Sunday 11th - 'the very dead of winter' - to the Royal Festival Hall to hear 10 poets shortlisted for T.S.Eliot prize. I sit next to a fellow writer who tells me that she is still employed as a librarian, but that her job-title has now changed to 'Service development officer - promotion and programming, stock and web management, community liaison and partnership'. (Catchy, eh?) After the cuts, she may now choose books only from a selection based on previous borrower trends and profiles. (Spot the catch? New writers? New readers?) The evening promises to be surreal.
Hush. We listen to a timely recording of Eliot reading 'Journey of the Magi'.
'A cold coming we had of it,
Just the worst time of the year
For a journey, and such a long journey:
The ways deep and the weather sharp,
The very dead of winter.'
Then Ian McMillan introduces each poet, one by one, to read, in the words of David Harsent, 'for 8 minutes, on full power'. I usually take my poetry slow, in bite-sized chunks; but now I reel from the 2-hour avalanche of concentrated thought. I can retrieve only fragments: Ruth Padel on the creative process - 'making is our defence against the dark'. Kevin Powers tells how 'war is just us making little pieces of metal pass through each other'. The words throng repeatedly, conjuring horrifying images and flying them about the hall in some kind of verbal exorcism. I leave the hall, with my signed copy of 'Fire Songs' burning in my hand, wondering whether, in these challenging times (Charlie Ebdou et al), freedom of speech might sometimes extend to shouting 'Fire!' in a crowded theatre.
Monday 12th - I am at the Buckinghamshire 'Write' project. After a morning of grammar, teachers turn to NWP. They write - lists and explorations of hendiadys (fair and square, swings and roundabouts, hammer and tongs ...). They go on a 'scavenger hunt'. They compose cinquains from picture postcards (see above). They reflect on how both structured and free approaches, undertaken collaboratively and individually, help develop writing confidence, and connect the learner to the learning. Overbearing instruction and over-speedy intervention can reduce engagement and autonomy. Poorly timed or unfocused, such approaches may actually inhibit writing development. What place is there for practice, experimentation and reflection?
One teacher, Helen Shakespeare, shares her reflective log:
Sept 2014. We were asked not to comment on each other’s writing with judgemental comments. It took all the pressure off and enabled me to write freely. It made me think about how every piece of writing children do at school is scrutinised. One child in my class, in a questionnaire about writing, in answer to the question: What is writing for? Answered: to be marked.
Oct 2014. I bought my class writing journals today. I talked at length about how to use them and what the possibilities could be. I reiterated the freedom they could have using the writing books. What followed was a stream of children asking questions that all began with, ‘am I allowed…’. Am I allowed to use pencil? Am I allowed to write a list? Am I allowed to copy? Am I allowed to… etc
It struck me just how rule bound and framed they were; bound by the need for permission and the existence of so many writing rules. If we want them to be creative… if we want free writers… then they need permission and they need experience of the removal of rules from time to time.
In the workshop we reignite our love of language (constabulary, croissant, flabbergasted, spinach, cusp, albeit, poptiping ...) and use writing like a spade (God bless Seamus Heaney!). Writing lets us live our lives again. A student teacher, Dan, transports me to the Minnesota farm where he grew up. Here is the brush by the wall, the drain in the floor, and his younger hands rising 'red as lobsters' from the steaming water in the milking parlour. With our writing, we are lighting fires in the dead of winter.
Wednesday 14th - Reading Paul Munden's 'Beyond the Benchmark' - creative writing in higher education, 2013. Numbers peaked in 2010-2011 at about 7,500. 'Our aspiration for graduates is that they leave equipped not only to make a living, but also to take a leading role in creating the culture they wish to inhabit.'
Thursday 15th - In Nottingham to collaborate on an article about where we are now with writing. We hope to publish in NATE's 'Teaching English' magazine, summer 2015.
- Which students take up Creative Writing 'A' Level (2100 took AS in 2014) - and what motivates them to do so?
- How do their writings 'feed off each other' - personal, online, across the curriculum?
- What's the emerging evidence from writing teachers? How does writing yourself help you teach?
- How do external pressures - for good or bad - affect your teaching of writing?
- Within your school/institution, who and what helps and hinders - and how?
Friday 16th Jan - With 4 year old children in Aylesbury. We are reading, chanting, dancing and re-enacting Little Miss Muffet. They dig out toys to help - a spider glove puppet, a doll's cushion, a shell for Miss Muffet's bowl. We take on different roles. Our lives start to run alongside. For one girl, this must all happen in Butlin's; for another, there must be brothers. Screaming is important - and not just at 'expected' moments - and so are a range of variously disgusting eating noises. We find some sticky letters for our names. We make some small books. We are writers.
Saturday 17th Jan - I travel 50 miles through the falling snow to speak to another group of teachers about NWP. Later, in the meeting that follows, a teacher advocates challenging students, after they have written, to include level 6 punctuation. This chimes with others who advocate similar 'processed learning', which can accelerate children to their culturally assigned destinations. Many now seem busy tidying up writing and locking it away in vacuum-sealed grids and flow-charts. Stuff the kids full enough with acronyms and they may never need to think for themselves again. Just: GRIT, PEE, CUBE, JEWEL, and DIRT.
On the drive back, I give myself a good talking to. Of course we must address otherness as well as self. We should feed children rich texts and empower them through familiarity with convention, and develop their skills. But we must also give pupils' courage to confront their own truths, however inconvenient and difficult. We should cultivate collaborative and independent ways of thinking, and an appetite for messy, meaningful writing where each can give their own witness in their own words. If we do, we will be the richer for it.
When I get home, I discover that, for his English homework, my 6 year old nephew has been asked to write a sentence about each of 6 nursery rhymes. Each sentence should contain a 'subsidiary clause'. (The all-round good egg, Humpty Dumpty , tumbled to his death because he adopted a 'cavalier' attitude to WALL (Writing A Lot Literally), and relied on an overstretched emergency call-out service whose long response times had fatal consequences.)
(I promise that I am not making this up. Well, the response yes, but not the task.)
However, when my old laptop warms up, I am reassured to learn that in Buckinghamshire, Gloucestershire, Sussex and Bristol, more writing teachers want to start and join NWP writing groups. They want to practise what they teach. I think back to Ruth Padel in the Royal Festival Hall a week ago: "We break the line to shape it." Breaking ranks? A creative act?
Whenever we act creatively, we cannot fully know what good it will bring, nor whom it may affect. But I believe it is by such actions that we honour freedom of speech and thought, the building blocks of an inclusive democracy. We travel in faith and hope.
These teachers may not realise it yet, because it's hard to understand what you have yet to discover, but they are lighting fires in the very dead of winter. And, boy, is it cold out there!
NWP outreach director