By Kate Waring, English Teacher, St Peter’s Church of England Aided School, Exeter
I teach boys who are afraid to chase down a story. For them, a first line is a bigger obstacle than any kevlar-armoured, gun-wielding assassin on the gaming screen.
I haven’t made it easy for them. I breathe down their neck, ready to prise that first sentence from the paper and ‘improve’ it. I’ve thrown so many verbs, connectives and sharp-pointed adjectives at the class, that they dodge words instinctively. For these boys (and a number of girls), words are hard. All of them.
At Arvon, as part of the Teachers as Writers residential week for teachers in April, the roles were reversed; the teacher became the writer. It was my chance to be insecure as I entered the barn at the Totleigh Barton Arvon Centre in Devon for my first lesson. I curled myself up in the corner of the most distant sofa and tilted my notebook up so no one could see in. I think my first words were ‘I don’t know what to write’ and after that my courage failed me completely so I sketched a series of snails in the margin instead.
It took a day or two, but once I realised my work wasn’t going to be instantly snatched up and evaluated, I really got going. Resident writers, Steve Voake and Alicia Stubbersfield were our tutors and gave me the chance to breathe – and to write. I created a town where it had snowed for fifty years, other teachers wrote scenes from the Blitz and made poems about reluctant limpets.
After my experience at the Arvon residential week, I wanted to make my own classroom a safe place to write. Each student was given a writing journal and in every lesson they were given space and time for writing. No one had to share, though plenty offered, and there were no restrictions on form or genre. After a few weeks, I found that some journals were mysteriously disappearing at the end of lessons, only to return at the start of the next: juice-stained, sandwich-smeared, and full of home-writing. For me, it was a glimpse of the rich store of teenager’s ideas, once they are allowed to jump off the classroom tram-lines.
After the residential week each teacher was paired with a published writer as a co-mentor for the project, and Nick Stimson carried on this writer-teacher dialogue throughout the term. As a playwright and theatre director, he breathed fresh life into a class that was flagging at the tail end of a hot summer term. The kids created drug syndicates in back alleys; a love triangle on a hurricane-swept island and a narrative about a lost baby in a dustbin (a comedy scene that defies explanation).
We found that all students were ready to jump in and write. First lines were no longer an obstacle. They had confidence in their own ideas and sought out words, using them to nail down meaning and make their rhythm sing. To these kids, words had become weapons.
St Peter’s Church of England Aided School, Exeter