(Olga Rodriguez, a teacher on the Valencia 826 project. 826valencia.org/three-cheers-for-our-december-volunteer-of-the-month-olga-rodriguez/)
It seems that all of us should be proud of our innocent selves; we accede too easily to the superiority of experience. My grandfather kept his childhood self with him throughout his life and, infuriating though he could be, his innocent and joyful spirit lit up his later years with poetry and love. Olga's words remind me of that, as well as how important it is to continue to believe, despite appearances to the contrary, that the encouragement we give to others will benefit all our spirits.
On 13 December last year, at the Institute of Education, UCL, I attended the launch of Dominic Wyse's latest book, 'How Writing Works'. It is a cornucopia of fascinating insights on writing - the complex process and the social dynamic. The democratic spirit of John Dewey and Donald Graves informs much of the book, and, in the chapter on 'Creativity and Writing', Dominic refers to Valencia 826 - the first free writing centre in San Francisco, set up in 2002 by novelist David Eggers and educator Ninive Calegari. Valencia 826 is a non-profit organization dedicated to helping children and young adults develop writing skills and to helping teachers inspire their students to write. Behind a pirates' supply store, writing workshops are run by volunteers. They work wonders for the confidence of young writers - and the progress of pupils in underfunded US schools.
Two years later, in 2012, Dominic Wyse and a team from UCL, carried out a 3-year research project to evaluate some of the effects of Ministry of Stories.
Their main findings were that the MoS approach to creativity and writing had a powerful effect on young people's confidence and motivation. The young writers developed from a 'strong reliance on known texts, and derivative adaptation, towards reliance on what (they) saw as their own ideas and originality, recognised by their peers, by workshop leaders, by volunteers and by researchers alike'. (p 174)
One said, '... you have control over it (the writing process) and the MoS they give you power to do that.'
When compared to so much school teaching of writing, where the exercise book is sacrosanct, for its titles, dates, and underlining, small elements of choice offered over the tools of writing were an important addition to the more profound choices generated as a result of the MoS emphasis on creativity ... The importance of choice within supportive pedagogical environments was clearly beneficial, and in this and other elements of the MoS approach there were many parallels with creative writing courses for adults, including universities and colleges." (p 175)
Dominic outlines how MoS re-aligns education:
"Writing ... is a social process. Although writing involves the solitude of the writer, this solitude is punctuated by many interactions with other people... Understanding the social aspects of writing can help remove the anxiety of trying to produce the 'perfect' piece of writing, alone. If writing is done with the social in mind, the writer unconsciously opens spaces for others to contribute as some point in the writing process. For example, writers know when to leave drafts as provisional so that they can benefit from the input of others.... 826 Valencia and The Ministry of Stories offer a new vision of education where creativity is central to writing. Schooling around the world is rarely like this vision, but it could be." (p176)
In 2009, this project, NWP(UK), another non-profit organisation, was founded with a similar vision in mind, but we started with the cultivation of teachers' own collaborative creativity. By providing spaces for teachers to write together, they soon identified that the same trust, choice, structures and freedoms which benefited their own writing, equally benefited their pupils' writing. Without that experiential empathy, teachers might inadvertently underestimate the scope and difficulty of writing, how well children could do it, and how much they had to gain from being less preoccupied with being dutiful mouthpieces of other people's agenda and more concerned with becoming mature agents of their own.
NWP outreach director