Writing Teachers: what we are learning
by Jenifer Smith
Article in NAWE's 'Writing in Education' no.70, autumn 2016, ISSN 1361-8539
Writing is learned from the inside out. It is not a subject like geography that can be doled out in parcels of information. Writing is a discipline and, as with any discipline, whether spiritual or physical, the doing is everything. No one can do it for you.
(Anne Enright 2011:64)
I have been writing with and alongside teachers for nearly thirty years. For my own pleasure and growth, but also for the key role it plays in Continuing Professional Development and in Initial Teacher Education. Now, at the University of East Anglia (UEA), this practice of writing groups is embedded in the Primary PGCE course. Since 2009, the work of teachers’ writing groups has been more formally recognized as part of the National Writing Project (NWP UK) co-founded by Simon Wrigley and me (Wrigley & Smith 2010; Smith & Wrigley 2012; Smith & Wrigley 2015). It has become something of a truism that those who teach writing should write themselves though this is never straightforward (Emig 1983; Graves 1983; Andrews 2008; Andrews and Smith 2011; Xerri 2016). The idea goes back at least to the 1966 Dartmouth Conference where English and North American educators met to discuss the ‘critical problems’ that teachers of English felt they were facing at the time (Dixon 1969). That teachers should have opportunities to write for themselves is fundamental to the USA National Writing Project, founded in the early 1970s and now present in over 200 university-based sites nationwide.
A key principle of both USA and UK Writing Projects is that there is no single right approach to teaching writing. However, as groups work together, they may find some approaches more effective than others. Communities of practice (Wenger 1999) develop mutual understandings and often shape distinctive ways of working which arise from their particular contexts and preoccupations. Whilst this makes it difficult to capture observable changes in practice, Whitney and Friedrich (2013) were able to identify three ‘orientations of NWP teachers’: towards writing, writers and the teaching of writing. NWP teachers, they suggested, were more able to organize and synthesize, in a principled way, the new knowledge and practice they are likely to encounter over the course of their careers. I would suggest that teachers who write together regularly and who at the same time discuss the teaching of writing experience writing as a responsible human activity; that the impact on classroom behaviours may not be easily visible, but that the impact is present, nevertheless, in the knowledge and understanding that teachers have and which informs their expectations and responses. Teachers’ Writing groups can be transformative. They change the ways in which teachers write and read, in the way they look at the world and in what they know and how they feel about themselves.
In the writing that follows, I shall focus on one group that I know particularly well. What I have to say goes beyond the local but the evidence here is rooted in a simple writing task that the group has, for the last three years, undertaken during the last meeting before the summer holidays. I simply ask everyone who is present to write freely in response to the sentence starter: “This year what I have learned about writing and teaching writing…..” As a consequence, responses are individual and not easily classified. The emphasis and preoccupations are theirs and are captured in the short time we have for writing. Reflection, developing a metacognitive awareness is an integral and essential part of writing development for both teachers and students. It is what contributes to confidence and autonomy, the sense of resilience even when things are not going well.
This year what I have learned about writing is that what is in my head doesn’t
always follow an easy path to the page and what makes it to the page usually
stays in my head.
..that writing provokes resistance…at first….hang in there and don’t give up
This paper represents the beginnings of what will become a more detailed and considered piece of work.
The Writing Teachers group at UEA meets once a month. The group includes student teachers, new and very experienced teachers who work with pupils from the early years to higher education. There is always time for writing for oneself, the opportunity to read aloud and receive responses, to hear the writing of others and to explore different approaches. We allocate time for discussion of ideas and of our readings of research findings in the field of writing and writing pedagogy. We discuss children’s writing. A break with tea and good biscuits is often extended, because this time for networking and talking about issues of mutual interest has become increasingly important. The individual teacher writer experiences themselves writing and reflects on that; they experience and reflect on those they teach and on themselves teaching and they bring these together with other practitioners in a space where the triangle of experience and reflection is completed.
The combination of writing and sharing writing within a community of teachers fosters confidence and enables teachers to engage with their pupils as fellow writers. It provides a space where teachers feel valued and where they can strengthen not only their confidence but also their resolve. The act of writing itself is a part of this process. The experiencing of and the drive to articulate an understanding of the affordances of writing and the crucial part it plays in learning are fundamental to the potential power of a teachers’ writing group.
This year what I have learned about writing is that it can be playful and whilst still aiming for high standards that creativity shouldn’t be taking second place to technical skills in my drive to raise standards. Already I am setting the balance more equally and reaping benefits from giving my class more freedom to become writers with their own voices. I have shared ideas and practice with other teachers and learnt different ways to approach teaching writing. I have … seen good practice learnt at Writing Teachers spreading at our school. It has made me re-evaluate how I teach writing.
Teachers are inevitably preoccupied with grammar texts, raising standards and an emphasis on secretarial skills but these teachers are seeking ways to foreground meaning and understanding.
Spelling and punctuation and grammar and syntax are crucial but only ever secondary to the interest and enthusiasm of the writer.
Capital letters and full stops are a penny that is always dropping. One day it will come to all, even those in your class
…working in Year 6 and facing the challenges of writing assessment I have learned to stand my ground. Grammar skills, sentence structure and the other requirements are, without doubt, useful. Yet they are useless and unfulfilled without purpose and passion.
For early years writing doesn’t always look like writing –but most of the time neither does mine- after all, lines and shapes are all writing is anyway! Lines and shapes that allow you to express yourself and communicate and therefore the emergent writing in EYFS is just as valuable as the neat, cursive text written by Year 6 –if not more so! Teaching to write is one task, letter formation, using phonic knowledge to spell…But what is really hard is teaching a love for writing and encouraging children –age 4- to WANT TO LIKE TO and make it meaningful for them!!
The presence of early years practitioners in the group has made us aware of the beginnings of writing and of principles which apply to writers whatever their age or experience. Teachers have relished playfulness and the unexpected, and have seen how:
Writing is so much more than pen to paper –
imagining talking drawing pretending creating
changing listening copying constructing
moving rearranging thinking
… that ideas trail up through the years as children get older. The same principles can be adopted for young and old.
Teachers write about the ideas that have inspired them during the year and those that have inspired their pupils. These reflect the kinds of writing we have done together: using objects, the strength of poetry in the writing curriculum, the value of first-hand experience and of both tightly structured and open-ended tasks.
Writing is all about life –the best ideas come from memorable experiences (bluebell woods) and interesting objects.
Being creative, variation, coming up with unusual ideas, [the] surprising shift.
Writing is not just words on the page, it is words on a label, words on cardboard, a long strip of paper.
Teachers have let loose their inner stationery fanatics and know that coloured pens are not only for the nursery.
…that where, on what and when we write can have a huge impact on the writing itself.
… that different pens and pencils, crayons and chalks can make it happen for some children. I have learnt that lines don’t always help and that having paper isn’t always important. Writing is talking and talking can be writing.
… writing needs space and time. A special notebook, a tidy desk, plenty of coffee. You can’t force it but you can give it the right conditions.
What teachers know about their own writing seeps into what they know about young writers who, in turn, teach teachers more about writing. What becomes important is orientation, a state of mind. Writing teachers develop strong understandings of both the cognitive and affective power of writing. They value time and patience. They are willing to tolerate uncertainty and surprise. They are willing to wait and to be open.
This year what I have learned about teaching writing is that some days I don’t want to do it because it doesn’t seem like it’s going to be a ‘good’ day. Everyone is too noisy or too keen to be moving. Then I remember that writing can be anywhere, even on the move. One word or line after line or in the mud with a stick. I don’t really want Liam to write in pencil on my computer screen but I’m actually a little bit pleased that he wrote something, anything, anywhere.
… that children need time to rehearse but also time to be quiet and concentrate on the task in hand.
Everyone has a story to tell but they don’t know it yet
..that prompts can lead in unexpected directions, that there always needs to be space –open expectation –a welcome for the unexpected outcome.
Many teachers say how much they value writing alongside pupils. Writing as part of a community has a powerful effect.
I have learnt that writing alongside students in my class makes us all learners together; and subsequently we all make more progress in our writing.
I have learnt how important writing is to my students, and how to help them use writing as a way to protect themselves and find an identity.
..that students never stop surprising you. That they need us to facilitate and encourage their finding their voice and that we need to teach them to have stronger and stronger voices.
…how writing can help create a community for young people who interact with each other’s imagined worlds. Writing together every week has made a safe place for some of my students.
Teachers’ responses to the prompt reveal the breadth of their engagement and understanding. They see that “reading and writing go hand in hand’ and “students who don’t read are writing with one hand tied behind their backs.” They realise that the more they write the more they are motivated to teach writing. They feel able to “let the writers take control – not set too many boundaries” and to say “I have much more to learn.”
I want to suggest that teaching writing in primary and secondary schools is a human activity. Our prime purpose is to introduce children to writing and to provide them with the opportunity to learn what writing can do and what they can do with writing; to understand that through writing they may inhabit the world more fully; that it can be a gift to others; that it is a tool for thought. Writing is a powerful medium of language, a distinctive, generative process that all children are entitled to use with confidence and for their own purposes. We teach writing so that children have the skills and understanding to make of it what they wish. We are learning writing from the inside out. We are acquiring a complex, conflicting, robust awareness of what it means to write, and to help children become writers.
Andrews, R. (2008) The Case for a National Writing Project for Teachers. Reading: CfBT Education Trust.
Andrews, R, Smith, A. (2011) Developing Writers Teaching and Learning in a Digital Age. Maidenhead: Open University Press.
Dixon, J. (1969) 2nd edition Growth through English. Oxford: for NATE by Oxford University Press.
Emig, J. (1983) The Web of Meaning: Essays on Writing, Teaching, Learning, and Thinking. Upper Montclair, NJ: Boynton/Cook.
Enright, A. (2011) ‘This is the gig.’ In Foden, G. (ed) Body of Work 40 Years of Creative Writing at UEA. University of East Anglia: Full Circle Editions.
Graves, D. (1983) Writing: Teachers and Children at Work. Portsmouth, NH: Heinemann Educational Books.
Smith, J. & Wrigley, S. (2012) ‘What has writing ever done for us? The power of teachers’ writing groups.’ In English in Education, 46(1) Spring 2012, 70 – 84.
Smith, J. & Wrigley, S. (2015) Introducing Teachers’ Writing Groups: Exploring the theory and practice. Abingdon: Routledge.
Wenger, E. (1999) Communities of Practice. Cambridge: CUP.
Whitney, A. E., Friedrich, L. (2013) ‘Orientations for the Teaching of Writing: A Legacy of the National Writing Project.’ in Teachers College Record Volume 115, 070305.
Wrigley, S. & Smith, J. (2010) ‘Making room for writing. The NATE Writing Project.’ In English Drama Media, October 2010, 13 – 19.
Xerri, D. (2016) ‘The significance of creative writing workshops for teachers.’ In Writing in Education, Number 69, Summer 2016.
Dr Jenifer Smith co-authored Introducing Teachers’ Writing Groups: exploring the theory and practice. (Routledge 2015) with Simon Wrigley with whom she also co-directs the UK NWP. She is a Visiting Senior Lecturer at the University of East Anglia where she worked with primary PGCE students and still runs a teachers’ writing group. Before joining UEA she was a LA advisor for English. She has been running writing workshops for teachers for over twenty-five years and has a particular interest in poetry and in personal writing. Her first poetry pamphlet, Reading Through The Night, was published by Garlic Press in 2015.