By Teresa Cremin, Professor of Literacy in Education, The Open University
Schools are busy places, the timetable is jam packed, lessons are pacy, and time to breathe, ponder and think is at a premium. There is considerable pressure on teachers to cover the curriculum, demonstrate set objectives have been worked on and assess what has been achieved in the given time frame. This can create a ‘hurry up and move on’ culture in the classroom, a sense of teachers and students feeling hurried and harried which is hardly conducive to learning. Where is the time to explore ideas as a writer? To engage playfully with texts and to revisit possibilities and select ideas and themes which might be worth pursuing?
Orchestrating the generation and evaluation of one’s ideas, the creation of images and phrases, whilst simultaneously trying to manage the demands of spelling, grammar, punctuation, letter formation or even keeping writing on the lines is not easy. So tailored teaching is undoubtedly necessary. So too is space and time to ‘just write’, to think one’s way forwards, play with options and stretch one’s voice through open unstructured, though not unsupported, exploration.
At Totleigh Barton, Arvon’s beautiful retreat in the Devon countryside where the sixteen practitioners on the Teachers as Writers project spent a week last Easter, time was set aside for them to write, to think, to read, discuss and breathe – deeply. The centre represents a rich and relaxed textual playground, a place not just to write, but to read and discuss texts too; a space in which its players are positioned as thinkers and meaning-makers. In the workshops, the one-to-one tutorials, the visiting writers’ talks in the evenings and in the open afternoons, there was considerable time and space for the teachers to pause, to step back from the melee of school and home life.
Analysing this data, it is clear that as members of this community of writers they were not only reading, responding, listening to texts and to published writers, but also being given very considerable time to try out ideas, to play with possibilities. Throughout the week, individually and collaboratively, they were digging down beneath the surface of concepts, memories, and objects and turning these around literally and figuratively in their minds and hands. Of the writing that emerged, much was written then discarded, to be returned to perhaps, other snippets, phrases and sections of their compositions were shaped, developed and even shared.
In the sessions, sharing their writing was mostly optional and as our analysis shows, initially few teachers were keen to let their authorial voices be heard. However with sensitive support, encouragement and relaxed invitations this shifted and on the last night they all read aloud a chosen piece they’d been working on. On the journey in the workshops, their choices to share or not to share were always respected and a practice of voicing self-chosen extracts emerged, single lines or phrases that the author felt resonated or worked for them. In many cases these were the lines that the teachers returned to and included in later texts as they seized the space to think and write.
In our classrooms too we need to build in space for hesitant exploratory writing, writing that is emergent, uncertain, and probably unstructured as it is spun into existence, writing that is not necessarily shared or assessed. The act of committing to page or screen in such an exploratory manner can foster new understandings of what we are trying to say and enable us as writers to take risks, and play with words and phrases that might capture or convey our unfolding meaning. As a consequence of their experiences at Arvon, many of the practitioners subsequently offered their young writers ‘Think books’ or journals in the classroom, allowing more choice and authorial agency, and affording the young people ownership of their journal writing, the entries in which, were not assessed, nor necessarily read by their teachers. Offering writers’ notebooks in school is not new, but affording real time to think and shape one’s thinking in and through them is not common practice. Nor is the opportunity to return to their emergent ideas to select ideas to develop further.
Young writers need space to breathe. Not only to write, but to read and discuss texts in small trusted non-assessed groups where they can try out their emerging thoughts and ideas, listen to others’ views and explore language, interpretation and meaning together. In school, pressured by time and expectations of written outcomes we tend to rush forwards, onwards but not necessarily upwards. Writers need time to pause and ponder, to read and write in informal non-regulatory spaces. Time spent in such textual playgrounds is surely time well spent.
Professor of Literacy in Education
The Open University