Practising what we teach: the National Writing Project, by Ciara Judge

thumbnail_IMG_3611In an extra-curricular session at the Faculty of Education on Monday 30th October, we had the pleasure of experiencing a writing workshop with Simon Wrigley, National Writing Project outreach director.

The NWP is a network of teachers’ writing groups, run by teachers for teachers. It is a not-for-profit, teacher-owned research project that aims to explore writing. The NWP’s underlying belief is that teachers of writing should write. We are often fantastic models of reading, speaking and listening but how often do we sit down and write?

A white page can intimidate any budding writer. We often forget that daunting feeling of having to fill a blank space with inner thoughts and bursts of creativity. But it is a feeling our students know well. As a trainee teacher, it is a feeling I have recently become well acquainted with as we learn to teach writing to our pupils.

With this in mind, we start to explore our own processes of writing with Simon through a series of writing tasks.
Rights of the Writer
We are first given the NWP’s adaptation of Quentin’s Blake’s 2006 ‘Rights of the Reader’. Simon introduces the principles that loosen the shackles of our initial anxieties about writing:

1. The right not to share
2. The right to change things and cross things out
3. The right to write anywhere
4. The right to a trusted audience
5. The right to get lost in your writing and not know where you’re going
6. The right to throw things away
7. The right to take time to thing
8. The right to borrow from other writers
9. The right to experiment and break rules
10. The right to work electronically, draw or use a pen and paper

‘Rights of the Writer’

What makes a writer? Are they published? Do they write every day? These are the questions that challenge us as we pick up our pens. We expect our students to see themselves as writers, so why can’t we? Simon tells us that writers are people with the power to express, record, communicate their selves. Therefore, if we break away from the conventions of what makes a ‘real’ writer, perhaps then we can teach students to represent themselves and experience language in a more prolific way.
Words
First, we write down our favourite words. An array of choices come to mind: why are they our favourite? Words like hullabaloo, aujourd’hui, pamplemousse, whisper and pup are echoed throughout the room. Students may not experience the auditory value of words that are so often read and not heard. This icebreaker may help them think more imaginatively but also allow them a manageable starting point.

Free writing

Next, we practise free writing. We have five minutes to continuously write everything and anything that comes to mind. We are instructed to pay no attention to grammar, spelling, punctuation, neatness, or style: we have permission to just write. This feels slightly uncomfortable at first; it’s hard to let go and resist self-correction. My pen itches to scribble out a half-formed thought. My thoughts start off as self-soothing ramblings, then they move onto a fleeting memory of a horseshoe being nailed to a tree, then it becomes a list of things to do and then back to the horseshoe again. It doesn’t make sense but it is liberating.

(Since the workshop, I’ve tried to free write for ten minutes a day. The more we write the better we get – who knows what thoughts and ideas we might get down on the page?)

I can’t help but think about the benefits of bringing an activity like this to a classroom for young, reluctant writers. As is so often the case, writing is typically focused on the product. But this short task is about the process. Giving up those anxieties about processes and aesthetics is swapped for something all the more worthwhile: meaning making and developing our sense of self. Using language for self-representation allows us to explore something further; it is our mind represented.

Stories

‘A story
about an old man
and a seal’

Simon introduces us to Iain Crichton Smith’s ‘Gaelic stories’ and moves us onto thinking about personal memories that have evolved into ‘famous’ family stories or myths. The ones we unfailingly tell on every birthday or special occasion. We write a list of titles and share them with the group; they go from the comic to life changing and everything in between. We finally re-tell these stories in writing. Shifting spoken word to paper gives these stories another life. The shared experience brings closeness and the stories we wrote become more ‘real’.

It is essential for us as teachers to take notice of the process of writing and how it feels. By itself, the process has its own quality and importance that is separate from the product. We should take time to appreciate writing as generative rather than product-driven. To make time for thinking and writing, both for our students and ourselves, is something to consider in our practice. Making it as collaborative and shared as possible may help that one reluctant pupil pick up their pen.

You might be interested to read Simon Wrigley’s blog post about his perspective on the same session on the NWP blog.
To join an existing NWP group click here.

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