Why you Should Risk Writing Alongside your Primary Class
The creative process is full of hesitancy, crossings out and false starts, so why not show pupils this applies to you as much as it does to them, asks Professor Teresa Cremin…
Do you see yourself as a writer? Do you choose to write in your own time and take delight in blogging, tweeting, writing poetry or fiction, keeping a diary or sending good old-fashioned letters?
Perhaps your writing is less personally and more professionally focused – dominated by lesson planning, responding to emails, commenting on children’s work and the like?
Either way, you are a writer.
You are thinking and communicating on page or screen, informing or organising (yourself or others), and seeking perhaps to persuade, to influence, to inspire or entertain.
Regardless of text type or length, all writers all have to make choices and consider their purpose, form and audience – however fleetingly.
I wonder, do you think the children see you as a writer? Perhaps you already compose spontaneously in front of the whole class and write alongside children undertaking the same work, following this through to a final draft before publication?
If you don’t engage authentically as a writer in your classroom, why not consider giving it a go?
There’s a lot you can learn from being ‘inside the process’. It’s easier of course to prepare that cinquain or short story opening in the privacy of your own home the night before, with coffee, biscuits and TV breaks to oil your imaginative wheels!
But why not challenge yourself – risk joining in the pre-writing activities in class, then turn to the flip chart and compose live?
Your false starts, hesitancy, crossings out and constant iterative re-workings will reveal the emergent nature of your thinking as you write – despite detailed plans, we often find out what we want to say as we start to write it.
Later, why not also settle down in a group and write alongside the children as a fellow writer? If you do you’ll be a teacher and a writer, and in a better position to use your personal experience of writing and being a writer to enhance your teaching.
Yes, you’re a writer
The project Teachers as Writers (TAW) (2015-2017) explored these dual roles of writer and teacher and considered the classroom consequences. It was fascinating. A partnership between Arvon, the Open University and the University of Exeter, and funded by Arts Council England, the project offered 16 teachers the opportunity to participate in a week’s residential writing retreat and to work with professional writers on CPD days and in school.
It also documented the impact of this collaboration on the teachers’ identities as writers, on their classroom practice and on the young people’s motivation and engagement as writers.
At the start of the research many teachers didn’t see themselves as writers, including one who’d kept a daily diary for nearly 20 years! Like many of her colleagues she saw ‘writers’ as published novelists, poets, playwrights or journalists, not ‘just everyday writers’ (the comparatively disparaging label she applied to herself).
Many teachers lacked confidence and initially avoided voicing their writing in the group; sharing represented a significant hurdle. They were intensely worried about the possible value judgements of others, both their colleagues and the tutors.
But as the project found, even very experienced professional writers worry about their writing, and are sometimes fearful of being exposed or found wanting in some way.
Many children also express low self-esteem as writers, citing their inability to write neatly, to spell or to punctuate well; and voicing less than positive attitudes towards the whole process.
In the current accountability culture the young are also likely to be concerned about whether their writing includes the ‘non-negotiables’ demanded by the system. That is if they care about reaching the ‘expected standard’!
Some novice writers appear disaffected and disengaged; perhaps they are merely playing the school game called ‘writing’, and learning to view themselves as passive producers of texts for teachers, not creative composers of their own meanings.
In the TAW project, the tutors, Steve Voake and Alicia Stubbersfield, responded sensitively to the teachers’ vulnerabilities and built an atmosphere of nascent trust and security at Arvon.
Critically, they showed interest in the writers and their writing; they listened to the life experiences that often lay behind teachers’ words and ideas, and responded as humans first and as writing tutors second.
The informal ‘shoes off’ atmosphere was very supportive and gradually teachers’ authorial voices were heard, their intended meanings discussed, and a community of writers developed before our eyes.
This involved everyone, (including the tutors) in reading, discussion, writing, sharing, praise, critique, publication and celebration.
What were the results?
Back in the classroom, the teachers tried to create the Arvon ethos, they developed a more relaxed time and space for children to ‘Just Write’ (freewrite), to share and discuss their work and to find their voices through this process.
Many set up ‘Just Write’ notebooks which were not assessed (and became very popular), and they offered children greater choice over topic and form. In doing so they slackened the writing reins and let the young authors free.
These shifts in pedagogy paid dividends; young people reported considerably enhanced enjoyment and engagement; an increased sense of ownership; greater awareness of aspects of the writing process and more confidence as writers.
They attributed their gains in confidence to more interactive and collaborative approaches to text development and improvement, whereby ideas and writing were shared and discussed at formative stages (just as at Arvon).
They also identified approaches that helped strengthen their sense of authorial agency and self-assurance, which included teachers who shared their own writing and writing insecurities.
Whilst you may not have been on a writing retreat, you could take up the Teachers as Writers challenge and seek to expand your own understanding about writing and being a writer.
Go on – recognise yourself as a writer, write alongside the children in your classroom and build a new community of writers.
What’s stopping you?
Why not try?
- Making more time and space to ‘Just Write’
- Writing alongside students, sharing your struggles
- Spending more time on editing and revisions
- Developing children’s autonomy as writers
- Exploring the personal dimension of writing and drawing on life experience
Click here to see the Executive Summary of Teachers as Writers.
Professor Teresa Cremin is a Professor of Education (Literacy) at The Open University in the Faculty of Wellbeing, Education and Language Studies.