Teaching the teachers at St Swithun’s

As I’ve said before, one of the most pleasant things about being a couple of years on from my early Hampshire Poet days, is starting to build relationships with certain schools and do repeat visits. In September 2012, Alison Oliver, Head of English at St Swithun”s School in Winchester, invited me to teach an advanced poetry to a selected group of girls. It was an electric evening, with some very talented writers, and I had to be on my very best form to keep ahead of them.

Alison was very kind in praising that visit, and she invited me back this year for a different challenge: running poetry workshops with Year 5 and Year 6 students from St Swithun”s feeder schools, on a Creative Writing Taster Day. It”s a special compliment to be invited to show off a school to prospective pupils, and I can”t pretend I wasn”t anxious about living up to my star billing. When I start a new poem, I never truly have faith that it”s going to work: every time one does, it amazes me. Same goes for teaching: I never feel sure that a session is going to work, no matter how much I”ve planned it, or how well it has gone down before. So as I stood in front of 40 or so eager Year 5s, after having been introduced in the most admiring terms by Alison, I really did feel pretty nervous. In the end, as usual, it went well: the kids were enthused and wrote great poems about Fear – some tender and vulnerable, some downright gruesome!

However, Alison”s greatest test for me came earlier. At lunch, she asked me to talk to the pupils” assembled English teachers about “How to make Creative Writing Fun and Effective”. Again, I was very sensible of the compliment that she thought I could know more about this than a room filled with teachers, whose combined classroom hours must have exceeded mine several thousand times. I really didn”t know how to prepare for it, but the one thing I knew I didn”t want was any teaching of egg-sucking. So I opened up by getting them to teach me: asking them what they thought made for fun and SkillonNet  tilbyr noen flotte casino online spill og mengder med spilleautomater. effective teaching of creative writing. Of course they had many excellent ideas, and they covered most of the practical tips I could have given them, from using group work to build confidence, to making regular time for “messy writing”, to the benefits of publication projects like class booklets.

So I diverted into philosophic pontification. It seems to me that the single most important factor in making creative writing fun and exciting has nothing to do with exercises. It”s about the teacher”s attitude, and his or her bond with the pupils. If the teacher understands the creative process, and can communicate that understanding to his or her charges, then I reckon you can get pretty much any exercise to work. And if the attitude and understanding is not there, it”s my theory that the most inspirational of tasks will die a death. Let me explain why I think this.

Creative writing is about process, not product. It”s about the revolutionary project of beginning something that has no certain outcome – going into a wilderness without a map, and seeing what”s there. The writer has no idea whether she is going to find tigers and jungles, or office blocks and iPhones. The only map is the writing that”s produced: it becomes, I sometimes think, the record of the process. But a map of Asia or of Sunderland can never tell you what it”s like to be there, and while the writing is important, it can never capture the full experience of actually doing the writing.

I think writers understand this. We value the writing, of course, and we try to make it as good as we can. But that”s not why we write. We do it because we love the process. We would do it even if no-one ever published or read any of our work – indeed, when we started out, no-one did, and we wrote anyway! And I think that may be a hard thing for a teacher who is not a writer to grasp: that what matters is supporting the children in an exciting, daring, exploration, with no pre-determined outcome. And if you look at it that way, whether they use fancy adjectives or get the alliteration right is really neither here nor there.

But all the pressure in the education system is on outcomes: getting children to achieve a predetermined set of targets. That”s not creativity.  So I set the teachers in the room a challenge: to think about process, not product, for as long as they can. To let children just write, and then hold back from assessing the work for as long as possible. To give the children space and time to be in the process, without the two questions that ruin it: thinking all the time, “Will my teacher say this good, or is it wrong?” and being pulled away from the magic.

It is totally unfair of me to do this. I don”t have to work to the impossible performance targets that can fill teachers” lives with worry. I do believe that children will eventually learn the skills that are demanded of them using my method, but it could be nerve-wracking to try it out. I just offer it as an idea, a counter-argument to the ethos that teachers live with all the time; I hope it might be of interest, and perhaps be tried out. If it does, I would love to know what happens.