18 Dec 2018 / #Arvon50
“I won’t have to write will I?” whispered Nicky as she entered the Totleigh Barton barn, “I’ve come to learn about teaching writing and raising standards of writing, I don’t ‘do’ writing”.
Nicky had been allocated a place on Teachers as Writers – an ACE funded research project between Arvon, the Open University and the University of Exeter (2015-2017). So the weekend after term ended she’d driven down to Sheepwash in rural Devon for the residential. I was there too as a researcher, and offer this brief window on Nicky’s journey in order to capture some of the spirit of the work. She was one of sixteen primary and secondary teachers who came to Arvon and later worked with professional writers as co-mentors back in school. Whilst their experiences were self-evidently unique there were some commonalities.
Nicky was adamant she was not a writer and “wouldn’t even get a level 3” on the national tests. She was also sceptical that anything could be learnt through teachers participating as writers, despite the tutors’ endless encouragement, for example that “we’ve each got a brain and hiding in there, there’s got be to plenty of magic”. Indeed Nicky later confided that in an early workshop in response to a free writing prompt she had simply written “I hate poetry” several times in her notebook and that she was “hyperventilating at the thought of sharing”.
But on Wednesday everything changed. On Wednesday Arthur arrived. “Unbidden, he just came into my head; I could see him as if he were real”. To Nicky’s surprise Arthur, a fictional WW2 child, gradually took up a role as the protagonist in her evolving story and she found herself wanting to write, making time to write and “frequently thinking about him”. Apparently his life was connected in allusive ways to her own family’s narrative and drew on her knowledge of WW2 children’s fiction. In workshops she began to compose other work and shared this in tutorials, but not Arthur’s tale. However on the last night, despite her declarations of not being a writer, Nicky took the significant step of reading this to the group. Silence ensued followed by spontaneous applause.
Some months later when visiting Nicky and her co-mentor while they were teaching her class of 7-8 year olds, she told me she’d also shared Arthur’s tale with them. Still deeply attached to it, she had had to turn her back on them in order to sustain the reading. Her co-mentor commented that the children “have begun to see you differently I think”.
One tiny vignette, but it typifies for me the profound engagement Arvon offers. The relaxed yet focused time and space to write, the sensitive support of tutors and the chance to play with possibilities, make connections and hear one’s voice. Like many of the teachers, Nicky drew on personal experience to write and not only re-envisioned this, but her sense of self as a writer. This had consequences: commonly teachers offered freewriting opportunities, more choice of content and ‘Just Write’ notebooks. The young people frequently spoke of increased motivation and confidence and an enhanced ownership of their writing. Challenges remained of course, not least constrained curricula and assessment and impacting upon students’ written outcomes within this system, but as Nicky observed, “it’s not enough to teach writing, I’m trying to foster writers now”.
Arvon is 50 this year and to celebrate we have collected the stories of writers far and wide who have a tale to tell about Arvon. The collection is published in our anniversary booklet and featured on our blog throughout the year. This contribution is by Teachers as Writers Professor Teresa Cremin.
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