Thinking like a writer

By Cliff Yates, poet, Arvon tutor and Writer Co-Mentor on the Teachers as Writers Project

Arvon changes you – the workshops, the tutorials, the time to write – you’re so immersed in the process of writing that you come away thinking like a writer.

It was such a pleasure working on this project alongside two enthusiastic teachers who had recently completed the Teachers as Writers Arvon week. Participating in an Arvon course and thinking like a writer has a transformative effect on your teaching. (This was my experience as an English teacher.) You want your students to experience the thrill of writing. The most striking effect is that you learn how to lead a workshop: how to make it possible for everyone in the class to write something; how to establish an atmosphere so that everyone feels ‘safe’; how to choose something that’s accessible and yet which allows the students to stretch themselves.

There’s the whole question of accommodating the uncertainty of writing. A particular workshop exercise may not work for everyone – even established writers don’t necessarily write well in every workshop. This can be allowed for by suggesting alternative approaches, or by doing more than one exercise during a lesson. It’s important to encourage students to take risks; one strategy is to say that not everyone will have to read back, so that students are free to write about what is important to them, not only what they feel safe about sharing with the rest of the class. We want students to write to please themselves, not to please their friends (or to please us).

A workshop is a way of giving students space to write in which they have the opportunity to surprise themselves. As Robert Frost said: ‘No surprise in the reader, no surprise in the writer.’ A characteristic feature of the work written by the students I encountered in this project was, in fact, the element of surprise. After one free writing warm-up exercise, for example, various students shared their stories of stealing a road, a soul, the queen, and (this one’s true) of eating a squirrel.

Apart from the lively brilliance of the students’ writing, there were two events that stood out for me during the classroom sessions. The first was the student who boldly volunteered to read back first, who, it turned out, was usually far from confident about his writing. The second was the student who shared a piece about a family bereavement which was so moving that afterwards no one could speak. At the end of this particular session, the teacher turned to me and said how important it was that the student was able to write that. Everyone, she said, should have this experience.

Cliff Yates

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