On reaching land

By Becky Swain, Head of Learning and Participation, Arvon

‘We reached land after what seemed like weeks on the open sea. Our supplies had all but run out, our arms ached and our hearts were weary.’

Not, I hope, descriptive of a mid-term mood as we head towards half term break, but an extract from the opening of a story by a Year 5 pupil from a school in Cornwall.

One of the joys of the Teachers as Writers (TAW) research project has been to read some of the writing generated by both teachers and students. Many pieces are accomplished, others raw with emotion and deserving of a scribe’s medal of honour for honesty, courage and giving voice to important histories and experience. As Teresa Cremin’s recent blog has described, many teachers and students have been ‘writing from the heart,’ and having shared their work in classrooms across the South West of England, their relationships are changed.

It has been an intriguing challenge to try to capture and measure the change that teachers, students and writers have experienced from working together, and it’s clear that not everything we value can be measured. A key challenge has been to try to articulate exactly what teachers are learning from working with professional writers and how the experience and learning is translating into new classroom practice.

At the end of day four of the teacher’s residential week last year at the Totleigh Barton Arvon Centre in Devon, we asked teachers to answer the question, ‘What am I going to take forward?’ From this swift post-it exercise one teacher wrote: ‘I am going to take forward the idea of creating a community of writers, ensuring that time to nurture this key life experience is ring-fenced and secure.’  She also noted:

  • I will stop talking and let them get on with it
  • I will stop insisting on a cast iron plan – sometimes it’s impossible to know where the character/story is going
  • ‘Shoes off’ atmosphere
  • More trips out to enhance pupil experiences.’

Apart from being the best use of the word ‘ring-fenced’ that I have ever heard,  the research team are aware that it could take some time to see the full effects of fine changes to the ethos of this one teacher’s classroom on their students’ writing, as well as their experience of life and learning.

And then there are the many unexpected outcomes from this project. One TAW school raised additional funds to develop a professionally produced anthology, Anyone Can Be a Poet. Another teacher brought their Year 5 students on a residential Arvon week so that they could experience the joy that she had felt to focus on writing for the week. One teacher entered her students’ writing into a regional competition for the first time and won the Under 11 category, dominating this category to receive runner up prizes and several highly commended entries. And how to measure the change for the teacher who sent a note of thanks because they had genuinely been wondering if teaching was the right career for them in the light of what they saw as ‘the conflict between government and department pressures and my own concept of what education should actually be.’ This teacher described how she had been inspired by the residential week and that it had shown her, ‘how important it is to strip it all back to basics, engaging pupils and motivating them through building their confidence and sharing a love of your subject.’

Whilst the research team will produce a full research report over the summer, the process of editing tens of thousands of words of analysis to a succinct Executive Summary has been an epic task.  The summary that will be shared on 24 May will no doubt try to encapsulate the findings with a focus on four key areas: Engagement and Writer and Teacher Identities; Impact on Teacher Pedagogy; Impact on Student Outcomes; and Impact on Professional Writers.

As Lucy Oliver’s recent blog suggests, as we reflect on the outcomes and impact of the project, we have to keep in mind, the degrees of separation between initiative and ‘impact’ and celebrate steps on the way.’ The evidence of gains in student enjoyment, motivation, confidence, creativity, understanding process, and ownership of writing are clear. But as Lucy Oliver points out, these gains in learning, ‘may not automatically make better writing, but good writing depends on them. Effective measures of impact serve not only to highlight progress along a causal pathway but also to point the way for future development. In our final report we hope to do justice to both.’

The Research Report Executive Summary will be downloadable from a link in our blog next week.

If you are interested in receiving a hard copy of the Executive Summary then please email us with your address details to learning@arvon.org.

Becky Swain
Head of Learning and Participation

2 thoughts on “On reaching land”

  1. A fascinating post, thank you Becky. This is such an important project, swimming against the bleak tide of SPAG and demonstrating what can be developed from ‘student enjoyment, motivation, confidence, creativity, understanding process, and ownership of writing’.

    What happens next to TAW? All best, Jean

  2. Thanks for your message Jean.
    As well as disseminating findings from the research as far and wide as we can, we aim to engage others in discussion of the findings and their implications at events through the year. If you know of any forums that might be good places for discussion let me know.

    Informed by learning from the project, Arvon will continue to develop more courses for teachers including week-long and short courses in 2018 and beyond.

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