Why Welsh literacy classes were vital to my career

Dan Anthony

As well as writing and originating hit children's TV series and books, as well as plays and situation comedies for grown ups, Dan runs workshops on writing, reading and creativity for primary schools, secondary schools and universities throughout the country. They're known to be enabling experiences, and they're also great fun. Dan's new children's book. Steve and the Sabre Tooth Tiger, is out right now.

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Website: www.dananthony.co.uk Email This email address is being protected from spambots. You need JavaScript enabled to view it.

I’m a writer. Sometimes I write for children. I’ve worked on children’s TV series, computer games, comics and I write children’s books. When I visit schools, children ask if I’m famous. I tell them that I’m not famous, but it doesn’t matter. Writers don’t need to be famous, they just write. Dental assistants don’t require widespread public recognition, they just pick up teeth. Teachers, after days at the front, like holidays in the sun – in anonymity. Not being famous doesn’t mean you’re not good at what you do.

"Estyn’ is a Welsh language word, it means ‘to extend’ and it almost has a new English language meaning – ‘Estyn’ in Wales means ‘Ofsted’ in England."


Wales


I live in Wales. That helps with anonymity too. Here, books about rugby-playing zombies are surprisingly popular and for that reason I’m often asked to run workshops on writing, reading and creative thinking in schools. I visit primary schools, where I use books as tools to get into the subject of story writing.. In all of these workshops my aim is the same: to encourage all writers of all abilities, and say to the ones who think that they can’t do it / don’t like it: “Don’t worry. I had the same problem, but really – this is the only solution”.


Schools in Wales and England


Perhaps the obvious difference between the organisation of schools in Wales and England are due to scale. But there are cultural differences. Maybe Welsh administrators like things to stick together. ‘Committee’ isn’t a Welsh language word – but it should be. ‘Estyn’ is a Welsh language word, it means ‘to extend’ and it almost has a new English language meaning – ‘Estyn’ in Wales means ‘Ofsted’ in England. These linguistic quirks are the real sources of divergence in Wales. Right now schools in Wales are trying to improve our performance in the Pisa rankings. If these figures go up then it will mean that the committees will have succeeded. In the end, just as in England, statistics count.


Statistics and individuals


"The skills I have developed through writing fiction professionally would have helped me with my Geography, History, Chemistry, Physics and English."

 

When I visit a school I’m there for a day. For me it’s a day out – a school trip, if you like, but in reverse. I try not to worry about the statistics. In any case, according to the numbers submitted for Pisa rankings, I was the very person in my class who shouldn’t have taken up writing. I scored badly at English and ever since then I’ve always had the nagging feeling that, because I’m was no good at English, I shouldn’t really be writing. Even when I started writing scripts for radio and TV, I didn’t believe books could be my thing. For me as an individual, the statistics couldn’t have been more misleading. I wanted to be a writer but my O level results said something different – I am a chemist.


Teachers do jobs which produce a lot of statistics, enabling committees, civil servants and politicians to manage things with a statistical eye. You will notice that I’m not arguing against statistics, or that individuals are somehow ‘above’ or ‘outside’ the tolerances of statistical probability. I would suggest however, that ‘creativity’ is not easy to measure and is therefore unlikely to appear in statistics. This is a shame, because if they could have measured creativity before I was thrown out of art at the age of 13, I’m sure I’d have done well enough to get an ‘O’ level in it and not be classed as a chemist.


Can’t do


I began scribbling when I was about seven and I am still doing it now. No amount of discouragement stopped me. My teachers, my friends even my parents agreed: my exercise books were disgraceful; my reading age was the only statistic I was any good at zooming away from and when it came to saying what Henchard was up to in the Mayor of Casterbridge, my opinion wasn’t worth much. No wonder I lost confidence.


Membury Services


This article isn’t going to tell you how it all turned around and that one day, when I was eating a mixed grille in a service station just off the M4 near Swindon I had this brilliant idea for the book that made my fortune, because that didn’t happen (or it hasn’t happened yet – I’m still visiting the service station).


I thought I’d write this piece just to say that my experience of writing and being a pupil (something common to all of us) has given me an idea. The skills I have developed through writing fiction professionally would have helped me with my Geography, History, Chemistry, Physics and English. Confidence, an ability to work in creative teams, an awareness of a creative process and an understanding that creative narrative skills apply to all disciplines, underpin my approach. Our experience is only unremarkable, dull or uninteresting, if we believe that’s the case. A reluctance to write springs from a lack of self-belief. The dullness of things is the debilitating premise I try to challenge.


Creativity

 

I am in the business of making stuff up. Sharing the challenges presented by a blank piece of paper with far more innovative, quick and creative minds than my own is a liberating experience from which everyone benefits.

 

For one session, on this school trip, my proposition is this: we don’t write to get good marks, nor do we write to become rich and famous (although either or both of those things would be acceptable by-products of our experiments); we express ourselves because we want to, because the drive to create is deep in our DNA. For me, keeping quiet is unconvincing, it’s unnatural. It’s as uncool as doing what you’re told. It’s not thinking for yourself.

Are you an English teacher in Wales? Share your experiences below.

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