Authentic stories have become an endangered species in schools (cf Mari Cruice’s article in ‘Teaching English’Issue 18, autumn 2018). Stories are more often healthier in the wild than they are in curriculum captivity. Factory-farming them for their flesh, greatly diminishes their health. It was a marvellous education to see and hear them running free at High Leigh this October.
Jeni and I met up with 15 community writers and writing teachers in Hertfordshire on Sunday 21 October, and for the next two days, we were restored by investigating different ways into narrative – remembered experience, texts, objects and our environment. We wrote, read, and listened together, guided by the words of Naomi Shahib Nye, Harold Rosen, Francine Prose, Neil Gaiman, Ursula Le Guin, Pat Hutchins, Philip Pullman, Cheryl Klein, Georgia Heard, Peter Elbow … and each other.
We thought first about how we gave ourselves and our children confidence to find their own stories and use them for learning. We considered the importance of play in developing a curiosity in vocabulary, etymology and narrative structures. We looked at the dynamics of cohesion, direction and character within narrative. We undertook a group exercise of withholding judgement by reading and re-reading writing by pupils in years 1, 3, 5, 7, 9, 11 and 13, the better to value what they understood about and brought to narrative. And we finished by sharing the stories we’d been working on over the two days.
Before we left on the Tuesday, we reflected on what we had learnt, what we would take away and what action we would take back at school.
Learning the value of truly attending to other people’s writing was top of most people’s list. Rushing to identify what you expect is not as rewarding as listening to what is distinctive and unexpected.
The residential provided for us – professional trust, belief and confidence – even ‘joy’. These were fresh discoveries mentioned by many: ‘I have learnt that writing comes from the heart and soul’. Others took away insights into the value of response partnerships, a set of folded paper exercises - and even a surprising tolerance to tofu!
We left with resolution to revive our writing and our classrooms: to create time to ‘turn off the editor’ and generate more writing, to practise free writing daily, to develop a range of ways that we and our pupils might re-read our own writing, to rethink how we teach editing. And many of us wanted to spread the word about our discoveries – so this is my attempt to let the caged word wing.
NWP outreach director