We arrive at a group. We are glad to see each other. That is part of it. We catch up. How has it been? We hear about the five year old who draws all the time and who is patient, waiting for her teacher to find space for her to speak her stories. We smile at the success of an undergraduate, returning to share it with the A level teacher who first made for him a space. We admire the maps and imagine the classroom where there is space for written adventures. And we begin with words: chick pea; carbuncle; Hartlepool; Ebenezer; indigestion; alfalfa. Sometimes it is hard even to let words enter the head - or we find ourselves editing those out. What can be shared? And then longer writing: pen meeting the page, words reminding us of beer drunk from a bottle, mist on a hillside, a grandfather’s hands, apples fallen and bruised, a wasp hovering.
Sometimes we cannot get started. It is just not working. We discover ways to get round that resistance - or may be not. Sometimes what we write ambushes us with tears. Sometimes we find ourselves not wanting to stop. Then reading aloud. We hear our words on the air and in the sounding board of our bodies. We sense our listeners’ careful attention, the quietness, the chuckle, the breath of appreciation. And we find ourselves absorbed by the writing of others: the way that phrase makes so much sense or those words make us see things differently. We try things out, we learn from others, we are daunted, we are helpless with laughter.
There is the writing. And then there is the teaching of writing. The conversation expands. If we have been working in pairs, we extend to the larger group. Talk moves beyond, in and out of the writing of the moment to other experiences of writing, to reading, to things that have happened in our writing classrooms. There is a quietness and a lightness. A warmth. All these experiences become part of our deep understandings. What we learn when we are writing as one of a group returns with each of us to the places where we teach. It has changed us and it changes how we teach. For each of us the change is different and it us hard to pin down. Whitney and Friedrich’s (2013) exploration of what they termed the legacy of the NWP USA identified three ‘orientations’ of NWP teachers:
- towards writing,
- towards writers
- and towards the teaching of writing.
This capacity to work in an informed way with what is happening in schools and classrooms is evident amongst writing teachers we know. There may be frustrations, even moments of despair, but most of us find our teaching of writing is grounded in our meetings with other writing teachers and in our own writing there. Writing teachers seem to be developing a knowledge of what it means to learn to write that comes from deep within themselves. Whether this is part of what is meant by their orientations or whether it is something other, we are still learning. It is a slow business. The power of the community, others engaged in the same venture is important. The writing, the talking into and out of the writing, the quiet space of the writing group: these things are fundamental to teachers’ sense of agency in the writing classroom.
Social media reminds me that at this time last year we were still writing Introducing Teachers’ Writing Groups. It was both painful and exhilarating and we learned in the course of writing it. It was a staging post. It was designed as an introduction. Now we are looking to dig deeper. What does it mean to be a ‘writing teacher’? I am thinking again about James Britton’s optimistic hope for those ‘quiet processes and small circles’ through which ‘vital and transforming events’ can take place. Do be in touch with us if you would like to be part of this conversation.
Reference: Whitney, A. E. & Friedrich, L. (2013) ‘Orientations for the Teaching of Writing: A Legacy of the National Writing Project.’ in Teachers College Record Volume 115, July 2013 1 -37.