By Dr Anthony Wilson, Senior Lecturer, University of Exeter
Last week saw an important milestone for Teachers as Writers. The CPD/feedback day gave everyone involved in the project – teachers, writers and researchers – a chance to catch their breath and reflect on what has been achieved in the classroom as a result of the intervention. We used a very simple format. Every teacher/writer pairing was given eight minutes to tell their stories and share what has been happening in their classrooms. The results were a joyful celebration of collaboration, tenacity, imagination and, above all, what Seamus Heaney called the ‘power and scope’ of writing.
We saw pictures of children writing on the beach, in tents on the school playing field, alone on benches or in the shadows of trees. One school even built an impromptu tented city inside the classroom due to the weather. We heard stories of children writing using artefacts, from memory, from model-poems, from art, from taped off CSI sites, and from books without words. We were given insight into the different teaching styles of our team of writers. Many already had several years of teaching experience, both as visiting writers and from previous careers before writing full-time. One confessed to having developed a very performance-oriented method ‘based on pure fear, partly from my former life as an actress.’ Others spoke of the way the project had made them pay attention to teachers’ and children’s needs in a way they hadn’t before, listening and reflecting at each step of the planning process. One went as far as saying: ‘Before, I would come in and ‘do my thing’. Now, I’m not so sure.’
In each case there was a strong sense of the blurring of roles between teacher and writer. One writer told us how a particular session seemed to be dying on its feet. The class didn’t want to be there, they found the writing difficult, plus, it was a boiling hot summer’s day. An impasse had been reached. In terms of classroom control you might think it was the job of the teacher to bring the class back into some kind of direction and shape. But, thinking on their feet, it was the writer who decided the break the blockage, not by issuing more instructions, but by telling them a deeply personal anecdote from their own life. Suddenly the class were back, heads down, and immersed in their work. The risk to become personal rather than dictatorial in the classroom had transformed what had previously seemed ‘just another writing exercise’ into something vital and authentic.
Other teachers spoke with pride of the moment when they knew attitudes had shifted in their class, because they would hear children whispering ‘Go away, Miss is writing!’ to protect her from being disturbed mid-story as she wrote alongside her class. Shifts in teaching took place, too. ‘Now I ask them questions like: ‘What is the obstacle for that character?’ rather than ‘Where is your full stop?’’ said another. Speaking of a particular scene in a picture book that she had used with her writer-partner, one teacher said the project had been like a glimpse of ‘life beyond the door.’ She went on: ‘Having her here has revealed to me what I should be listening out for and celebrating in my children’s work.’ If that is not testament to the potential of having a writer in your school, I don’t know what is.
Dr Anthony Wilson
University of Exeter