The first is a new teachers' group. Some teachers are finding it hard to relax and let themselves write. The last time many of them 'permitted' themselves to write (and to play in that writing - to remember, to imagine and to connect), was when they themselves were pupils at Primary school. They have become pre-occupied with prescribed writing destinations ('wow' words, complex sentences, PEE et al); they have lost confidence in their own writing journeys - or themselves as authors. There is a tendency to ask 'low-agency' questions: 'what are we supposed to do?' and 'how will this help in the classroom?' Notice the passive voice.
The second group is a mix of adults from all walks of life, who have the freedom to commit to writing and to meet weekly. They are practised at getting straight down to common exercises. They share and discuss easily; they listen to each other attentively; they take advice, as well as give it. They take turns to lead a fresh exercise and set a longer task for 'homework'. They are fascinated by how others have responded with their own distinctive 'take'. All are confident in their writing 'voice' and write regularly in between each session. Talk here is 'high-agency', characterised by ' I thought I'd try ...' and 'I liked it when you...'. Notice the pronouns. There is a real conversation going on here.
In some ways there are no surprises. The differences remind us how circumscribed and busy teachers are. However, they also provide an insight into the factors that inhibit meaningful writing and the approaches which foster it - they show us how people learn to write, in fact: our job as teachers of writing! We almost need to remind ourselves that, as teachers, we are concerned with education, after all. This is not only our duty but our right. So, what can we do to create writing environments with the right balance of structure and freedom to support the independence and resilience of young writers? Maybe a starting point might be to think about writing ourselves.
Earlier blogs (16.12.2013, 17.6.2014, 3.7.2014) have celebrated the value of teachers 'writing alongside' their pupils: it may be the only time we have. However, it is also clear that even the shortest observations and experiments in notebooks can catch and hold fragments of ourselves and our world which will sustain us. If we teach, we can share and promote this practice with our pupils. By smiling and holding up our own notebooks, albeit from a distance, we may awake in children a sense of 'writing for pleasure - and learning' - in much the same way as, when we read our own chosen texts alongside our pupils, we demonstrate that we value reading, and derive pleasure from it.
But it is more than that. We situate ourselves in literacy and literacy in ourselves - it centres us. And we no more begin a book by knowing its ending than we begin a piece of writing with our plans fully formed. We discover things as we write, not always before it.
“I begin with writing the first sentence—and trusting to Almighty God for the second.”
We need to learn to do the same. We have to learn to let go - and to take ownership of writing. If the teaching of writing is our occupation, then it occupies us. But let us also occupy it! Join or start a writing group.
NWP outreach director