A community of human beings

By Joe Bibby, Learning and Participation Coordinator, Arvon

In a year doing this job, and several months administrating the Teachers as Writers programme and managing this project blog, I’ve had lots of opportunities to think about the teaching of writing and its effect on students. Last week I had the opportunity to visit one of our courses for young people for the first time. 

They were a group of 12 young people aged 14-15 from across two London boroughs, who are supported by Virtual Schools, offering educational support for children in care. They had come to Lumb Bank, Arvon’s writing centre in West Yorkshire, to be tutored in creative writing for a week by Roger Robinson and Femi Martin. I wrote alongside them in workshops, joined in with the cooking, ate and washed up with the group to get a sense of the journey from the inside.

At the beginning everything was new for them: the place, the people – even the idea of creative writing as a valuable endeavour was new. Their behaviour was challenging, relationships were forming, boundaries being tested. The tutors navigated this minefield expertly – balancing authority and understanding, switching activities if they didn’t work, treating these young people as fellow writers, gradually convincing the group they had voices and something to say with them.

The final readings on Thursday evening were intensely emotional; the stories they shared, heartbreaking and brutally honest. Stories of bereavement and family breakup, awful experiences in the care system, a huge outpouring of grief and pain. ‘I’ve never told this to anyone before’ – we heard that a lot. ‘I haven’t cried in years’ – we heard that a lot too. Now, the tears flowed; and with them, something else. A weight lifted perhaps, or a veil, allowing them to see self and others, emotions and creativity, with new eyes.

The bonds built between them over the week were crystallised that night, and without this sense of solidarity and common experience I don’t think they could have shared so openly. We talk a lot at Arvon about the ‘community of writers’ that our courses create and induct people into. This seemed like something much more basic – a community of human beings, with writing just a tool to serve that natural healing process we refer to as self-expression.

Coming home, coming back to the office, has felt strange. I knew the course had been transformative for them; I hadn’t considered that it might change me too. And I think it has changed me – in the way I think about my job and the work we do, in the way I think about young people, and in the way I think about writing. It’s not just a technical skill to be examined, a check-mark on a CV; it’s a vital human practice, an act of catharsis and compassion which binds us to each other and breaks down divisions. At the blank page and the sharing circle, we’re all equals – teacher and pupil, we’re all writers.

I knew this work mattered. Until now, I don’t think I realised quite how much.

Joe Bibby
Learning and Participation Coordinator

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