What we did and wrote was informed by Peter Stillman’s ‘Families Writing’ (1989) in which he wrote:
“The truth is that writing is a central means of learning, whether it's academic or personally revelatory. It's as much for finding out as reporting. Writing is for fun, too; it was never meant to be the ponderously serious medium that educators have made of it ...Writing fosters vision (although it's usually, erroneously, put the other way round).”
In all three groups we did some short free-writing exercises before undertaking Peter Stillman’s ‘Floor Plan’.
We followed, loosely, a 4-stage sequence
1. Draw it
2. Talk it
3. Write it
4. Reflect on it.
We each drew, diagrammatically, the ‘map’ or diagram of a place significant and memorable to us – a room, a garden, a community. We annotated our drawings with declarative labels (window), names of associated people (dad), snatches of remembered conversation (‘Calm down, Samantha!’). Then we paired up and explained our ‘maps’, expanding our sketches in conversation, teasing out obscure scribbles and learning more about our partner’s ‘map’ and the reasons why the place described still lodges in their memory.
When silent in front of the blank page, trying to re-present our places in writing, each writer chose their own direction, and many were surprised by what they wrote – especially when they ‘silenced the critics in their heads’.
A few struggled to find a form or voice in which to write, but were helped by having chosen a writing ‘stem’ to keep them going – a repeated phrase to which they returned when ‘stuck’. With the reassurance that this writing would not be shared, but only the process discussed, many felt liberated to become writers of their own meanings, rather than scribes of someone else’s.
Predictably, perhaps, when gesture, tone of voice and a peer-audience are absent, many found themselves ‘digging’ to re-create sensory impressions of the place – hearing the sounds, smelling the smells, remembering the touch of surfaces or the warmth from the fire. In that way, as Peter Stillman remarked, writing can achieve power through the detail. Some teachers found that, having mapped an area, they became attracted to certain details within it, and explored them at length. Many found that the people associated with the place became the focus of their attention. More or less all teachers commented on an increased emotional engagement when writing alone – and for some the writing became ‘confessional.’
I want to suggest that these examples illustrate some of the beneficial , confidence-building effects of writing which is ‘subjective-led’ rather than ‘objective-led’. It takes personal meaning-making as its key principle and allows forms and structures to emerge from the writer’s own repertoire, rather than be imposed from outside or seen as the main ‘goal’ of writing. That isn’t to say that, in the process of writing like this, writers don’t begin to experiment with, and own, new vocabulary, devices, voices and styles. Indeed many writers find themselves, in this process – and particularly by virtue of the sharing that follows, drawing on fresh learning and recent influences. However, here, the ‘imagining’ process is more important than the product. When writing is approached like this it seems, writers can often find a degree of value, originality and purpose that can be hard to achieve through more slavish study of structures and conventions.
Many teachers have effectively adapted such sequences in their classrooms. I have used similar approaches with year 12 writers in Bedfordshire, year 9 writers in Milton Keynes, year 6 writers in Halifax, and year 3 writers in Buckinghamshire. Pupils have sketched imagined places from fiction as well as from their own lives – space-ships, planets, treasure islands, sheds and gardens, bedrooms and attics.
Of course, practice in working in these kinds of ways stands writers in good stead if, later, in timed test conditions, they have to respond ‘imaginatively’ to, say, a GCSE picture stimulus. Although, to my mind, obedience to external authorities is seldom the best way of stimulating any writer, and, fortunately for all of us, most teachers shared Peter Stillman’s nobler vision of an education in writing.
If you like the sound of this, sign up and join an NWP writing group – or contact me, with your email, using the comment box below.
NWP outreach director