By Alicia Stubbersfield, poet, Arvon Tutor and Writer Co-Mentor on the Teachers as Writers project
Aaron Becker’s marvellous textless picture book ‘Journey’ formed the basis for the Teachers as Writers narrative project, devised by primary teachers Catherine Greenwell, Lucie Merson and me, for Elmhurst Junior School. The book shows the adventures of a small girl (though the way Becker depicted her gender is interestingly ambiguous and lent itself to perceptive discussion among the children) after she finds a red crayon and, with daring and initiative, draws a door on her bedroom wall and steps through it, away from her boring life, into an adventure. It is not exaggeration to say that this project felt rather like drawing a door on our own wall, the one made of How-We-Always-Do-Things, and stepping through into a less certain, more exciting world.
I was lucky because I had the privilege to co-tutor the Teachers as Writers residential week at Totleigh Barton so had shared the intense experience of the group arriving as teachers and leaving as writers. This week gave Catherine, Lucie and me a short-hand at Exeter when we began to talk about our project. Ideas, sayings and practical exercises were already there for us to draw on.
We bounced ideas around and made notes about what we wanted the children to learn. It was a long list of skills, like how to create character and setting, but we also discussed philosophical aspects. Should there be a recognisable moral, for instance? Interwoven with these elements were poetry-writing exercises from Totleigh Barton. During the discussion there was no sense that we were anything other than equals, each bringing different skills to the mix. Lucie suggested looking at textless picture books, about which I knew nothing so I researched them and found ‘Journey’ which seemed perfect to me as there is a strong story and a clear visual structure which we could apply to written narrative.
I put together some ideas and emailed them to Catherine and Lucie. I found their individual responses really exciting. The two year groups would approach the book in slightly different ways but we used both the book and my Totleigh poetry exercises to focus on character for the first session. Although we negotiated a quite detailed breakdown of what we would do, and when, none of us knew exactly how it would work out on the day.
The way the project was set up invited us to challenge ourselves. I found it invigorating to do something new. All teachers, and ex-teacher-writers, like control and the wonderful part of this co-mentoring was relinquishing absolute control and seeing what happened: improvising and playing off each other.
It was a huge pleasure to watch how good teachers use their skills to settle the students, to build on what has gone before and to create the culture for this project to work. All three of us found the students’ writing really moving. The insertion of the poetry exercises helped the intensity of the writing but also the uncertainty we each felt in giving up individual control allowed the imagination to move in.