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Brett Healey is a PhD student at Curtin University in Western Australia where he is
researching student conceptualisations of conscious linguistic choices in writing. This study
extends his previous research into children’s writing experience. Brett also works as a
Literacy Coach at Victoria Shanghai Academy in Hong Kong, specialising in teaching writing
to primary school students who speak English as an additional language.
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