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CPD for teachers – why it should include time for creative writing

We must find time for creative writing during teacher CPD sessions, says Mark Lowery...

  • CPD for teachers – why it should include time for creative writing

During 17 years in teaching, I must’ve attended a hundred CPD sessions about writing.

I’ve brainstormed six trillion ways to write in other subjects.

I’ve got a black belt in seventeen forms of assessment.

I’ve moderated so hard I thought I might lose an eye.

I’ve been rigorously drilled in how to write feedback comments, how to not write feedback comments, and how to express feedback comments through contemporary dance.

I’ve attended a seven-day summit in Davos to resolve the whole purple-pen-green-pen controversy.

And I’ve watched two mature female colleagues slug it out like drunken sailors in the car park over whether or not we should use ‘well done’ stickers in books.

But how many meetings have focused on me becoming a better writer? Exactly four. And those four sessions only happened because I asked the headteacher if I could run them myself.

If I hadn’t asked, then I wouldn’t have ever had any training to develop my skills and confidence in writing.

We all agree that writing is central to the curriculum, and hugely difficult. We all agree that future employers are crying out for a creative workforce who can communicate effectively.

We all agree that children learn better when their teacher is confident, enthusiastic, and has sound subject knowledge.

And we all agree that it’s really hard to model anything in front of children, especially if you haven’t had much practice at it.

Yet, for a lot of primary teachers, creative writing isn’t something they’ve actually done since secondary school.

To quote a former colleague: “Outside the classroom, I never even write a shopping list.”

If schools find time and opportunities for teachers to develop their own writing skills, the benefits can be enormous. I believe that creative writing CPD has the potential to change a whole school’s attitude towards, and culture of, writing.

Morale and empathy

Firstly, teachers and TAs are extremely creative people. By offering writing CPD, schools can give them an outlet for this creativity, enable them to develop it and show them that it’s valued.

Perhaps it might encourage them to use their creativity in other ways, and boost morale.

It will also enable staff to develop a greater understanding of the writing process. They’ll become more confident in their own skills, and consequently more able to model high-quality writing in front of a group.

A staff meeting offers a safe and supportive space to practise, away from 30 sets of watchful eyes.

It should also lead to staff having greater empathy towards children.

By carrying out writing tasks themselves and talking them through with colleagues afterwards, teachers can learn a lot about how children might feel during similar activities, and what might help them.

How did it feel when you looked at the blank sheet? How did other people’s ideas inform yours?

Would you like to read it out or are you more comfortable to just share it with the person next to you?

What might’ve made that task easier or more enjoyable?

And, perhaps, did it help you when I wrote 20 technical points on the board that you had to follow or your work would be deemed a failure?

Box-ticking exercise

With this last question in mind, there’s long been a dichotomy between the ideas of creativity and technical skill.

The current heavy grammar focus, and the ‘writing by numbers’ approach of the Literacy Strategy before it, have meant that (in some classrooms) writing has become more of a box-ticking exercise than a worthwhile, creative activity in its own right.

Teachers, and by extension children, have been drilled that ‘good’ writing follows a set of predetermined features. Yes, these features are important but, sadly, this approach alone can result in us all missing the point somewhat.

Really good writing transports us somewhere else, affects us emotionally and lets us walk in someone else’s shoes.

How often have you lamented about a child whose technically-perfect work is bland and ‘lacks a spark’? These intelligent, diligent pupils tick all the boxes because they’re conditioned to believe that writing is all about the replication of a list of specified elements.

However, without also focusing on the value of the intangible aspects of writing – the creative process, the essence of the piece – some children will only ever produce flat, uninspiring and uninspired work.

Shared experience

Giving children a strong purpose for their written work goes some way to developing the idea that it’s valued and relevant.

However, in order to really motivate children, teachers themselves need to be fully engaged in the creative process themselves so they can model it with enthusiasm and credibility.

Put simply, being a writer is at the heart of teaching writing. By regularly experiencing creative writing, staff will be in a far better position to help others to do it more effectively.

Hopefully they’ll be more attuned to finding those sparks of brilliance that illuminate an effective piece of writing but perhaps don’t tick a particular technical box.

Which feedback would you prefer on your work: “Well done. You’ve used three relative clauses, a fronted adverbial and an obliterated espadrille”; or: “I love the way you’ve built up the tension here. It’s so creepy. I found it really hard to do that in my story. Can we share it so we can all see how you did it?”

Of course, there’s no reason why this shouldn’t extend beyond the staffroom and into the classroom.

The next time you set your class off on a piece of writing, why not do it yourself at the same time? Writing alongside you will show the children that the task is worthwhile.

Afterwards, you can discuss the work with them as a fellow writer, comparing and contrasting your successes, challenges and shared experiences.

Writing is hard. Teaching other people to write is even harder. But teaching people to write without writing yourself? That’s impossible.

Get the most out of your writing CPD

  • If you need some writing CPD, request it from your head or SLT. They can’t know unless you ask them!
  • Think carefully about when it’s timetabled. The morning of an Inset day is probably best. People don’t always jump for joy when they’re asked to write a story at 3:30pm on a Thursday afternoon.
  • Don’t be too guided by outcomes. Well-structured but open opportunities to write work best, then reflect afterwards on what you found, felt and learnt. Comparing people’s experiences can be really illuminating and leads to greater understanding of children’s attitudes to writing.
  • Invite TAs along. They’ll benefit from practice too (as will the children they support).
  • Think about the type of activity you want to do. Do you want to try several short, sharp tasks (eg story opener, poem, letter to a character), or do you want an hour to write a longer piece?
  • Encourage everyone to take it seriously by explaining the reasons for it clearly.
  • Repeat the training later in the year. Focus on different skills and reflect on any ways that the training has impacted on practice.

Mark Lowery is the author of 10 books for children. His latest, Eating Chips With Monkey (Piccadilly Press), is out now. Mark carries out school author visits and teaches part-time in a primary school near Cambridge. Find him at marklowery.co.uk and follow him on Twitter at @hellomarklowery.

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