Teachers' Tales

The power of a comment

by Charlie Carroll
on April 10, 2016


All of you will have heard of Sigmund Freud.

Most of you will know that he was a famous, perhaps the most famous, psychologist, and that he developed a branch of psychology known as psychoanalysis.

Some of you will know that the lynchpin of his success was a theory of his, which he chose to call the Universal Stage Theory (we have the UST to thank for, among other things, the phrase ‘anally retentive’).

What you might perhaps not know is that Freud based his Universal Stage Theory – a theory which sought to encapsulate the developmental processes of every human being – on a single case study. The case study was a young boy whom Freud dubbed ‘Little Hans’. Little Hans had a phobia of horses. Freud never even met him. Instead, he conducted his psychoanalysis of Little Hans through the medium of the boy’s mother.

The psychological world was split in two by Freud’s research method. Half argued that theories could only have a sound and valid foundation if they were rooted in surveys conducted amongst a vast number of subjects who were representative of the larger populace. The other half argued that case-studies – the study of a single individual – had their merits, too, for they were able to unlock insights which could become diluted by far-reaching surveys. Either way, the arguments were immaterial. Freud’s Universal Stage Theory went on to become the most famous theory in the field of psychology. And it was all thanks to Little Hans.

I have included this preamble to justify why I am about to present to you my own case study: not one from the world of UST; but one from the community of Pobble.

A Pobble case study

James* is a Year 6 pupil from a small school in Yorkshire. James adored writing, but he was always terrified of showing his work to others. The reason: he was ashamed of the state of his handwriting. So much so, in fact, that sometimes he would complete a piece of homework and, if he didn’t like its presentation, he would refrain from handing it in to his teacher and risk getting into trouble for not doing his homework, even though he most certainly had.

This was a shame, for James was a skilled and gifted writer, capable of linguistic flights which I would have coveted desperately at the age of 11 (in fact, I still do). One day, James wrote the opening to a story which was inspired by one of his favourite books: Skellig, by David Almond. This time, he allowed his teacher to read it. His teacher, overwhelmed by the power and quality of the story from this young writer, asked James’ permission to publish it on to a website he knew of called Pobble, which shared and celebrated work from writers like James from all across the globe. Pobble, the teacher said, would be thrilled to find and publish a story as good as this. James acquiesced.

The story was published on Pobble, and James paid it little mind. He was already engrossed in another story – for, if his teacher had pestered him like that to publish his work, then perhaps he wasn’t such a bad writer, after all. Little did he know it, but that first piece of writing – the Skellig-inspired story – was beginning to garner worldwide attention.

It started in the staff-room. James’ teacher, in fits of pride, showed the newly-published work to his colleagues. They loved it immediately, and set about writing a few notes of praise in the comments-column underneath James’ story on Pobble. Then it moved to other schools. Staff and students James had never met nor even heard of had found his story and were leaving their own comments. “Wow! What a superb piece of descriptive writing! I will definitely be sharing this with my class!” wrote a teacher from one school. “Loved the writing, just like I loved the book. My class are writing stories based on Skellig thanks to your inspiration!” wrote a pupil from yet another school.

Not that James had a clue, of course. That old story of his was done and dusted and far from his mind. His new story had begun to demand all his attention. It was not until his teacher projected the published work on to the board in class one morning and then scrolled down through all the comments that James finally understood what was happening. He was – and at this point he had to gulp once or twice to swallow down the odd sensations bubbling somewhere just above his stomach – becoming famous.

James and his teacher watched every day as the view-counter on his work rose and rose and rose. First, 100 views. Then 250. Then 800. When the view-counter hit 1,000, James began to wonder if all this was genuine. Had 1,000 people really read his writing?

James told himself that he was not famous. Sure, a bunch of people had read his work, but what did that really amount to? It was a nice feeling; it made his teacher happy and it made him happy, too, but it would soon pass, and anyway, he had that other story to get on with…

And then four things happened. Four things that were to change James’ life. Four things which were to consolidate for him the fact that he actually was as good a writer as his teacher had always professed.

Number 1: James’ story received a comment from someone outside of the UK. And not just from outside of the UK, but from about as far as you can get from the UK. Australia. “Fantastic writing, James … use of descriptive language is the key in building tension in the reader, something you have achieved quite well. Well done.” The author of the comment was a retired teacher from New South Wales, Australia.

Number 2: James’ story received a comment from someone else. “Wonderful work, James! Well done!” This comment was from none other than David Almond, the author of Skellig, the very book which had inspired James to write his own story! James could not believe it. This author who James had been reading was now reading his writing! And he had loved it so much he had left a comment!

Number 3: James’ story won a competition. The prize for first place was the opportunity to meet an author whose books James had been reading his whole life, books which James adored as much as he adored the man who had written them. As James stood beside the author, waiting for the obligatory photo to be taken, he turned his gaze upwards to check that this really was the man everyone said he was. And he was. James confirmed it with his own eyes. He was standing hip-to-hip with him. The author even winked and muttered: “Well done, James.” James stumbled away from the photo-opportunity in a daze. For it was true. He had just met, hugged and been praised by Michael Morpurgo.

Number 4: James’ class were taken on a day-trip to a writing-event at Headingley. In the car park, James became detached from his group amongst the milling throngs of pupils. His teacher called his name. Another teacher – a teacher James had never met before, a teacher from a wholly different school – stuck his head up above the melee of children as James heeded the call. “James? Did you just say James?” the other teacher shouted. “As in, the James? He’s an absolute legend! I’ve read his work!” James was ushered on to the minibus, his flushes of pride surpassed only by his teacher’s.

Publishing that first story on Pobble changed James’ life. After all the views and all the comments and the praise from writers he admired and the recognition of his name and his work in a Leeds car park filled with the chaos of a thousand children, James finally understood that which his teacher has been telling him all along. The handwriting didn’t matter. Others – pupils, teachers, David Almond and even Michael Morpurgo! – had seen through it and discovered something he had never had the courage to acknowledge himself.

He was a good writer.

That’s why James is my case-study. As Little Hans fuelled the generation of Freud’s Universal Stage Theory, James has helped fuel the rise and rise of Pobble. His is a tale of how an audience of fellow pupils and teachers from around the world (and not forgetting a few famous authors) can transform one coy and bashful boy into a young writer of supreme confidence and tremendous ability. James’ story is, in miniature, the story of Pobble itself. For, as James has gained deserved, worldwide repute, so too has Pobble. It is not just a website, it is a community, a community where the work of young writers is nurtured, celebrated and then shared across the world.

If you don’t believe me, have a look at www.pobble.com yourself. You’ll find writing there which you won’t believe came from the pen of a schoolchild. And, if you get a minute, leave a comment. Sometimes, that can be all that’s needed to help a young writer blossom. Just ask our very own Little Hans: James. And, in fact, ask him now, because in a few years his fan-base will be so large you’ll never be able to get through to him.

*This story is anonymised.

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