Fortunately for my study tour, Jeni Smith, Visiting Fellow at the University of East Anglia (UEA) and leader of the Norwich Writers Group and Jenny Corser, writing teacher member were both present at the Character and Narrative writing workshop I attended on Monday, June 20.
Actually, Jeni conducted the final session of the day with a look at research and reflections from teachers who are actively involved in writing groups.
Writing Activity Booklet - sample 1
The tagline for her presentation was ‘beginning with words – beginning writers together’ and asked ‘what difference does writing itself make? When we, as teachers, write we are also engaging with many elements of the process: we are writing, we are talking and thinking about teaching writing too. Jeni mentioned that there is no one way of doing this, but if we teach writing, we should be writing.
We considered a series of quotes from graduating students in the form of reflections about their process, and teachers from her writing group who write an evaluation at the final meeting of each year.
‘writing is learned from the inside out … the doing is everything. No one can do it for you’
‘the job of the teacher in these hazy dangerous circumstances is to feed the student and keep her safe’.
Some quotes came from Body of Work , a text that contains more than 50 pieces by writers who have been associated with the Creative Writing program over its 40 years history at the UEA.
From Malcolm Bradbury and Ian McEwan to Angela Carter, Kazuo Ishiguro, Anne Enright and Tracy Chevalier, authors enlighten and entertain with autobiographical essays that describe what it is like to be a student or teach on the course – and the excitements, disillusionments and possibilities of life as a professional writer.
Former visiting fellows at UEA including Paul Muldoon, Nam Le, John Boyne and Adam Mars-Jones recall their time there, or recount other situations that they have encountered in the course of being an author.
Writing Activity Booklet - sample 2
Jeni suggested this exercise: Ask yourself what you think of yourself as a writer now:
- Where do you write? Prefer to write?
- When do you write?
- What do you write with and on?
Note some moments from your writing life – this could be an introductory activity, but is still relevant if we already identify as a writer. This is about unlocking memories and moments that could be seen through fresh eyes.
Jeni also listed the useful tools of writing – in her experience, these are the things that she keeps returning to:
- journals and notebooks
- free writing, automatic writing
- prescient prompts
At end of each year, there is a celebration and the group responds to this prompt:
‘This year, what I’ve learned about writing, and teaching writing is …”
After the workshop, we walked the campus and talked about the value of walking in letting ideas percolate and settle. We agreed it is much more effective than simply walking and thinking – allowing your mind to be doing other things, such as walking your dog, allows the brain to work away at something useful.
Over a quiet, cold drink, we discussed the organisation of the Norwich Teachers Writing Group which meets on Wednesdays from 5 – 7 pm at the university. There is a core of 10 teachers which expands to 30 or so for different meetings, such as at Christmas and end of year celebrations. The group is made up of a range of teachers, from students to retired professionals.
Typically, meetings begin with writing activities for ‘ourselves’ with some time for discussion about how this may be adapted or applied in the classroom, which leads in to a coffee and tea break. The second half of the meeting is used to consider a theoretical viewpoint, or pedagogical approach, new research, and interesting perspectives on children’s writing.
We shared similar views on the humanist approach to writing as teachers and the skills and confidence we hope to impart to our students. Writing is the often overlooked English mode when considering the skills people need after school, especially creative forms of writing.
Jenny, teacher at Langley School, kindly allowed me to photograph her writing journal and explain a number of writing exercises and activities. She also pointed out the ‘writing activity booklets’ that Jeni prepares for her group so they can maintain their writing focus during holidays and breaks.
She quite simply stated that attending a regular writing group was ‘her therapy’. Jenny also supplied answers for my interview questions, as follows:
- How did you become involved in teacher writing groups?
I attended an AQA* conference at UEA and found out about it then. I have attended the monthly meetings since July 2015.
- What are the key organisational roles in your group?
Jeni Smith is the leader of the group. She also has two friends who are university lecturers who assist.
- What advice did you receive when you began your writing journey?
- What pitfalls would you warn against?
Perhaps be careful about sharing personal writing with classes, but then again, this can be a real strength as it shows you are only human.
- What impacts can you report as a result of participating in these writing groups?
It has had a positive impact on my teaching practice. I use a lot of the ideas from the group in the classroom when teaching creative writing, especially to my A-Level group. It has also given me a lot more confidence as a writer.
- Please share an important moment from a teacher / student perspective.
I felt really proud when one of my students won a creative writing prize.
New Writing a website from UEA launched at the same time as Body of Work.