We’re about to deny Leaving Cert students the chance to develop their own voice

I cry when I read some of my students’ personal essays. Exam changes will mean fewer tears for me

One on how her grandmother’s home held precious memories.

One on how she came to terms with her bisexuality.

One on how she processed the violent childhood home she shared with her alcoholic mother, before she went into foster care.

These were three of the personal essays I read from one sixth-year group a number of years ago.

These were rewrites of essays they had attempted in fifth year but revisited in sixth year after another year of maturity, writing and exposure to other voices.

The fifth-year essays were stilted, declaratory and had a staid homogeneity with the rest of the class. This is what happens when you first introduce a new form of writing, or revisit one from years ago. It is only natural that the majority of the class would write in a similar style. You accept this and then work towards individuality. You work with each student to develop their own voice, their own style. This is central to an English classroom, helping students find their voice, their way of expressing their thoughts and opinions.

The essays were completely different in sixth year.

Now each student wrote their personal essay in a distinct style.

One wrote it full of aesthetic language, almost a poem recalling places, moments, smells, tastes, dialogues, that came together to form a nostalgic reimagining of childhood visits.

I definitely cried when I read the third essay about the childhood trauma. And I told the student that I cried

Another wrote it as a series of connected anecdotes tracing her sexual development.

The last was more conversational, illuminating her thoughts with brisk descriptive sentences and sharp witty asides.

I correct these essays, the sixth-year ones, alone in my classroom. I’m lucky enough to have a classroom and the time alone there to do my corrections but even if this were not the case I would still have to be alone in a room to correct them.

Tears.

That’s why.

I cry when I read some of these.

I definitely cried when I read the third essay about the childhood trauma. And I told the student that I cried. Her response? She laughed and simply asked, “Yeah? It did the job so.”

She had the power over her own story.

She could now tell it the way she wanted to tell it.

She controlled the narrative.

She had developed her writing skills to such an extent that she found her agency where, the year before, there was only doubt.

Reading the other two simply brought joy. I stopped after each one and grinned for a minute or two.

The second one first, the student that came out as bisexual.

Natural gift

I had taught her, on and off, since first year and knew that she had gone through, well, “stuff”. Unlike the other two students, she could always write. She had a natural gift with words. What she had to do was develop those skills, improve her vocab, and hone her voice.

This she did.

Hers was more about finding the right words to express her growing feelings. Without the words we can’t articulate our thoughts and emotions. She needed the six years of secondary school to find those words.

The first student, the one with the memories of her grandmother, was simpler yet much more challenging.

Again I had taught her on and off over the years and knew that there was a writer in her waiting to be unleashed.

But she lacked confidence.

Some students will learn off essay formulae and try to replicate them. Others will just write off the top of their heads

And when she saw other students’ essays this knocked her confidence even more. She thought that she had to write like them. She thought that they had the “right” voice.

But I knew something she didn’t.

I knew that we had time. Oh yes. Time.

I knew that we would work on her writing, develop her writing, together until her confidence grew and her own, unique, voice could be heard.

Okay, I did well up just a tiny bit when I read her essay. And when I handed it back to her I did say, “Told ya so.”

She just smiled at me. She knew she had written something exceptional.

And this is the real reason I'm so confused by Minister for Education Norma Foley's decision to move paper one to the end of fifth year for students entering senior cycle from September 2023 onwards.

We are told that the reason for the move is to improve student wellbeing, yet what will really happen to their sense of self, their wellbeing?

All of the above, all of it, will be in the past.

Dumbing down

Some students will learn off essay formulae and try to replicate them. Others will just write off the top of their heads, try their best, with the limited vocab and language abilities of a typical fifth year.

That level of dumbing down is bad enough.

But what really upsets me is that, by doing this, we are denying our students the opportunity to develop their own voice, to tell their stories their way, to take ownership of their own narratives, to process their own lived experiences.

We are denying them their agency.

Ah well, I suppose it’ll mean fewer tears for me.

Conor Murphy is a teacher of English at Skibbereen Community School and chairperson of the Irish National Organisation for Teachers of English (Inote) executive.