By Professor Debra Myhill, Director of the Centre for Research in Writing, Pro-Vice Chancellor and Executive Dean, The University of Exeter
Whenever I prepare something for sharing in a public forum, I am modestly pleased with my efforts at the start, but as soon as somebody else shares their work, I instantly re-evaluate my work and wish it were better! I’m sure I’m not the only one who feels this!
Yet sharing is at the heart of the Arvon experience. It is part of one of the four key values that underpins Arvon’s work:
SUPPORTIVE: Creative writing is a craft that can be learnt, through guidance from experts, and through the peer support that comes from creative friendships with fellow writers. At Arvon, writers teach writers, and everyone encourages each other to become a better writer.
It is evident from the Teachers as Writers project audio diaries that the teachers who attended the residential week at Totleigh Barton found the sharing at once both the most intimidating aspect of Arvon and the most rewarding. One teacher remarked on the ‘ominous silence that greets the request for the sharing of writing’ during the morning workshops and another, thinking ahead to the sharing of their work on the final day admitted that she was ‘dreading reading out loud on Friday’. For one teacher, the awareness that she was going to have to read out her work inhibited her writing:
‘all I could think was ‘oh my God I’m going to have to read this out’ and it really affected my ability to start writing and I just found it really difficult’. So why such pain in sharing in a group of confident professionals? In part, this is about our sense of identity – here were teachers in a community which valued writing and being writers, and not everyone yet felt comfortable with themselves as writers. It is also potentially painful because sharing is about feedback. Open sharing in a workshop session sometimes drew an evaluative comment from the tutor, but perhaps even more than that was the implied evaluation of peers. For some teachers receiving feedback was hard, and as one teacher reflected ‘it’s not easy getting that feedback and you really want feedback from your bits of writing to be good and it’s very painful when they’re not always’.
But the pleasure in sharing is significant and for many this intensified as the week went on. Sharing work was a way of adopting a writer identity and for some it was highly affirming, ‘validating me as a writer’. It was also about growing together as ‘a really supportive group’ who trusted each other, and where there was ‘a continued sense of really sharing’.
Following the residential, the sharing element of Arvon had a considerable impact on the teachers’ thinking about their classroom teaching of writing, and was one of the more commonly visible aspects of changed pedagogy. On one level there was more empathy for children and a recognition that the teacher’s mandatory requests for sharing had not taken sufficient account of how children might feel about sharing. But alongside this empathy was an enthusiasm for the pleasure and value of making sharing a regular part of the writing classroom. The teachers themselves wrote with students more in the lessons and shared their own writing, in one case triggering ‘spontaneous applause’ from the class. The professional writers in particular used sharing as a way to model how they composed and revised, including one author who shared a draft extract from a book she was currently writing and talked about how ‘scary’ that was. And the children themselves had many opportunities to share their writing – with peers in peer dialogue, with the whole class, and in some cases, in published fora.
The students recognised this change in their teachers with incredible insight. One secondary student’s comment on the teacher sharing her work shows how they valued this: ‘People think, “Ah she’s an English teacher, she should be confident, proud in her work”, but she’s not, she has insecurities about her work and obviously we can relate to her’. In a primary mixed year 3 and 4 class, one child noticed that when the teacher was reading aloud ‘she started turning round because she got emotional’ and drew from this ‘don’t be scared when you’re reading your work out.’ The student responses make it clear that the teachers were creating more relaxed classrooms, where sharing work was accepted, where ‘you can share ideas and feedback’, and where the style was more interactive and collaborative. The teachers were creating a real community of writers.
Professor Debra Myhill
Director of the Centre for Research in Writing, Pro-Vice Chancellor and Executive Dean
The University of Exeter