Language and Learning: making sense of our own experiences
has been convened to explore and celebrate the work of James Britton and how his work speaks to English teachers today. Many of you will have grown up with the words of James Britton as part of your becoming a teacher, others may not even be aware of his work and his influence on our thinking as teachers of English. This conference is a timely and fitting opening to new conversations derived from James Britton’s thinking. I am glad to be contributing a workshop on writing because the NWP really does have its roots in the work of James Britton, both in terms of his thinking and writing and in the person himself.
I first met James Britton at the 1988 NATE conference where I was working with Pat D’Arcy and two Wiltshire teachers in a commission based on learning through writing. At that time, the NATE conference did not run ‘workshops’ but set up commissions which were designed to include all delegates in the experience and exploration of ideas. There was a drive to arrive at shared meanings and understandings, an intention that, I hope, underpins NWP teachers’ writing groups. I found myself sitting next to Jimmy during our first free writing activity and we shared our thoughts, delighted to find a mutual pleasure in the work of Polanyi. James Britton, of course, had been the person, through his book Language and Learning, who had introduced me to Polanyi. In fact, he had been, for me, an important distant tutor whose work helped me to think through my own developing understanding of the nature of teaching. In the years that followed we worked together, and with Nancy Martin and Gordon Pradl, to run workshops which focused on personal journals, writing and the teaching of writing and the nature of autonomy for both teacher and child.
In 1992, a certain Simon Wrigley arrived, by chance, at our workshop, Experience into Words. He found himself writing for himself, sharing writing with others, hearing the writing of others, and talking. Oh, how we talked. And talk, and the capacity to listen, is such an important part of what James Britton and Nancy Martin taught us, led us to be aware of. From that shared experience sprang a group who met for writing weekends once a term. That group is still going and it is a source of strength and nurture for us as writers and teachers and as individuals. It is there that we continue to learn about writing and to grow as teachers. Our longstanding writing weekends, successive commissions and workshops which return repeatedly to writing as reflective practice and to writing the self, inform and strengthen what we do in NWP. James Britton remains at the heart of that.
When we were working together in the early nineties, one of Britton’s preoccupations was the value of life-writing. His chief contribution to our thinking is probably the work he did to explore the relationship between language and learning but there is so much else. First of all, Jimmy Britton enacted a generous and democratic approach to learning where everyone was included. Talking together, sharing experience through talk and writing is central to our growth as teachers and as persons. Writing, including the writing of young children is a vital part of growth and we should not eschew its difficulties. In using language to make sense of the world, he suggests, children understand the purpose of writing and are motivated to write. He proposed that the writing that children do in school should not be artificial, but engage with real experiences that are important to them. That they should ‘practise language in the sense that a doctor ‘practises medicine and a lawyer practises law, and not in the sense in which a juggler ‘practises’ a new trick before he performs it.’ At a time when, formal assessment of writing in the primary school seems to encourage an approach to writing which is nearer to juggling than anything, it is worth returning to what Britton has to say to us. He doesn’t suggest this approach is easy, but that it does make difficult things ‘worth the struggle’. Above all, he says, children learn to write by writing. They learn to write when they learn that writing will help them to gain a purchase on the world, will help them make sense of the world in ways that are different from the way that talk helps them to do so.
James Britton, paid close attention to what children say, to how they use make-believe and to what they write, placing their written works alongside any literary canon. We are all, he argued, using writing in similar ways. In taking the writing of others seriously, especially the writing of children, Britton reminds us of the importance of listening. That listening to the other, which is not a passive thing, but a joining into a conversation, is crucial for child writers, and, I would argue, for adults. At the end of his essay, ‘Writing to Learn and Learning to Write’, which I have quoted elsewhere, Britton writes:
And then, finally the teacher as listener. We must be careful not to sacrifice to our roles as error spotters and improvers and correctors that of the teacher as listener and reader. I could sum it all up very simply. What is important is ‘that children in school should write about what matters to them to someone who matters to them’.
Prospect and Retrospect p 110
I realise that I am well over a reasonable word count. James Britton has so much to say to us about language and learning, about honouring children and each other as fellow writers and learners. He knew that education is an effect of community and LATE’s conference will be a manifestation of such a community. He also was hopeful that, even in the face of anxieties about recession, teachers would continue to work with children at the centre of their thinking. In 1980 he told the third ICTE conference in Sydney, Australia:
Moving into the eighties, into rough waters with plenty of problems educational, social and political, I am not pessimistic. I pin my hopes to quiet processes and small circles in which I believe I shall see, if I’m still alive at the end, vital and transforming events taking place.
I sometimes find it hard now, more than thirty years on, not to feel pessimistic. However, the teachers whom I meet regularly through NWP give me great cause for optimism. There are quiet processes and small circles. There are vital and transforming events. I think that this conference will be such an event.
You can register for the conference on the LATE website: http://www.late.org.uk
Myra Barrs and Tony Burgess, who will be keynote speakers, have created a generous and thought-provoking anthology of James Britton’s writing. Most of the text quoted here can be found in it and we are lucky enough to have a link to the anthology.
There are 8 workshops to choose from, including Barbara Bleiman and Andrew MacCallum on literature, Sarah Horrocks on children writing blogs, Valerie Coultas and Stuart Scott on Talk, Learning and Diversity and Gabrielle Cliff Hodges on poetry. I shall be running a workshop called ‘Children and teachers learning to write’ and Simon will be there.
The final panel members incude Douglas Barnes, Jane Miller, Anne Turvey, Myfanwy Marshall, Mehrunissa Shah, Lisa Moore, Heather Wood.
It would be great to see you there. If not, enjoy the collection of writings. I hope they prompt you to explore further.
NWP research director