Academic journal article Australian Journal of Language and Literacy

Power and the Pen: The Gendered Politics of Peer Positioning within the Writing Process

Academic journal article Australian Journal of Language and Literacy

Power and the Pen: The Gendered Politics of Peer Positioning within the Writing Process

Article excerpt

In this article, Anne Marschall reports on an investigation of her teaching practice. As a result, she challenges others to scrutinise their own philosophy of teaching and the beliefs, practices and pedagogy which arise from that philosophy.

I like writing 'cause in stories and stuff you can write anything you want. I like to write lots of things, only sometimes it's hard to think, you know. I don't always know what I'd like to do so then, yeah, I might ask other kids or (teacher). Sometimes I think about other stories, I just write.


Alice's comments are, I believe, typical of many seven-year-olds writing in classrooms across Australia. She has been liberated from the set topic format to write about anything she chooses in any way she chooses. She is free. Or is she? How do children decide what they will write about? What factors influence these choices? What interceding forces come into play once children are actively writing and constructing and does this differ between the sexes? These were key questions which I set out to investigate within my classroom last year.

I am far from satisfied that by merely providing the right conditions the writing classroom becomes a neutral, creative environment in which children impartially" experiment with diverse genres and topics (Cambourne, 1984). As Alice indicated in the quote above, children are influenced by numerous sources when they write. They improvise upon texts, comment upon some observation from their own experiences, and talk to each other for input and ideas. Classrooms are complex social communities. I have found children's writings to clearly reflect the intricate dynamics which are so central to their immediate interests. Within the context of my classroom, writing appears to be as much about power and peer relations as it is about creativity and skills.

Further, my study highlighted marked gender differences in the topics which children wrote about, their use of characterisations, and the focus and intention of their writing. Although the children were 'free' to write from any viewpoint and on any topic, they invariably reproduced learned social behaviours and gender stereotypes. If we accept that the way in which children write about themselves and each other impacts upon the construction of their own identity then these children are legitimising constricting, stereotypical roles for themselves, roles which may result in their own disempowerment or, for those children who construct themselves within positions of power, consolidation of a misrepresented world view.

The writing process: Fissures in the facade

I was initially challenged to question the processes and outcomes of the writing generated within my own classroom after reading Janet White's (1990) observations set within the context of a free writing classroom. Within this environment (where older children wrote for younger children of the opposite sex), White noted that even when children attempted to write narratives using topics which were not gender typical they invariably reconstructed their narratives. For example, if a younger boy suggested a violent or technical theme to his older 'author' she would respond by locating the technology within a domestic setting or reconciling the violence to present an agreeable conclusion. When younger girls asked older male authors for animal or family stories the female characters were often depicted as fearful and unresourceful, while male characters were presented in strong and controlling roles. In her article, White powerfully argues that children lack real choices within this kind of writing, that in truth they are constantly rehearsing and reinforcing gender identities.

I encountered an elaboration of this thesis in the work of Gilbert and Rowe (1989), wherein the emancipatory and progressive qualities associated with 'natural language classrooms' which purport to be steeped in 'individualism' and `personalism' are challenged. …

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