21 Aug 2017 / General
After another day of long lessons, Ofsted-prepping observations and mountains of marking (not to mention any of the many unforeseen fights, sudden Smartboard breakdowns and unplanned parental meetings), there is one sentence that will undoubtedly make any time-stretched, over-tired teacher spontaneously combust.
“Could you just find the extra time to…?”
In days filled with decisions, disasters and dead-lines, finding extra time is, quite frankly, a near-impossibility. Stealing a few seconds for toilet trip or a cup of tea is tricky enough in a chock-a-block teaching day, let alone finding substantial time slots, for instance to deliver after school clubs or to run exciting off-site trips. With schools already swamped by performance measurement pressures, exam results reporting and countless different league table targets, extra-curriculars can often be seen as desirable but optional extra accessories, rather than fundamental opportunities to find time for and embed. Indeed, a lack of hours is perhaps the main hurdle facing external organisations hoping to collaborate with schools and run curriculum-enhancing clubs, CPD and/or cultural events.
What is crucial, perhaps, is that any ‘extras’ do not require schools to seek out hours before or after the main teaching day but rather, can fit within already existing curriculums and lesson times. However exciting the school opportunities and offerings are from outside charities or clubs, however clear their purposes and evaluated evidence of how they enhance the curriculum or contribute to children’s out of class learning, they need to slide smoothly into teachers’ already hectic hours in order to stand a chance of long-term success.
So what does this chaotic school climate mean for teachers, writers and, crucially, teachers as writers? The ever escalating need for schools to meet quotas and requirements and achieve routinely excellent results can lead to more regimented, assessment-focused approaches to teaching, with room for imagination increasingly squeezed. Indeed, one central frustration, particularly for English teachers, is the desire to stop creativity disappearing completely from the curriculum. With constantly changing and increasingly over-stuffed schemes of work focused on SPaG (spelling, punctuation and grammar) and very structured exam requirements, there is often little room left for more relaxed and spontaneous story making. Whilst there are thousands of teachers across the country keen to get more creative, nobody wants to deviate too far from strict assessment obligations and then end up anxious about not setting students up successfully for the unavoidable exam hurdles. After all, students’ results do help to open so many doors, and those of us in the classroom want students to achieve the best possible measured outcomes, alongside less measurable educational progress. Having the capacity (and energy) to find exciting and imagination-engaging extras can often feel impossible and, with so many demands and deadlines, making space for creative writing, freed from rights and wrongs and curriculum checklists, can be a real struggle.
However, what use would this article be if it did nothing but complain? This is not a lament about our over-controlled educational climate, or the death of creativity, but instead, a consideration of how we can kick-start creativity within the context of the inevitable reality of our school culture. What better time than now to focus on – and celebrate – the impact that teachers being writers themselves can have on students’ own intrinsic motivation to get their imaginations invigorated and re-discover a love of words, without the worry of what grade their stories may be stamped with? As a former teacher, now employee (and long-term volunteer) at the creative writing charity Ministry of Stories, I firmly believe in the transformative potential of students seeing their teachers taking part in creative writing tasks simultaneously alongside them, making mistakes, brainstorming ideas and explicitly revealing their enthusiasm for writing. By having the confidence to deviate from unwaveringly exam-linked lessons and actively building in time to write – to really write, free from ‘Assessment Objectives’ or red pen marking, to write without worrying about whether our stories will match up to the current GCSE requirements, to write in a way that celebrates individual imaginations, where all ideas are valued, freed from reservations of being ‘right and wrong’ – we can build creativity into the school day, without trying to find non-existent extra time. And creativity is, of course, more than just a nice little extra. Through writing, students not only develop their literacy but also can make sense of different emotions, different cultures, and different sides to their own characters.
But what might this idea of ‘teachers as writers’ look like? Let’s start by reflecting on the exciting potential of a recent and on-going piece of research by Arvon Foundation, which supports creative teaching, provides extra cultural and CPD opportunities and fits smoothly into existing English lessons, without the need to squeeze creative writing into the tired hours at the edges of school days. Arvon’s ‘Teachers as Writers’ project is definitely worth diving into (http://www.arvon.org/wp-content/uploads/2017/05/Arvon-Teachers-as-Writers.pdf), as it outlines the impact that teachers identifying themselves explicitly as writers and working closely with professional writers can have on the quality of writing produced in class as well as the interest that students take in engaging their imaginations.
Moreover, Arvon’s ‘Teachers as Writers’ project focuses on developing the confidence of classroom practitioners to self-identify as writers and monitors the impact that teachers calling themselves writers and offering students more ‘writerly’ feedback has on classroom teaching. There are so many reasons why encouraging collaboration between teachers and writers is beneficial (and far too many to focus on them all in one article). However, just for starters, involving professional writers can really enhance classroom practice, inspiring creativity during scheduled lesson time rather than attempting to find time for early morning writing or additional after school sessions and, of course, having educators clearly defining themselves as writers helps develop students’ intrinsic motivation and belief that writing is important, particularly when teachers can then make more insightful connections to students’ own personal, social, cultural and emotional experiences. Arvon’s ‘Teachers as Writers’ project has already collected clear evidence of success and indeed, teachers who participated in their control group have recorded the effects of the programme on their pedagogy and classroom practices, particularly the impact that allowing time for free-writing, without immediately introducing the critical red pen to spot the spellings and grammar mistakes or straight away connecting every student’s story to a set mark or level, has on letting students let go of writers’ block. Working with with professional writers also helps teachers to provide ‘writerly’ feedback, focused on craft and content aside from exam board mark schemes, as well as engaging students as autonomous and imaginative individuals, finding ways to draw out students’ inner stories without always connecting feedback to stringent ‘right or wrong’ requirements.
One of the most exciting part of Arvon’s Teachers as Writers projects, though, has emerged as one central recommendations from their evaluative report: the transformative impact of Teachers Being Writers Alongside Children Being Writers. In other words, what is the impact of teaching by doing (in this case, writing), where pupils to see their teachers completing creative tasks alongside them? If teachers can find the confidence to call themselves writers and make free writing, content driven creative sessions a part of (not a tag-on to) the curriculum, writing side by side with their students, then undoubtedly this has the exciting potential to improve writing skills and the motivation to focus, engage and improve, as well as to remind us all of how powerful imaginative engagement can be.
This is not a radically new idea, of course; years of well-researched pedagogical practice demonstrates the impact of less didactic and more immersive teaching on students’ sense of independence and interest in writing. Nevertheless, by showing enthusiasm and taking an active part in creative class tasks, students so often feel empowered and motivated, rather than being’ talked to’ that can be a result of more –teacher led lessons. Teachers are essential role models, after all. How else can we expect students to love writing and shed their fears of whether their writing is right and wrong unless we teachers and educators actively and obviously show our own passions for imaginative writing.
By becoming creative writers at the same time as their classes, the role of teachers immediately becomes more impactful and more interesting. Trialling this with one class last term proved to me the importance of children seeing their educators writing alongside them, not simply setting tasks that they oversee but do not actively participate in. Specifically, I decided to emerge as a teacher-who-is-also-a-writer with one of my an exam classes, who were arguably a little too overly used to lessons (not just in English but in all their subjects) which crawled through exam specifications step by slow step, with little scope to think outside the assessment box, let alone be actively encouraged to write creatively, free from restrictions and red pens. Putting in practice Teachers Being Writers Alongside Children Being Writers (ideas for catchier names welcomed!) showed how effective it is for students to physically see their teachers diving into writing and enthusiastically wrangling with words, writing stories, speeches, poems, anything at the time as their students. No completing a lesson plan at the computer. No circulating the room and pointing out the odd SPaG slip-up. No setting strict tick-box Success Criteria. Every student (including the teacher-student) started with the same visual prompt – a picture of a forest, with the afternoon light starting to dim and the trees lined like front-line soldiers along the tentative edges of the pebble-strewn path. (It’s hard not to get carried away with imagery and imagination once the creativity is given the go-ahead to flow! Creative but not correcting feedback on my writing welcomed…). Unlike most class tasks, in which the layout of the classroom remains untouched, we cleared all desks to the sides of the room, did not set a strict or visible timer, and banned red pens for the lesson. No strict Success Criteria in sight. It didn’t matter, this time, if students struggled with double letter spellings, or hadn’t started a sentence with a subordinate clause, or included at least one correct example of a semi-colon and parenthesis. Accurate SPaG, for once, was not important, with connections to GCSE-style ‘creative’ questions (AQA’s Language Paper 1 Question 5, in which students write a description inspired by a picture, may be coming to mind for some teachers reading this!) sent out of sight. A tiny handful of students inevitably felt a little stuck, frightened to move beyond the rigid and overly ingrained curriculum requirements, checking up words in the dictionary and ensuring that every paragraph had a clear connective, simple sentence, compound sentence, complex sentence, rhetorical question for effect, a simile or metaphor, alliteration, different adverbs… well, you get the picture.
Nevertheless, the patent enjoyment of nearly all the class was nothing short of magical. I let students chuckle and look at one another confusedly as I sat beside them on the carpet, settling down with sheets of plain paper and a pen, showing through my face and body language my delight at moments of inspiration, my struggle with writers’ block, my perseverance and passion for, quite simply, writing. The students got stuck in with a sense of independence and intrigue I had rarely seen previously. Understandably, exam classes can approach any creative task not explicitly linked to the final year assessments with a ‘So what?’ or a ‘How will this raise my grade?’. I completely empathise, of course: having been schooled to associate success simply with the final levels on a page, it is hard to let go of the need to succeed in a structured, curriculum-driven way. This time, though, the group thrived on completing writing free from GCSE requirements and even surprised me with their attentive behaviour, peer support and pleasure in putting unrestricted pen to open-minded paper. Sat on the floor, with plain sheets and their own choice of what pen to get creative with (what freedom!), the class produced writing that showed both potential and personality that I hadn’t previously seen, as well as genuine delight in sitting cross-legged and letting their imaginations run wild. Indeed, by writing at the same time as the students, becoming genuinely immersed in my free-writing response to the picture, it was only after we finished writing and energetically shared snippets of work that several of the students mentioned, giggling, quite how expressive my face became when drifting through the ‘writerly’ feelings of flair and frustration, of concentration and contemplation, of perseverance and pride.
What is exciting, here, is that this style of teacher-student work is replicable across a range of settings, with students seeing their teachers being writers even in exam-based tasks as well as more free writing environments. In addition, it is a reminder of how a change in physical setting and learning style can prompt unexpectedly wonderful results. Teachers Being Writers Alongside Children Being Writers is a key way to release students from feeling restricted and to realise the transformative power of imaginative immersion. Again, this is not a breakthrough innovation but, in hectic term times, the importance of adults writing side by side with young people can be overlooked. It’s a model that drives not only classroom practice but many successful extracurricular organisations. For example, The Ministry of Stories, a children’s writing charity based in Hoxton, offers creative writing workshops to schools, many of which take place within lesson time, which undoubtedly enhance primary and secondary curriculums in over-squeezed schools and encourage teachers and volunteers to write alongside the participating students. It is an organisation that shows the benefits of letting a little lesson time go towards creative writing that remains adamantly free and untied to exam requirements. The workshops run by the Ministry of Stories, like the feedback already received from Arvon’s Teachers as Writers research, aim to leave teachers feeling re-inspired and reinvigorated about the importance of giving space to write within the curriculum hours, rather than worried that another task has been added to their ever-growing to-do lists or that there is not enough time for imaginative activities independent from Assessment Objectives.
By giving real credence to the concept of Teachers Being Writers Alongside Children Being Writers, we can assess the potential it has to impact the way we approach English teaching. In fact, teachers identifying as writers, scribbling out stories simultaneously to their students, can change whole school approaches to working with young people, particularly developing their intrinsic motivation to write, without negatively affecting those inevitably important exam results by taking away time for curriculum-driven lessons. Rather, a small but regular unrestricted writing activity, in which teachers and students engage with creating stories side by side, will undoubtedly enhance their love of writing and have a significantly positive impact on students’ wider school attitudes and achievements.
Exam results are incredibly significant, undoubtedly, not only for schools but for the future life outcomes of students. However, they will only be improved by giving weight to the wordy possibilities of Teachers Being Writers Alongside Children Being Writers. Of course, there are fewer things more interesting or important for young people than to have their individual voices recognised, beyond grades and spread sheets. Let’s let ourselves enjoy story making, free from Success Criteria or creative-stealing structured requirements, regardless of whether we are students or teachers or neither or both. Let’s keep explicitly displaying our delight in writing. Let’s see how much the Teachers Being Writers Alongside Children Being Writers concept can change classrooms forever.
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