What a pleasure to spend time in the classrooms of Kath Rowe and Lou Gall, as well as meet Lisa Walker and Jen West. Thoughtfully, Richard Gambier took time out of his busy day to give me the grand tour and explain different approaches taken by the staff team at Marlborough School.
Kath teaches Year 5, children aged 9 and 10, and was previously involved with Wyl Menmuir on the Space to Write (see annotated bibliography on my Teacher as Writers page) project. She identifies as a writer – commissioned to write for an educational text and currently working on her novel – and willingly agreed to participate in the Arvon led research project on writing teachers. Finding time to write is difficult when teaching full time, yet found the five day workshop inspirational: this brought together the teachers and writers who would then work with students within the research plan. Both Kath and Lou were energised by the week-long workshop and explained the impact on their teaching and approach to creativity and writing: by actively writing themselves, they rediscovered the difficulty within the practice which has allowed their teaching to reflect a freedom and acceptance of a more organic approach – rather than being ‘on their backs’ to produce something, students are encouraged to set their own writing agenda.
Each room at Marlborough school has a dedicated role play space that is negotiated, designed and constructed by staff and students. At the beginning of each term, discussions are held where clues are given – a box with items such as a horned helmet, longboat model, toy sword – without heavily leading pupils so that creativity flourishes. This term, the class decided to create a dragon and Viking hut built from art cupboard materials and the scrap store.
The narrative impetus for her class developed from a study of Beowulf and subsequent quest narratives, and usually writing would follow a pressured formula to meet the success criteria: write an opening, edit, publish then onto the next section of narrative. However, Kath has found students are much more immersed in their writing through the strategies developed with Wyl. Following the ‘beach landing’ activity, much more writing was written, but quite a bit was also ‘scrubbed out’ through sharing and discussing.
Encouraging the class to consider the detail needed in a battle scene, Kath read from Michael Morpurgo’s Warhorse before allowing another two or three writing sessions. Rather than directing pupils, they had the opportunity to emulate – with additional teaching points along the way.
On the day I visited, the class was broken into teacher chosen groups and everyone was instructed to collect their writing journals before deciding where to work. This could be in the
or within the beast, or outside – and Kath visited each over time. Once settled, each member read their story and received feedback from others. Time was also allowed for making suggested changes before the class re-formed for a pre-lunch debrief. As the children left, we discussed editing and Kath suggested that it doesn’t have to be about ‘caring for feelings’: it really is about improving writing. Students are encouraged to be clear in their appraisal after hearing another story and provide suggestions for improvement rather than blanket ‘that’s good’ statements.
Richard (described as an inspirational visionary by staff) escorted me through the different learning spaces, stopping to say hello to parents who were attending an orientation taster day. Marlborough School is in high demand with 140 applications for the 30 available places in Reception (Kindergarten), with every other year comprised of a single class of 30. The school is ‘as urban as it gets’ for Cornwall, with large areas of social housing and a community under pressure from ongoing construction of student housing for the nearby (and newly established) university campus.
In his 23 years as a head, Richard firmly believes in valuing staff. Marlborough is organised with a total team ethos, and that evening there was to be a meeting to ‘negotiate the non-negotiables’ for the new school year. Two things are mandatory at Marlborough School:
- Role play space in every classroom. Recognising the important learning element of play, each room must be a vibrant and immersive learning space which is created through consultation and negotiation with children. The role play space is not just for stories or writing or Math (see below) but a time and opportunity for children to consolidate their learning across all areas.
- ‘No Hands’ policy. Rather than ask open questions to a class, teachers ask individually tailored questions for pupils to encourage deep thinking and time to respond. It requires teachers to be clear about what they are asking, rather than seek feedback through simple paraphrasing and avoids the same few confident students dominating discussions.
An example of ‘negotiating a ‘non-negotiable’ occurred earlier in the year when, due to falling numeracy competency, the role play areas in every class were ‘hijacked’ (temporarily) for Math based play.
Back in Kath’s room, I met Jen West a Community Governor who was visiting the school. Jen described herself as a non-judgemental and critical friend who sits on the external management committee. Welcomed by students and staff, I observed a close rapport between Jen and those who willingly engaged in conversation during her visit. Her website profile proudly proclaims:
I fully support Marlborough’s approach to whole topic teaching and learning, which enables children to be aware of the wider world and to realise how lessons they learn in school connect in everyday life. I am pleased to help the happy and hardworking school community in whatever way I can.
I was also pleased to speak with Lisa Walker, Teacher Assistant, who spent each morning with 5th class. Lisa has participated in many of the writing activities and received her own journal to facilitate writing alongside students. During our discussion, she revealed that she had never seen herself as a writer and found the writing process ‘quite nerve wracking at first’ as it was always hard to write when she was at school herself. One particular moment ‘sticks’ in her head:
I was sitting in class and the teacher read us a story and then we were told to ‘go away and write’. There was no scaffold, no planning, no ‘marking ladder’ and I just couldn’t do it.
Lisa enjoys writing now as there is no pressure to share – you can choose to when you feel good enough – coupled with the understanding that you just have to ‘get it down on the page’ and go from there. Working with the class during this writing project has allowed Lisa to recognise that even though some students are daunted by the idea of ‘going off to write’, careful planning by Kath means that student groups are organised to reflect a range of skills and abilities to support each child. And as for Lisa’s writing? She is yet to refine her story opening – early on in the project, when there was a focus on free writing so that students became familiar with using their journals, working in different spaces and in different groups, there was plenty of time to write. Now that the focus has moved on to completing an actual story, she finds her time is needed working alongside pupils to support feedback and editing which means there is much less time for teacher writing …
On this busy school visit, I also spent time with Louise Gall in her Year 3 classroom. This term, and as part of the Arvon writing project, Lou chose the Land of Neverbelieve by Norman Messenger. Her class was split into two for Wyl’s first visit, and instead of an immersive beach writing opportunity, students were taken on a safari through nearby meadows. Lou created, and surreptitiously ‘planted’ a range of strange herbs, flowers and shrubs. Using florist wire and various items, such as dice, eggs, craft eyes, clip on birds, plastic ears, keys, feathers, small plaster mushrooms, dictionary pages and tulle, the plants encouraged students to take filed notes that gave minute and precise descriptions.
As a large group, both Wyl and Lou modelled how these details could be found, before the class broke into smaller groups and pairs to discover their own vegetation. Year 3 pupils are less independent – there are three Teacher Assistants working with the class – so Lou has created a story map with questions and prompts if students ‘get a little lost’. Eventually, the class will produce a book to share their stories with Wyl and the wider community.
Lou reported that she never saw herself as a writer -‘not at all’ – but mentioned that she liked writing, but felt like she didn’t ‘do it very well’ despite keeping a blog. However,
the 5 day writing residential was brilliant! there was space, no internet, no distractions, it was in the middle of nowhere. It was a bit scary to start with and I sat for a few days thinking everyone else was so good, but it was a lovely opportunity to be on the other end. I realised that this is really hard – I can’t just pluck ideas out of the air.
This lead to a profound rethink of her teaching which typically consisted of rules and plans and ‘you need to do this’. On her return, Lou apologised to her class and explained that her approach to writing would be different. It took some time, after introducing writing journals and the concept of ‘free writing’ – but Lou is now greeted with immediate joy when she announces that it is ‘time for free writing’. One student even exclaimed: ‘this is just what we wanna do’.
Lou said she finds that her and Kath regularly catch moments of purposeful chat about writing where they reflect on the success and failure of different strategies and suggest solutions together. As part of her daily writing practice, Lou reflects on her day each night and keeps a notebook by her bed: ‘I never had one before Arvon’.