By Jamila Gavin, novelist, Arvon tutor and Advisory Group member for the Teachers as Writers project
When I was first attempting to write, my mother who had been a lifelong teacher gave me what I think was one of the best pieces of advice for becoming a writer: read, read and read. Read the best, read widely, see how the good writers do it.
When she said “the best” – she meant – not only ‘classics’ but the best of all writing. It didn’t go unnoticed, that both my parents who were avid readers were also superb writers: not in the pursuit of publication, but writers of articles for their professions, of letters to their wide-flung relatives, and of commentaries about things that interested them. Surely, the grind of learning English grammar: those nouns and prepositions; those connective adjectives and determinants – those – oh heavens – there are grammatical terms whose meanings I’m still vague about and I would surely fail in a SATS test – but aren’t they all to be found in good books from Jane Austen to Ian McEwan, Charles Kingsley to Jacqueline Wilson or Philip Pullman? (I know my sentences are far too long!)
I know Philip Pullman detested the thought that any of his books should be used as merely a dry tool from which to learn how to do it. But there is surely a middle way? Though I too loved reading, my great enjoyment at secondary school was when our English teacher read to the class from Great Expectations, or Treasure Island, or King Lear; and here comes the nub – it was her enthusiasm and her passion for what she was reading which enthused us all, and made us hunt out those books and continue reading them; books which became a gold standard and a basis throughout our lives. We do need excellence as well.
However, we know that good schools know how to make their teaching creative. If they are studying World War Two as History, then they are reading Carrie’s War, Kensuke’s Kingdom, or The Boy in the Striped Pyjamas. So similarly, I wonder: are books being used in the ‘English lesson’ or the ‘Creative Writing lesson’ in the same way – not just as an example of good writing and storytelling, but with time for books to be read cover to cover for sheer enjoyment? Ideally, reading is a unique space; a one-to-one with the author and reader; a silent engagement and relationship which allows the experience to be imbued in the reader and, by a kind of osmosis, extend their vocabulary, and their understanding of how good writing creates a good story. I know this is what my mother meant.
With public libraries closing in droves, and even school libraries reducing, I am concerned that not only have we generations of children who may not be reading for pleasure or see the importance of books, but generations of teachers who also have not had that joy of reading. Indeed, I’ve always found it alarming the number of people I meet who studied English at University only to have the love of reading crushed out of them – and these may well be the same people who go on to teach.
There is now the combination of the shrinking library service, and the increased volume of learning young children are expected to take on, and teachers must teach. I hear their pain. No time, no time. And in turn, this leaves very little room for the space and time to read for pleasure. It seems an irony that children are learning to write, but spending less and less time reading.
But I have loved reading this Teachers as Writers blog about all the ingenious and creative ways that Arvon’s Writer Co-mentors have been working alongside teachers to inspire young writers: mining their experiences, giving them the confidence to find their voices, helping them with the sheer craft of shaping stories, and yes – providing them with the inspiration to use their imaginations. I’m learning so much from them. All I wish is that we don’t forget to read.