There is something wonderful about the concentration etched on the face of a child, pencil in hand, tracing graphite on paper, to form, with such focus and care, the symbols we have come to know as numbers and the signs we have come to recognise as letters. Beginning to write has long been one of the marvels of children’s early education. There’s something archetypal about it. I’m reminded of Seamus Heaney’s evocation of the classroom in ‘Alphabets’: ‘There are charts, there are headlines, there is a right/ Way to hold a pen and a wrong way’.
Each child’s mark on the page is unique and each child’s understanding of the marks made by others has the power to open up whole new worlds. These are the worlds of the word and the numeral: the story with all its people and places and surprises; the poem with its moods and pictures and music; the patterns and multiplications and mysteries of mathematics. In short, the great worlds of learning and vast voyages of discovery that wait for us, as treasure, in written form.
In recent weeks I’ve been inspired by the students I work with each day. It is my privilege to look on as they as they help a child to take a pencil, to work with paper to make lines and shapes and representations, and, ultimately, to write. The endeavours of such teachers are vital; our society should prize them.
Few of us are in doubt that the screen has transformed the way we communicate. It’s changing the way we read. It’s also changing the way we write. I have been wondering in recent days if children will always learn to hold a stylus like a pencil in order to write, or if interaction with the touch screen and the keyboard will displace this iconic and quite physical facet of early schooling. A report in the Guardian suggests that I am not the only one to ask such questions; medical concerns are being raised around dexterity and the skills that children need to develop in order to write as we have understood it now for many years.
Yet, despite its interruption of traditional methods of inscription, whether this be for good or for ill, digital technology has afforded the sharing of the written word in a way that is revolutionary. We have experienced nothing like it since the inception of the printing press. Networks of friends across the globe are sharing their reading journeys and they invite us to join them. Thanks to Northern Irish poet Adrian Rice, now living in the United States, and the wonders of social media, I discovered this week the writing of William Stafford. These are Stafford’s words. And so back to the beginning. To write again.
“A writer is not so much someone who has something to say as he is someone who has found a process that will bring about new things he would not have thought of if he had not started to say them”.