We began - as we always do - with our own writing – choosing our currently-favoured words. And they poured out:
monochrome, vendetta, smirk, happenstance, squelch, rumpus, freckle, pickle, coral, dangle, jigsaw, plosives, tagine, suede, couscouscous (sic), punctuate, alveoli, gloaming, red, create, collapse, cosy, heritage, Beccles, cobbled, victory, ascertain, pumpkin, Borriobhoola-gha ...
A key NWP principle is that writing should be voiced – ‘words on the air’. Sadly, in classrooms, writing is too often seen and not heard. The consequence is undue attention to visible secretarial skills and the neglect - even discouragement and suppression - of a writer’s voice, drive and gist. Over time, the writer’s self withers, the creative spark dies under duress of conformity to convention. The resultant writing lacks energy, is flattened by obedience and is lacklustre in effect. It no longer glistens with verve and individuality.
Rather, we need to hear and enjoy the speaker’s ‘attack’ on the word, the tone, the inflections, the rhythms, the accidental riffs - that trochaic sequence of ‘freckle’, ‘pickle’, ‘coral’, ‘dangle’ – and imagine how we might ‘create’ the ‘collapse’ of a ‘cosy’ ‘heritage’? How else to teach poetry, or the effects of grammar and syntax? How else to develop a love of vocabulary but by letting the words roll around the mouth and bounce across the room? How else to develop agency but by noting the effects of experiment and the power of authenticity?
We followed ‘words’ with individual, unshared free-writing for 5 minutes. Another key principle of NWP is that some writing should not be shared until ready. How else to develop trust and confidence? How else to understand the benefits of uninhibited play? How else to discover what it is that one really wanted to say, to confront one’s own demons, to write the impossible with bravura and elan? How else – I might add – to rinse off the grime of obligation, to restore oneself to oneself, and to rediscover a jouissance about this one ‘affordance’ of language which might have excited us into teaching in the first place?
Then, in response to prompts, we wrote reflectively about where we had got to with our own writing – our purposes, processes and products – and our own teaching of writing. Another key principle of NWP is that we reflect regularly on our own writing and teaching ‘journeys’ - and gather evidence.
So it was by this route, that we came on the first evening to our readings: Goldberg, Elbow, Cowan. We explored what each had said about the ‘affordances’ of free-writing – what it was, what it enabled, when it might be usefully employed and to what effect. Another key principle of NWP is that we read around our subject. We learn from James Britton, Janet Emig, David Morley, Anne Enright, Verlyn Klinkenborg, Andrew Motion, Ursula le Guin, PD James, Neil Gaiman, Myra Barrs, Valerie Cork. We are not the first to be making these discoveries, but we make them freshly in new contexts, testing and reinforcing our understandings with regular practice. We discover new ‘affordances’ of writing, as our personal and professional situations call for them. Our job is to answer that calling.
On the following days we wrote and read more - found poems, cinquains, landscapes. We scavenged, we jigsawed, we became typewriters - and we considered the writing progress of our children and students –
- how they used writing to play, to work, to catch ideas and see themselves as learners
- how they used writing to explore ideas before reading
- how they used writing to develop confidence in flow
- how they gained from playing with ‘structures’
- how their attitudes to writing changed by being given greater freedom and responsibility
- how they benefited from listening and responding to each other’s writing
- how they benefited from having a teacher who wrote alongside them and wrote herself
But don’t take my word for it. The next few blogs will be authored by the delegates themselves.
If you find their words inspiring, please look out for future conferences – there’ll be another NWP residential next October. In the meantime, Jeni and I will be speaking about NWP at the NATE ITE symposium at the British Library on November 17th – Jeni will be at the NAWE conference in Stratford (11-13 Nov), and we will be leading a free course for teachers at the Whitechapel Gallery on 17 June 2017.
Practising what you teach is not an indulgence; it is a proper professional thing to do. Art teachers do it. Music teachers do it. Dance and drama teachers do it. Many teachers do it – and feel the better for it. Of course it takes time – and it’s hard to do on your own - but it’s motivating and restorative to do it in a trusted group which meets once a term or so. As a teacher, you can join an NWP writing group today –– and it’s free! Just click here.
NWP outreach director