I realise that it is 40 years since I sat where they are sitting now.
Alison, their mentor, encourages them; but she also emphasises the importance of seeing beyond the exercises and remembering to develop their students’ agency as readers. This is advice born from experience of understanding English teaching as a fundamentally ethical as well as a technical endeavour.
So, maybe I am. Maybe we all are.
If we think 'writers' are exclusively defined by obedience to convention, high exam results or by whether their work can be monetised, then it begs the question, 'why are we teaching every child to aspire to something which only a few percent will ever achieve?'
First we celebrate the sound of favourite words and listen to how they bounce off each other – Michigan, pomplemousse, krankenwagen, crescent, hullabaloo, Zinedine Zidane ... Writing in schools is more often seen than heard. So often the music is part of the message, so often felicities and infelicities of shape, syntax and flow are readily revealed on the tongue or through the ears. Taking writing silently means so much learning is lost.
Each word has its own story, but we resist – for the moment.
We stay with our own thoughts, springboarding off a phrase suggested by Natalie Goldberg: ‘ I am thinking ...’, and we free-write for 5 minutes.
My writing begins in the now and in me, but moves into the past, to my mother, and then back to my son, thirty miles away. As John Hodgson observed (NWP residential 2017), we need to honour the unconscious workings of the mind as it weaves back and forth over the warp of our lives.
Attending to these fresh formulations of meaning can bring insight. For students wrestling with uncertainties and possibilities, unjudged free-writing provides space in which to become – and to learn. And that's useful knowledge for all teachers.
Finally we turn to Iain Crichton Smith’s ‘Gaelic stories’
A fisherman in wellingtons
and his sweetheart
and his mother
about an old man
and a seal
reading a Bible for seven years
waiting for a sailor
A peat stack.
An owl. ....
We unpack from our memories, four or five titles of some of our own well-known personal stories, anecdotes and incidents – the story of ...., the time when .... We talk together about what we have chosen – the comic, the tragic, the life-changing and the trivial. We each choose one of our titles to expand in a written re-telling; and then we write.
When we have written, we talk about the process – how it differs from talk - how the detail and emotion rush in, how we take unexpected turns, how we find ourselves living parts of our lives again. We do not assess our work, critique or even share it at all. We hold the experience. It is enough.
Read a student teacher's account here.
These observations are important. If they matter to us, they will matter to our students. They remind us of the power of collaborative re-creation. Sometimes the process is more potent than the product – which can be hard to remember or even validate when so much emphasis in schools is on ‘outcome’. But it our professional duty not only to remember it but to act on it. No one else will.
As with reading, so with writing, we need to respect our hinterland, not just the prescribed enclosure. This is about choice and time and agency – for us as much as for our students. By writing only in other people's language and structures, our own voices and ideas are lost. And would it not be wrong to allow such oppression and waste to prevail if we had the power to prevent them?
This is about the quality of our shared lives and learning, not just the measurable speed of it. It is why NWP writing groups are both laboratories of writing research, and also havens in which teachers can restore themselves, mulling over how today’s experience can inform their classrooms of tomorrow.
NWP outreach director