Sometimes, of course, there seems to be little choice. But when we do take time to join with others, step back from the world, and dare to think and write for ourselves, how full of possibility the world appears! When we are no longer cowed by what 'the powerful' tell and sell us, when we close our ears to those sirens of 'ought' and 'should', to the Scylla of 'standards' and the Charybdis of commerce, when we attend to what we really came here to say, the writing sings.
The song is sometimes emotional, full of uncertainty, experiment, struggle and release. But it is above all a song about discovery, about ongoing negotiation and readjustment, epiphany, laughter, tears and a growing collective confidence: a chorus of the human, the professional, and the collaboratively agentive. We learn more about writing by writing.
For two whole days 17 NWP teachers and lecturers gathered at High Leigh Conference Centre in Hertfordshire to think, read, write and talk together. We restored ourselves to ourselves by cultivating our inner resources. Both critically and creatively, we grew as writers and teachers of writing. This year, we studied how different styles and timings of response may help each others' writing. This has significant bearing on classroom practice.
Here is a sample of some of our reflections:
... on writing community
- 'A writing community offers new ways in to writing and the opportunity to hear other writers.'
- 'In trusted groups we become more and more confident to attack writing rather than stand back nervously from it. This confidence and creativity are infectious. We learn through dialogue, to gauge our writing decisions. This truth - that through practice the learning comes - needs to be more deeply and widely understood.'
... on collaborative learning
- 'Learning together brings a strong mental imprint - the quality and nature of the imprint seem stronger.'
- 'Writing is listening to others and sharing. A click that begins with one person's writing and echoes, repeats, renews in the writing of others.'
- 'I intend to reorganise the opportunities for peer work, from pairs into groups of three ... offering possible questions and inviting children to suggest their own.'
... on response partnership - the powers of silence, response and critical advice
- 'I have found it useful to have my work listened to and believed in but not criticised.'
- 'Children need encouragement to write purely for themselves sometimes.'
- 'I now realise that there is a place within the classroom for 'non-evaluative response' and that not all writing has to be read, let alone assessed.'
- 'It's reminded me to let go of my own anticipation of an 'authority' out there who will judge my writing, and to enjoy writing for satisfaction, writing for companionship, writing for surprises, writing for alliance with my students rather than authority over them.'
... on writing process
- 'I am already borrowing phrases - 'dark inside cupboards' from Rudyard Kipling, 'slap and plop' from Seamus Heaney - and feel that this is OK. Need to find ways to 'allow' students to do this comfortably, too.'
- 'Focusing on the process and not the outcome is key.'
- 'Through the strategies we have used today - playing with sound, editing, no punctuation - we have shifted the kaleidoscope ... looking at a multitude of processes, enjoying what is being written at the time rather than the product/outcome.'
- 'Much of the writing process is unconscious, and the workings of the unconscious must be honoured.'
- 'This Andrew Cowan exercise is great for developing an understanding of how other writers approach the problem of revising a piece. It would be interesting to lead this with students and see what they discover.'
... on empowerment and disempowerment
- 'Being professional does not mean necessarily behaving like a published writer.'
- 'I am suddenly angry that writing can be all too easily denied those who are already denied too much.'
- 'Adults are as likely as children to dismiss their power and potential as writers because of an endlessly evaluative approach when we share writing... Marking ladders don't remind you of the laughter with which your hilarious poem was received or how the audience gasped at the scary bit of your story.'
- 'Amazing things can happen when we start with not just what we know, but what we know intimately ... children in secondary school may not be getting the opportunity.'
- 'Who is getting the chance in the UK to develop deep expertise and then crucially to find ways of sharing it? The scale of the NWP is the US is humbling.'
Together, we are stronger than we think.
8 years ago, NWP(UK) had only 2 groups. Everywhere teachers struggled to hold on to their proper professional autonomy. They were ignored, infantilised and overwhelmed by waves of deracinating, ill-informed, outcome-driven reform. Without organised resistance and quiet collegiality, it can seem so still.
8 years on, thanks to determined voluntary co-operation, there are over 20 NWP groups in the UK. There are NWP publications, workshops, retreats and residentials, and a growing network of teachers and academics readier to write, to collaborate and to freely disseminate their findings. We are learning better ways of helping our pupils and students.
Of course writing together is deeply pleasurable: we attend, critically and creatively, to ourselves and each other. But it is not an indulgence. It is our moral and professional duty and, in my opinion, the world is the better for it. Join an NWP teachers' writing group and help us.
NWP outreach director