By Anthony Wilson, Senior Lecturer, University of Exeter
One of the joys of working on the Teachers as Writers project is that I get to steal. As a researcher I share and exchange ideas about writing theory and pedagogy, all the while learning from my colleagues how to plan and conduct research in a way that is transparent and robust. I have visited hundreds of classrooms during my career as a teacher educator, but I still think of myself as the person in the room next door, on the lookout for new ways of doing things. This is no less true of writing, both the teaching and practice of it. Even though I have tutored at Arvon courses myself it was a privilege to observe tutors’ practice from the other side of the fence as it were, noticing resonances as well as differences, storing their exercises away for future use. To quote from Keats, ‘my ear is open like a greedy shark’.
But as both Lucy Oliver and Debra Myhill have noted in their previous blog posts, noticing, capturing and using ideas for writing is a tricky business, whether you are a professional or in Year 9 on a wet Wednesday. In Still Writing, her memoir of the writing life, Dani Shapiro uses the word ‘shimmer’ to describe the transience of an idea arriving, as much a feeling as a thought, ‘that sudden, electric sense of knowing.’ All of the teachers who came on our Arvon residential in April have experienced this. But they also recognise, as do the writers on the project, that teaching ‘having ideas’ to students is not straightforward. Creativity theorists acknowledge this problem in the ‘bath, bed and bus’ model of creativity, so-called because those are often the places where we are not consciously thinking at all: the mind, free to wander, comes up with new ideas and solutions of its own accord. Think of Archimedes in his bath, or J. K. Rowling coming up with Harry Potter on a train to London.
This is where I think having writers working alongside teachers in the classroom can be really useful. On a similar but smaller project I worked on a few years ago teachers noticed how writers would receive students’ ideas for writing with a kind of rapt attentiveness, never dismissing them out of hand but always treating them on their own terms: ‘We could make our main character a three-headed alien from Keynsham,’ they would say, ‘but is the reader going to care if he gets dropped from the rugby team?’ In this way they gave students permission, both to think of anything and to make judgements about their ideas at the same time.
When I visit classrooms as a writer I am quite open about my stealing. ‘All writers steal,’ I tell them. ‘And anyway, T. S. Eliot told us that we could.’ I show examples of how I have used lines by favourite writers as starting points for my poems, and how I covered my tracks afterwards. I know the teachers on this project have already started stealing from their partner-writers. Before long the writers will be doing the same.
University of Exeter