'Japonica glistens like coral in all of the neighbouring gardens,
And today we have naming of parts.'
('Naming of Parts' by Henry Reed, 1942)
When we are so beleaguered, how can we ensure that we and our pupils are not defined merely by these external measures and the judgements of others?
I want to suggest that through persistent, quiet agency, teachers can become authors of their own destiny and write/right the future by doing things with children today which will liberate, empower and enrich them - and make life better for us all. Indeed, we can hardly truly term ourselves professionals if we let our story be told entirely by others. So, NWP is addressing that: day by day, in our own writing and in our writing groups, our own agency grows. We are telling a different story.
NWP is exploring the potential of writing, and attempting, in many ways, to question the dominant, exclusive paradigm of writing as social product whose qualities and applications are examined and determined by others. Whose writing is it anyway? NWP proposes a more inclusive paradigm of writing as an individual and collective process - a 'growth' activity whose creative potential should not be circumscribed by tradition, commerce or power. The world is changing, the evidence is gathering and, despite a deafness in some quarters, there is a conversation to be had.
And we are not alone. Mark McGurl, in his recent book 'The Program Era', ponders the rise of 'creative writing' in the late 20th and early 21st century (Click here to hear his interview podcast: McGurl ). Virtually anyone can now be a published author on the internet. University places have multiplied(from 10% to 50% in the last 50 years in UK/US) and creative writing degrees are expanding exponentially (from 3 to 104 degree courses in the UK in the past 40 years cf earlier blog). Reader-writer relationships are changing: where are the readers for all these writers? - a question which writing groups are well-suited to answer.
As teachers are all too painfully aware, political reactions to these seismic social shifts are not always benign or helpful to education. It seems that the more threatened some people are, the more intransigent they become - and the less they are prepared to listen.
Yet there are many enlightened voices outside academe who are keen to have this conversation and from whom we can learn.
I have recently been discussing writing with a growing number of writing groups in the community. Why do they write? A health professional who works with bereaved children tells me how writing is used as one of several ways to confront, hold, re-frame and control trauma. Of course, teachers who encourage children to explore their thoughts, feelings and memories independently, will already know of the therapeutic value of 're-creative' or reflective writing. 'Reflective writing asks the practitioner not only to pull back the lens and observe events, human interactions, and perspectives in the field of study, but also to become more conscious of his/her emotional responses to situations encountered in training and practice, to find metaphors for experiences, and to contextualize observations.' (Reflective writing wiki) Unfortunately, those advocating a purely cognitive education pathway where 'knowledge' is privileged, disregard the very aspects of human behaviour, and especially those emotional properties of writing, which will inspire and deepen learning.
'Write more, feel better'- this is one of the findings from the work of James Pennebaker, Professor of Psychology, University of Texas. (Click here to read his The health benefits of narrative or hear him talking with Claudia Hammond on Radio 4 about the benefits of expressive writing JP talking to Claudia Hammond 2013 BBC R4 .) He found that not only did a week's worth of writing for 20 minutes a day help reduce surgery visits, by giving people more control over their anxieties, but that the storying involved contributed to education grade improvement.
Of course, our project approaches writing from a different angle, and is not focused on writing therapy but on improving the quality of writing and the depth of the learning and teaching experience. However, teachers who have read James Britton's 'Writing to learn and Learning to write ' (NCTE 1972) will hear echoes of what he said about expressive writing: '... we must give more credit than we often do to the process at the point of utterance and not inhibit the kind of discovery that can take place by insisting that children know exactly what they are going to say before they come to say it.' (Click here for full text)
James Britton was then chair of NATE. 25 years earlier he had been a founding officer of LATE (the London Association for the Teaching of English). Today, NWP joins hands with LATE to put on a conference on 'Teaching Writing' at Goldsmiths. Teachers of writing will be giving up their Saturday to continue what James Britton and others started - to advance the teaching of writing - by writing themselves.
The future is literally in our own hands.
NWP outreach director