Six teachers met in the Square Chapel cafe, annexed to Halifax’s recently refurbished Piece Hall – and wrote.
First, to ‘loosen the writing muscles’, we shared recently enjoyed words and phrases: kerfuffle, gotten, angst, ‘greater depth’,... millefeuille, morbid, tourniquet, ‘Over. Done. Finished.’
Pulling words out of their context, letting them breathe new possibilities, and hearing them unexpectedly collide with other words, is a playful way of stretching their meanings. The individual act of retrieving words, seeing which rise to the surface, which ask to be chosen, and then reflecting on how one word has ‘triggered’ another, is a shared fascination. In the conversation which followed we were struck by the force of cliché, the clustering of ideas, the catch of register and the swing of rhythm, and further stories emerged – such as how a child, having been confused by mishearing ‘INSET’ for ‘insect’, had asked her mum that morning whether she was going on ‘another of those caterpillar days.’ :) :)
We then dispersed across the urban environment to find some resonance with six phrases which each one of us had written. It was another ‘treasure hunt’ (cf Weekly write 8): we had to find something – visible or invisible, real or imagined - which chimed with:
- Soft cloud cushion
- An indefinite backdrop
- Might be lonely
Afterwards we shared our writing and talked about the value of ‘playing’ with language in this way – and what might be learnt from doing so.
“One of the gifts of being a writer is that it gives you an excuse to do things, to go places and explore. Another is that writing motivates you to look closely at life, at life as it lurches by and tramps around.” (Anne Lamott: ‘Bird by bird’)
On July 10, I visited Cambridge NWP, and it was Anne Lamott’s suggestions for autobiographical writing which group leader, Alison Binney, drew on to stimulate our writing. First we mined our memories of ‘school lunches’ – lots of food laced with maternal care and control! Then we free-wrote about ‘hair’, ‘being ill’, ‘being told off’. The images came back freighted with emotion:
- times of shame and shamelessness (a shampoo after falling into a septic tank!);
- times of strangeness and wonder (a time of illness when ‘my nose bled a rose ... my tongue heavy as mud’);
- times of sibling rivalry and solidarity (‘my brother gave me the stink eye’).
But in the process of this play, free-writing ‘discovers’ patterns, tones and voices that more disciplined approaches might have proscribed. Great educators, such as Montessori, Bruner, Vygotsky and Sternberg, all emphasise the importance of play. So it is to the detriment of education that play tends to be so quickly ousted by the strictures of work – as if work and play were not both vital to effective learning – and a combined antidote to dullness.
The many learning benefits of ‘play’ are lost to those who don’t regard them as serious. So I hope all teachers give themselves time to play over the summer holidays – and continue to play throughout next year. They and their children will be the better for it.
As a starting point, let me recommend as a holiday read the very wonderful book ‘The Good People’ by the award-winning author of ‘Burial Rites’, Hannah Kent. The story loops and thrums with emotion and tension, and reminds how much more there is than the visible world. It is an Irish fairy story with a difference – firmly rooted in a court case from the 1820s – and an advertisement to the tricky power of the imagination.
Of some relevance perhaps, the following is attributed to Albert Einstein:
"If you want your children to be intelligent, read them fairy tales. If you want them to be more intelligent, read them more fairy tales."
NWP outreach director