In the UK in 2017, we must continually re-emphasise that writing is not just the marks on a page. It comes from somewhere, and, through twists and turns, it can go somewhere too. It should not be restricted just to the acquisition of convention, just to ‘correcting’ and ‘polishing’, just to the emulation of ‘established writers’, nor just be pressed into the service of ‘replicable’ teaching programmes. We should teach writing as a cultural process and a conversation – and the democratic birthright of all our children.
The affordances of writing
NWP (UK) was founded in 2009 in order to let writing teachers feel the force of the writing process for themselves, and so re-orient themselves in their classrooms as practitioners more sympathetic to their pupils’ experiences. NWP’s teachers’ writing groups are communal spaces and ‘writing laboratories’ in which teachers are discovering more about the ‘affordances’ of writing:
- Writing is emotionally as well as cognitively challenging.
- Writing can be a door into new worlds and new words.
- Writing thrives in a rich language context.
- Writing contributes to mental well-being.
- Imposed views of writing progress are demotivating and counter-productive.
- Learners benefit from free-writing - confronting uncertainty, generating thought and trawling the subconscious.
- Writing helps writers understand their own thinking processes.
- Fears about writing can be diminished by making lists.
- Writers learn from reading their work aloud. (Ursula le Guin)
- Playing with conventions educates writers and helps them reorient to their own needs.
- Writing alongside each other deepens and strengthens social bonds . ‘The day I am only a writer, I will cease to be a writer.’ (Nadine Gordimer)
Beyond teachers’ writing groups are classrooms, and beyond those classrooms lie the rest of pupils’ lives and experiences. From the project’s tracking of pupils’ writing journeys, it is clear that young people benefit hugely from having writing teachers attuned to these ‘affordances’. Year 11 pupils are aware of the compromises they and their teachers must make – and, with the axing of Creative Writing A level, the opportunities denied them. And they are struck by the enduring ironies of a system which invites ‘creative writing’ and then prescribes the way that writing must be judged, the features it must include. At other ages and in other arts, there is greater latitude. Unsurprisingly, young writers often choose to write outside school, copiously, becoming increasingly confident in their own voices.
But inside school, they learn to ‘play the game’ of what one called ‘circumscribed grade writing’.
‘... but it didn’t feel like my writing,’ she told me last month.
What’s the difference? I asked.
‘In my writing I can be anyone I want to be ... I can be honest ... I can show my honesty.’
It would be good to live in a society where the value of that kind of writing was more widely understood, cultivated and celebrated. For one thing, it would be better for people’s mental health and well-being.
So the teaching of writing cannot be about ‘just writing’.
NWP outreach director
Find out more - join an NWP writing group.
Vygotsky: ‘Mind and Society’ 1930. Chapter 8: The prehistory of written language
Ursula le Guin: ‘Steering the Craft’ 1998. Chapter 1: The sound of your writing
Nadine Gordimer: Radio 4, ‘In Our Time – Writing and Political Oppression’ 1999 http://www.bbc.co.uk/programmes/topics/Nadine_Gordimer