If we teach writing, we should write
The following article is posted here with the author’s kind permission.
This is the pre-peer reviewed version of the following article: 'If we teach writing, we should write', by Theresa Gooda, which has been published in final form in NATE’s journal, English in Education Autumn 2016, volume 50, number 3 NATE Wiley Blackwell ISBN 0425-0494.
The article in final form is also available online to NATE members at nate.org.uk in the members’ section along with all of NATE’s English in Education articles.
If we teach writing, we should write
Q. What do the Brighton Pavilion Gardens, the Horsham Museum, Littlehampton’s lifeboat station, a public house in Crawley, the banks of the River Arun and the Brighton Grand Hotel all have in common?
A. They have all served as venues for the Sussex branch of a Teachers as Writers (TAW) group in the National Writing Project (NWP), where teachers undertake their own writing journeys to understand what happens in their classrooms when students write.
The benefits of reading for pleasure are well established and the majority of English teachers will regularly themselves read for pleasure; indeed, see this as a fundamental part of their role of being an English teacher (NUT, 2010). Few though, will ‘admit’ to writing for the same reason. Fewer still will identify as writers (Locke, 2015). Fry talks about writing poetry, for example, as an embarrassing confession, a 'dark and dreadful secret' (Fry, 2007: xi), while Elbow finds it 'sad to define teachers as people who read, not as people who write' (Elbow, 2000: 9).
If, as English teachers we teach writing to the same extent that we teach reading, then should we not write ourselves? Not least because, ‘the discovery of a mismatch between what one teaches and how one approaches writing oneself is a common occurrence’ (Smith & Wrigley, 2016: 23). Reading and writing have had equal weight across Key Stage Three (KS3) since the inception of the National Curriculum, and carry equal weight in General Certificate of Secondary Education (GCSE) courses for English Language. Writing teachers gain a deep understanding of pedagogical practices in writing which are effective, through their own deeper understanding of the process, and, ‘exemplary teachers of writing are themselves writers’ (Lieberman and Wood, 2003: 8).
Leading a National Writing Project (NWP) group for Sussex provides the opportunity to work with a group of teachers across seven schools, as well as giving regular experience of writing ‘for pleasure’, and providing professional development in the pedagogy and practice of teaching writing. The group is cross-phase, spread evenly between primary and secondary practitioners. What we have found, quite simply, is that participation in the writing group makes us better teachers of writing by virtue of gaining insight into the technical and emotional complexity of the writing process. As one participant puts it, ‘It is easy in the demands of teaching English in today's climate to not make time out to explore writing for yourself but the NWP encourages you to take this much needed time out and realise the instant benefits that it has to your teaching practice and to how you see your subject.’
Few writing teachers are published authors; there are no prizewinning novelists in our midst (yet). Teachers’ experiences of writing are likely to be nearer to that of their students. The only equipment needed is a pen and a notebook.
Historical roots and theoretical perspective
The NWP, begun in 1973 at the University of California, has at its heart is the idea that writing is a complex activity; ‘more than just a skill or talent…a means of inquiry and expression for learning in all grades and disciplines’ (Nagin, 2006:3). Writing project practice requires teachers to become writers in order to teach writing. In the UK the project, founded in 2009 by Dr Jeni Smith and Simon Wrigley, continues to grow. It is a grass-roots project which researches writing and the teaching of writing by investigating what happens ‘when teachers gather together to share their writing regularly’ (Smith, 2012: 10) and attempting to capture the shifts in pedagogy which occur in response to this process. 'One form of participation above all others is expected at NWP staff development: writing teachers must write.’ (Nagin, 2006:65) This expectation grounds practitioners in the actual process of writing, so that teachers are doing what they require their students to do.
The UK project has five core principles:
1. Teachers as agents of reform
2. Professional development through collaboration
3. Sustained partnership in research, analysis and experience
4. Free and structured approaches in teaching writing
5. Leading teachers collecting and disseminating evidence of effective practice (NWP, 2016)
The idea of free and structured approaches in teaching writing is the part that seems to interest teachers the most. Elbow has explored the creating side of writing, describing it as 'the generative dimension' with an important principle being the need for 'inviting chaos' (Elbow, 2000: 83); simply putting down words on the page without worrying about their organisation, or in fact, disorganisation. He claims that freewriting is the easiest way to learn how to do this,' defining it as 'simply private, nonstop writing...what you get when you remove most of the constraints in writing' (Elbow, 2000: 85). This freewriting idea is central to what happens in the early stages of the writing process at TAW meetings, and then afterwards, in the classroom, capturing the sense of writing as ‘organic, exploratory, muscular’ (Smith & Wrigley, 2016: 28). The poet Ted Hughes observes that, ‘the imagination likes a wide open field of action, fifteen minutes of licence and immunity.’ (Hughes, 1967: 51) It sounds e exactly like Elbow’s definition of freewriting.
Elbow also explores the way it can be useful to move in and out of the freewriting mode at different stages in the writing process, suggesting that it can be especially helpful at moments when a writer is experiencing blockage and confusion. He points out how empowering it can be to generate lots of raw material to work from, how it enables writers to naturally drift into writing metadiscourse, and the impact which freewriting can have on voice and dynamic in writing. Like Locke (2015) who explores writing as cognition, Elbow emphasises positive and rewarding aspects of the writing experience in terms of surprise: ‘steaming along and writing something you didn't "know" before' (Elbow, 2000: 91). This view is echoed elsewhere, ‘Writing produces occasions to foreground and clarify thinking; to record, shape and analyse experiences; to express internal lives; to explore ideas learned from others’ (Lieberman and Wood, 2003: 19). The work of the National Council of Teachers of English NCTE similarly acknowledges that ‘when writers actually write, they think of things that they did not have in mind before they began writing. The act of writing generates ideas’ (NCTE, 2004). They suggest that this notion of writing is a medium for thought is important in several ways, offering a number of important uses for writing beyond creation. These include: identification of issues, problem solving, question construction, reconsideration of position, and experimentation. The insight that writing is a tool for thinking means that the process of drafting and revision is really one of exploration and discovery. And yet, thinking through writing ‘seems to have been lost in the drive to teach pupils through a strict adherence to genre and the imperative to write to measurable criteria’ (Smith & Wrigley, 2016: 18). Perhaps this is part of what writing teachers return to in their pedagogy.
Another aspect of the process is that, as teachers, we need to ‘distinguish and emphasise ‘private writing’ in order to teach it, to teach that crucial cognitive capacity to engage in extended and productive thinking that doesn't depend on audience prompts or social stimuli' (Elbow, 2000: 106). Schools offer little or no privacy in writing, nor opportunity for students to experiment, since everything that students write is set by a teacher and collected in to be marked; also that schools characteristically offer little or no social dimension and opportunity for writing' (Elbow, 2000: 110), since it is often only the teacher who reads. So an important part of the process, reinforced by practitioners like Graves (2003) is to provide opportunities for public as well as private writing, and to structure approaches to move from one dimension to the other, ‘Public presentation has the power to motivate and produce high-quality work’ (Lieberman and Wood, 2003: 17).
So, how do these elements operate in NWP practice?
Meeting formats vary, but will often begin with a short exercise designed to generate a ‘word-hoard’, establish a focus or generally think about individual preoccupations and influences: Hughes’ fifteen minutes of licence and immunity. Even the most accomplished writers say that writing is challenging, most notably because there is ‘so much uncertainty embedded in the process of doing it' (Nagin, 2006: 9). These preliminary exercises help to eliminate the fear of the blank page, encouraging words and ideas to flow.
There usually follows a stimulus for some sort of longer piece of writing. There are plenty of ideas to be found at http://www.nwp.org.uk. When we are ‘on location’ – the lifeboat, or the Grand Hotel in Brighton, for example, we have often found it fruitful to make use of the surroundings as inspiration, choosing artefacts, sounds, sights and people as stimulus.
Sharing of writing afterwards becomes one of the most enjoyable parts of the session, with the opportunity for reaction and supportive feedback. Another participant explains, ‘The sharing part was a revelation for me. It was something I pounced on students to do with frightening regularity before I started attending the NWP meetings. I had no idea how scary it could be. You are totally vulnerable, and really have to be ready to do it or it can feel devastating. The first time I was asked to share what I had written was the last time I ever ‘made’ a student do it in the classroom.’ This is a common reaction.
The final part of a writing meeting is devoted to discussion and thinking about the writing process that participants have just been through. ‘Empathy with young writers has led teachers to reconsider the tasks they set, how they set them, and their expectations of their written work’ (Smith & Wrigley, 2016: 104). We reflect on how activities might translate to the classroom; what insights have been gained during the session; what was hard, what was enjoyable, why something did/didn’t work. It is often here that the following week’s lessons get planned in outline. But we return, regularly to the idea of empathy. ‘One of the most powerful impacts it has is by placing you in the shoes of a writer and a student to experience the process of writing first hand and remind yourself of what it means to write and share your writing and what that might mean to your students,’ explains another writing teacher.
Several group members have been involved in their own small-scale research projects exploring the role of writing in their classrooms, and have reported significant changes in their own practice. ‘As teachers, we can set what we think is a really interesting/inspiring task and then can't quite believe that someone can only write three sentences in 40 minutes. The tasks that we have used at NWP meetings to help us write have highlighted that with a bit of structure, plenty of borrowing ideas from others and thinking time allowed, putting pen to paper is not so overwhelming. There isn't one activity from a meeting that I haven't used in some form or other with at least one of my classes. I have noticed how much more confident some of my reluctant writers have become as I have clearly stated that you don't need to share and this won't be marked. Not only that, I have rediscovered the joy of writing and I think my enthusiasm (and willingness to attempt the tasks that I have set them whilst they are doing them) has inspired some of my students to give it a go. My highlight was reading something a Y10 student had written from the perspective of a bouncy ball. She absolutely nailed voice and attitude.’
Case study: Poetry
One small-scale research project explored a ‘writing’ approach to the teaching of poetry for A2 English Literature. The idea was to immerse students in the construction of poetry rather than the more traditional approach of repeated analysis of canonical poets and poems. Would this lead to an enhanced experience for the students in terms of increased motivation and engagement? Nagin notes that, 'As a result of involvement with NWP programmes, teachers often become teacher-researchers who examine in depth what is going on in their classrooms,' (Nagin, 2006: 66) - exactly the position that many group members have found themselves in.
This case study was carried out by devising a sequence of ‘poesis’ lessons where students were encouraged to learn about poetry by writing it, and respond to their own writing and any poetry that they encountered using free-writing techniques.
The first strand of the study was concerned with the idea of teachers of writing being practitioners of their craft. 'We don't find many teachers of oil painting, piano, ceramics, or drama who are not practitioners in their fields. Their students see them in action in the studio. They can't teach without showing what they mean. There is a process to follow' (Graves, 2003: 6). I wrote with the students throughout the project; they understood that this was part of the process, and were often keen to see what I had written. They found it 'reassuring' that my first attempts at trochaic tetrameter, for example, were as clumsy as theirs, often more so. ‘Modelling helps teachers understand their own writing. Because they model various elements of the writing process, they will know what to observe’ (Graves, 2003: 50-51). Initial lessons followed the pattern of the TAW meetings: beginning with an opportunity to reflect loosely on a theme or idea, generate words and phrases, undertake some freewriting. This led to some development and longer pieces which met specific structural demands in relation to rhythms, line lengths and poetic forms. There was a great deal of metadiscourse, discussion about why particular words had been chosen, or indeed substituted. If I required the students to write a sonnet, or a villanelle, I made sure that I wrote one myself. And, if I failed, as happened on several occasions, I was able to discuss the complexity of the process that I had been through. This helped to generate an atmosphere of trust and mutual support in the classroom. An initial reluctance to share writing orally within the group took a while to break down, and required repeated practice and invitation. ‘When…sharing their work, the work that is going well serves as a stimulus for the others in the class. Strong voices are contagious, just as the teacher with a strong teaching-writing voices helps children to have voices of their own’ (Graves, 2003:29). I did find that I was called upon regularly to submit first, though this began to change with regularity and familiarity in the process.
After a few weeks the pattern of lessons developed so that whilst they still regularly began with an opportunity for some free writing, it became freewriting that was much more consciously directed towards other writers. I encouraged the students to see the writing as their own, private reflections, and, as with their poetry writing, made sure that they wrote somewhere that I would not automatically see it: in their own notebooks and private journals and away from their ordinary workbooks, thereby encouraging the idiosyncrasy and power of their individual voices, inviting a ‘writer-based’ response that moved towards Elbow’s argument for ignoring audience (Elbow, 2000). Prompts were often broad, free-ranging questions such as ‘what is love?’ as we began thinking about love poetry or ‘write honestly about Bright Star by Keats. What did you think of the poem?’ or ‘what is your reaction to Yeats’ gift in ‘He Wishes for the Cloths of Heaven’?’
Remembering that submission of freewriting was voluntary, and given that the intended ‘audience’ for the free-writing is the student themselves, I did not have a full data set to analyse. Some students were reluctant to relinquish their private writing, and perhaps rightly so, since I had, from the outset, emphasised the notion of privacy.
Of Bright Star, one student wrote very candidly: ‘Why have such a long, rambling part in the middle just to say you don’t want to be isolated like the star? Lines 3-8 are completely pointless and serve to extra enlightenment or explanation. The end is also rather confusing…’ This is the writing of an A-grade AS level student. As far as I could tell she would never articulate something like this in class discussion, but yet it was important for her to come to some understanding of why the poet chose to balance the poem in this way. The free writing served as an introduction to this, since the honesty of words like ‘pointless’ and ‘confusing’ would never make it to a final essay for this student. ‘When you allow freewriting to create an arena of trust, there is no telling what kind of writing will emerge’. (Elbow, 2000)
Another example, again from an A grade AS candidate, helps to emphasise the process of developing thought in response to He Wishes for the Cloths of Heaven. ‘He says that being poor he has only his dreams, but doesn’t he have her? Or maybe he would have her if he stopped dreaming about what he could have. Maybe she is not as precious to him as he seems to want to show.’ This early freewriting then becomes: ‘The repeated use of light, and the repeated use of the word on the end of each line gives the impression of stitching, which could suggest that the poem itself is the cloths of heaven which he wishes to give. His love, perhaps, is not as endless as he implies as he seems to think more of his own poetry and his ‘dreams under your feet’ than he does of his lover.’ The second sophisticated interpretation synthesising assessment objectives seems to me to have arisen directly from the first freer and far less analytical version.
Both examples of freewriting contain questions from the students themselves (rather than from me); questions which then seemed to be answered in later, formal written responses. ‘By doing this exploratory ‘swamp work’ in conditions of safety, we can often coax our thinking through a process of new discovery and development’ (Elbow, 2000: 96).
From the interview with the students collectively at the end of the project, it seems that students enjoyed the opportunity to forget about the reader, and agreed that it helped them arrive at new meanings that they may not have arrived at where they being self-consciously literary and ‘writerly’.
This level of response translated ultimately into their formal writing. Following the series of intervention lessons, when the students were encouraged write first and understand the process, when it came to responding to A level poems the comments from the students were full of insight that showed that students were writing as writers themselves.
E: (Of The Voice by Thomas Hardy) ‘The first stanza of ‘The Voice’ manipulates the use of meter, as it consists of two iambic hexameter lines and one of iambic pentameter in order to convey how hardy (sic) feels about his past relationship with his wife; he loves her, but not how he should have. The use of these two types of meter gives the poem a distorted rhythm, to reflect the theme of guilt and regret. The last stanza is fragmented and there is no pattern of rhythm or return to iambic meter at all…resulting in a weak ending, representing the weakened relationship.’
S: (Of Sonnet 43 by Elizabeth Barrett Browning) ‘The poem opens in dialectic form with the poem being the answer to the opening question, ‘How Do I Love Thee?’ The breadth of the answer shows the narrator’s surety and scope of their love for their partner. She uses increasing amounts of caesura throughout, illustrating the increasing breathlessness of the narrator; they want to explain the way they love this person, but they have to keep control.’
The technical awareness of control in both poems has led the students to a far greater insight into their chosen poems than a linguistic analysis would have done. That has been made possible by their own experience of creating pentameter, hexameter and caesura in these two examples.
Finally, consideration was given to students’ own responses and evaluation of their own levels of engagement and motivation in response to the action research intervention through interview. They were positive about the impact on their ability to discuss the structure and form of poetry in their own creative responses. ‘Before I would just say one sentence on it and it would be really menial and awful. Now I feel like I can say something that is relevant and intelligent.’ (AC)
The free writing samples provided, in the first instance, a valuable insight into the thought processes of students on the course. My own experiences with NWP, and the data set from students which emerged in triangulation with assessment pieces leads me to conclude that free writing is a useful tool at this stage of student learning on the A2 course. Working at this level with middle and higher ability students at KS5 meant that the students were able to articulate very clearly their own learning and processes. I agree with Elbow that, ‘as teachers, particularly, we need to distinguish and emphasise ‘private writing’ in order to teach it, to teach that crucial cognitive capacity to engage in extended and productive thinking that doesn’t depend on audience prompts or social stimuli’. (Elbow, 2000: 96) There were occasions following the period of the intervention in which we encountered a text or an idea that excited students and their response was to ask, ‘Can we free write about this?’ As a technique this has become embedded in their own practice as learners and therefore I interpret this as contributing to motivation: several different members have requested it independently of me.
Free writing is useful as a starting point on which to build the teaching of writing processes, and use the students' own writing as a means of teaching the aspect of writing about poetry which students typically find the most difficult, namely the notion of writing about structure. If they are able to 'do' it for themselves, it stands to reason that their ability to analyse it in the work of others will be improved.
One student commented that certain topics worked well and those seemed to be the ones that were directly text focused, rather than those which truly did give free reign to consider theme – those which for Elbow invited a binary approach for students encouraging students to consider aspects of text simultaneously. I wonder if this is a product of students being assessment-objective aware and exam-focused and unwilling to divert too much time away from other areas of curriculum study, even whilst valuing those areas simultaneously. ‘We spent quite a long time doing creative things whereas in the exam you’re not asked to do that.’ (HE) Another student pointed out that the ‘working out of your own thinking’ approach might have benefit in being applied to coursework.
Other NWP group members have noticed similar benefits to this writing into reading approach, as one explains: ‘I think for me one of the biggest changes is that I am far more likely to tackle a reading challenge through accessible writing than I ever have before. I find that when I am asking students to read a difficult - or even a not so difficult, but unusual in some way - or even just delightful text - I find that I am likely to begin with a writing task as a way in. Even if that writing task is just a bit of fun with words or some free writing. I find that this change is particularly evident in my work with A level classes and with my more able sets of students. However, I do not shy away from writing with students of lower ability. - I think though the use of the writing as a vehicle enhances their understanding and adds a level of independence that perhaps was not there prior to working in this way.’
Just like reading, there is plenty of evidence to show that writing improves when a teacher – and a student write often. Associations between reading engagement and achieving high levels of reading proficiency are circular: by reading more students become better readers, and when they read well they tend to read more and enjoy reading (EACEA, 2011). The same happens with writing. Writing teachers themselves feel this benefit. As one teacher says, ‘I have crafted my own writing voice, now. When I began writing I had no idea about what was going to come out. These days I have a range of strategies and feel willing to experiment. I know that it isn’t a disaster if the right words don’t come. In the beginning it was. My students must feel this, too.’
With knowledge comes confidence, as summarised by a regular writing teacher: ‘Through the writing activities I have engaged in as part of my NWP writing group I have found ideas and inspiration for writing in the classroom, explored the writing process further and developed my understanding of it, experienced what it feels like to be a member of a community of writers and developed a love for writing that extends beyond the classroom.’
Given the complexity and idiosyncratic nature of the writing process itself, it would be difficult to draw any hard and fast rules for the teaching of it; writing teachers consider themselves just a little further along that journey as a result of their experiences at writing meetings and resultant research projects. Ultimately as teachers who write we have a ‘rich, complex, nuanced understanding of writing’ (Smith & Wrigley, 2016).We have begun to find ways to empower students and help them to like to write by virtue of our own writing empowerment.
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