It’s nearly time. Pencils are sharp, if not brains. The first day’s lunchboxes are not quite packed, but the uniforms might be labelled. Class lists and seating plans may be ready - and everyone’s already resenting the training day they’ve got to sit through while classrooms need decorating and lessons need planning.
Here’s my plea for the first English lesson: no “My Summer Holiday” writing. If you think about it, by the time they reach secondary age, most kids have written about themselves and their holidays at least half-a-dozen times, and probably many more.
Maybe for those really little learners, coming back into Year 1 or 2, there’s a case for writing about the holidays. It’s their recent experience, after all. And with some strong “talk for writing” activities, and a lovely exemplar, and some teacher modelling (selected highlights of your summer only please!), they’ll make a good job of it.
Exemplars of holiday writing are hard to come by, though. When you think about it, that’s not surprising. In real-life, when do people write recounts of their holidays? And how many us want to read them? Some parents (yes, that would be me) keep writing going through the summer by requiring holiday diaries of their little darlings. This is a type of recount, but its daily, on-the-spot, current nature makes it a very different of record. The passing of time, even only a few days, makes a holiday recount a strange beast: what we’re really talking about, in real-text terms, is travel writing. And we don’t very often teach that as a genre.
The recount, it seems to me, was born of the National Literacy Strategy’s “Six Text Types” document, and it’s a real horror. As another mum once said to me in total disgust, “I suppose Gove made “recount” into a noun.” Good recounts are rare, and the genre, if it is one, is often taught as a vehicle for chronological adverbials of time. Of course, the first, next, then, after that, finally sequence can hardly enliven most summer holiday reports. Maisie’s wobbly tooth and high heels experiences are far more entertaining!
On the other hand, good travel writing has many teachable features that transfer into other types of writing, and I’m sure this would be a better approach to the annual summer holiday recount. Unfortunately, there aren’t many examples of travel writing aimed at children around either, but I would recommend Alison Lester’s Are we there yet? - a child’s first person account of one family’s travels in Australia. Creating vivid pictures of places and people, and telling us a bit about the writer as well as the events described, it offers a great template for young writers as they try to structure their holiday experiences into a text worth writing – and reading. Naturally, most members of your new classes won’t have the excitements of a trip around Australia to draw on, but this text will demonstrate how to pick out the interesting details of a trip to the park, and reveal personal reactions to Granny’s visit or the summer holiday traffic jam.
For older pupils, I recommend Bill Bryson, travel-writer extraordinaire. The opening pages of The Lost Continent make a brilliant model for funny, sarcastic and fond writing about a place, with the very first line setting the tone: “I come from Des Moines. Somebody had to.” Read it together, list the ways he pokes fun at his place of upbringing, and then set them free: with Bryson’s richly dry comedy to emulate, they won’t go far wrong.