On August 15 a group of NWP teachers met in the cafe at Tate Modern. Through writing together, ‘we connected with ourselves and the world around us’ - Natalie Goldberg’s words. We adapted one of her free writing exercises and wrote for three successive 3-minute bursts in response to the prompts:
- The best song of my life ...
- A place I want to go back to ...
- What makes me laugh ...
With our writing muscles thus loosened, we each went off to seek further writing stimulation from the gallery. There was, for example, Erik Bulanov’s ‘Forwards’ installation. This is a monumental circle of 10-foot high steel blocks spelling out the word ‘Forwards’ four times in Russian Cyrullic script (The word 'вперед' in Russian can also mean ‘before’). You have to stand enclosed by the giant circle to read the red writing - so you're hardly going 'forwards'. One of the letters, the ‘R’ for Russia (Russia = Россия), lies on its side - as if it has fallen over. There's plenty of iron and irony here. It seems a satirical reflection on industrial and political progress over the 100 years that have passed since the revolution in 1917. The second part of the installation – too big to have been transported to London – reads ‘everything is not that frightening.’ (You’ll have to make your own mind up about that.)
(Mini-writing challenge: find an English word which, by collapsing a letter or two, will render an ironic effect – perhaps a fallen ‘B’ in ‘stable’ ?
Reminiscent of Graham Rawle’s ‘Lost consonant’ illustrations in the Guardian, 1990 - 2005 www.amazon.co.uk/Lost-Consonants-Graham-Rawle/dp/1872180094 e.g. 'Every time the doorbell rang, the dog started baking.' An idea for a classroom display?)
- One writer reflected sardonically on the Tate notice to visitors: ‘please respect our neighbours’ privacy’ (The gallery overlooks some smart new flats.)
- One wrote about the slow and measured stillness in the turbine hall, where a child's voice rose and fell, repeating again and again ‘yeah, daddy.’
- Another wrote about ‘the 8-year old princess of the turbine hall’ who, uninhibited, slip-slaps down the slope in her outfit
- One read a woman’s rigidly straight back and imagined a long, hard life
- One challenged authority in asking ‘who’s allowed to be late?’ exposing internal anger beneath external politeness
- Another wrote of being mesmerised by an hour-long video of hand-washing, noticing the veins on someone’s hands ‘like a maze of raised blue roads’
- The passive/active dynamic of Marina Abramovich’s ’72 objects on a table’ stimulated some starkly brutal writing – and there was dystopian writing of windswept landscapes with weather-beaten folks in ramshackle huts.
Natalie says ‘to notice detail is to slow down and honour your life and pay attention’. For her, writing is her way of being more fully in the world – and in her teaching she wants to give her students confidence in their experience – ‘to feel that their lives are valuable enough to write about: they don’t have to be someone else.’ Through regular meaningful writing, we can do that in school too (cf NWP 2011 research on writing journals, and the 2012 NWP article ‘the benefits of freedom’.)
- free writing,
- teachers writing alongside pupils and students
- attention to the social and emotional affordances of writing
Such approaches, and several others, are now also recommended in a report funded by the Arts Council. The ‘Teachers as Writers’ year-long research project (2016-7), conducted by Exeter University in conjunction with the Arvon Foundation, has explored the mutual benefits of teachers and writers working together. Their report findings are published here:
It's interesting to ask how and why distinctions are made between those described as ‘teacher’, ‘writer’, ‘ learner’, ‘reader’, 'speaker', 'audience'. I prefer a more fluid view of human attributes, and a more open and less hide-bound conversation about writing. While respecting writers’ insights, NWP has been wary of an automatic deference to the ‘craft knowledge’ of ‘published writers’. NWP has challenged infantilising schema and the engrained hierarchical assumptions which lie behind notions of ‘quality writing’ in schools. If we’re not careful, we risk starving children’s inner lives and individuality by over-indulging an appetite for homogenised practices. Flow, sense - and human rights themselves - can be lost in a forest of criteria, formulae and frameworks.
By cultivating habits of agency, by teachers and pupils writing and responding freshly, authentically and meaningfully - rather than only for examined or published success - young people’s development is made fuller and healthier (‘Writing from the Inside Out’). An autonomous teachers’ writing group is one way to redress the imbalances which prevail in education. Writing groups not only restore teachers to themselves, but they can also inform and reform school and classroom practices.
Writing (and the conversations around it) should be a process by which you deal with personal, difficult, provisional, uncertain and imagined experience, and by which you learn, rather than being regarded merely as a product of your learning, to be defined and judged by someone ‘in authority’.
When you’re an author, you’re in authority too – and it’s earned and negotiated in context, rather than conferred by outsiders.