A creative writing weekend gave a group of teachers an insight into the sort of barriers their pupils face. Course tutor Sandy Brownjohn explains.
When two or three writers are gathered together on a wintry Friday evening, you might expect the odd bottle of wine to be opened. In fact, we were 28 writers, most of us also teachers, not so fresh from another week at the chalkface, and we had built up a thirst. By Saturday we had drunk the Offley Place cellars dry (at least of its cheaper bottles) and there was nothing for it but to move on to the hard stuff. I am talking about the writing, of course.
Actually, we started on the writing straight after dinner on Friday. For this was the first teachers' writing weekend organised under the educational initiative of the Arvon Foundation.
We were a mixed bunch gathering that January evening at Offley Place, a country house in North Hertfordshire. The location carried many memories for me. It was here that I had attended my first in-service training courses as a classroom teacher back in 1970. It was here also that I met my husband, who was a tutor on a creative writing course.
Twenty-seven years later, I and three fellow tutors - Elspeth Barker, Wendy Cope and Kit Wright - drove up as dusk fell, and settled in over cups of tea before the teachers were due.
By 7pm the place was buzzing as people arrived and got to know each other in the convivial atmosphere of the bar. From the Isle of Wight to Nottingham, and from primary to further education institutions, teachers had taken the plunge and paid their (Arvon-subsidised) Pounds 100 to come and explore their own writing. It is Arvon's belief that if teachers of English write themselves, they will be better able to teach the subject and understand how to help their pupils. So this was not meant to be a normal INSET course, but a do-it-yourself one, where teachers learned through first-hand experience - an English field course, so to speak.
Not surprisingly, several people owned up to feelings of trepidation, particularly those who had never written much in the creative line before. They were unsure what to expect. Elizabeth summed up the thoughts of many of the beginners, as well as a few others, saying: "This was my first Arvon course and I admit to feeling quite apprehensive." Jane, too, openly acknowledged that she had been attracted to the course because she felt her creative writing was not up to the mark, although she had to teach the subject as part of a language course. "I was open-minded about what to expect, but also nervous about my own abilities," she said.
The Arvon Foundation does not run the usual sort of education course with which teachers are only too familiar - lectures and handouts, jargon and policy-making, references to the national curriculum and assessment, and with every unforgiving minute timetabled. Arvon runs writing courses (usually at one of its three centres in Devon, Yorkshire or Inverness) with workshops, experienced writer-tutors who work one-to-one, and, above all, time to write, and grapple constructively with the writing process.
The more informal approach can, in itself, be slightly daunting for teachers used to operating within strictly timetabled structures. For most, however, it does not take long to slip into the more relaxed pattern and experience the exhilaration of freedom - there is life beyond the national curriculum, after all. Paradoxically, this informal atmosphere, because it throws people back on their own resources, tends to encourage them to work even harder - it is about imposing your own discipline, rather than receiving it from outside. It was certainly so for Marion, who said: "It was more informal than I expected, I had more time to write. I enjoyed learning to get on with it." And she was not alone. "I've been writing almost non-stop during all my waking hours this weekend and I'm going to continue," said Shirley.
For the first evening's tutors' readings, the group listened to Wendy and Kit. This entertaining, amusing and thought-provoking session helped set the tone for the whole weekend. Afterwards, people divided into tutorial groups to meet for a short introductory workshop, giving them a chance to air a few ideas for getting the writing going straight away.
By 10.30pm some were, understandably, ready for bed, while others sought further inspiration in the bar. Everything seemed somehow to centre on that, even when it was closed. Throughout Saturday and all of Sunday morning, when not in a workshop session, people naturally congregated there. This light room, with its tables covered in white cloths, became one of the favourite places to write. But there were other rooms, as well as many nooks and crannies, for those craving more solitude and silence.
The tutors could be consulted about work in progress by anyone, on a one-to-one basis, at any time, and we were kept busy. It can come as something of a surprise for tutors to discover how course participants view them, at least in the early stages. We four have known each other well for some years. We know each other's foibles, strengths and weaknesses. We forget how apprehensive people might be about meeting us. (If they only knew how apprehensive we can sometimes be about meeting them.) "The tutors were very approachable and an inspiration, but quite daunting at first - before I had dared to put pen to paper," said one participant. But perhaps this has more to do with the teachers having to step out of their normal role and become pupils. Rachel said: "The most valuable lesson I shall take back to school is the feeling of vulnerability I have when asked to write. My students must feel the same." Jane also pointed out the positive aspect of seeing oneself from the other side of the fence, saying: "It is good to have a reversal of roles and to feel unsure of your abilities."
It did not take long, though, for a rapport to develop. Another Jane showed how quickly worries could be dispelled. She said: "The hardest part was the first meeting with a tutor, but once this hurdle was cleared it was almost easy. The workshops provided stimuli from which to write and were sufficiently relaxed not to be intimidating." And Shirley probably summed up what the majority felt about the workshops and tutorials: "The tutors were all very approachable and helpful - providing just enough guidance and structure, as well as positive but precise and truthful advice. Tutorials were unhurried and you felt you were learning all the time."
As tutors, we were impressed by the volume and quality of the work produced, and the final celebration reading by teachers, on Sunday afternoon, of poems and stories written over the weekend, was of an unusually high standard. At least half the group had come as interested beginners, and I believe they surprised themselves. I don't think they really believed us when we said it was one of the best end-of-course readings we had experienced. But we meant it.
Will Arvon's belief in the importance of teachers' writing be proved back in the classroom? We hope it will, and judging by the teachers' comments there is every reason to believe our hopes will be realised. Richard said: "I now have a greater awareness of what I put the children through, as well as ideas for stimulating writing. I also have an increased understanding of how to help children work with their drafts." And Shirley added: "I am going to spend more time getting the children to relate their experiences, as we have done, to develop their writing skills. I'm sure my enthusiasm for writing is going to be caught by my class."
For more information about future Arvon courses, contact: Mandy Dalton, Lumb Bank, Heptonstall, Hebden Bridge, West Yorkshire HX7 6DF. TelFax 01422 843714