Inside Our Writing Box

We believe that the teaching of writing is significantly strengthened if teachers write for themselves and with others. In writing for ourselves we make discoveries about what we can and cannot do, how writing works for us, how we get ourselves out of scrapes and into things that matter to us. And we find ways of articulating what we learn by talking and sharing with other teachers.

We both belong to teachers’ writing groups which meet regularly across the course of the year. Meetings are usually about two hours long and we write together, share our writing and ideas, and, in the process, develop our thinking about teaching. Meetings are also affirming, and confidence-building. Writing and talking together lifts the spirits. Writing together reminds us what it is like to be a student and it helps us think about what students need to know. Our own pleasures, difficulties, solutions and triumphs provide us with a personal knowledge of ways to support those we teach.

We are not talking about becoming a published writer, simply someone who writes for a range of purposes and who takes the time to reflect on their understanding of writing. When teachers write together they develop a deep knowledge which informs the ways they plan lessons and respond to writers and writing. This is more about how it feels to face the blank page and what strategies we have to break into it rather than where to place a full stop. Knowledge of grammar, vocabulary, form, style etc is important, but having an inside knowledge of the process is invaluable.

Think about getting together with two or three others to write. (We are having Zoom meetings at the moment.) Pour yourselves a mug of tea, a glass of wine or water and get writing! Be kind to each other. Be curious. We can help you start a group or put you in touch with one. Contact us through this site or through the NWP(UK)

The National Writing Project (NWP UK) has been running for over ten years. It is inspired by the US NWP which began in the 1970s. The project promotes teachers’ writing groups and its website is filled with information and ideas.

What’s all the fuss about freewriting? You may have noticed that many of our writing prompts include the use of freewriting. But what is it and why do we think it’s important?

Imagine you want to run a marathon. You can’t just turn up on the day and hope for the best, you need to train. And that’s what freewriting is to writing – training. You gain experience in getting words onto a page. You learn not to fuss and then end up never starting. You learn that you have a voice.  It may sometimes make absolutely no sense to an outsider but that doesn’t matter because freewriting is an exploratory space. The main idea of freewriting (sometimes known as automatic or continuous writing) is to just keep going, even if you end up writing the same word over and over. It’s not generally intended for public performance but as you get more familiar with it you will be able to comfortably write on a specific topic or knowingly for an audience.

In school there is a lot of pressure on children to produce polished, ‘high stakes’ writing. A common response to this pressure is to only allow children to write in a highly scaffolded, controlled way. But children (and adults) need space for playful ‘low stakes’ writing which allows them to develop at their own pace. Just as we gain spatial awareness through playing with lego bricks, so we learn awareness of the craft of writing through playing with words. This may only mean 5 minutes of freewriting a day, but it will have an impact.

Freewriting offers a space to play with all areas of writing: language, ideas, style, genre, spelling, punctuation and grammar. Many times we have worked with children and adults using a piece of their freewriting as a starting point and then working into it making revisions and editing until it becomes a polished piece of work. We use freewriting with adults and children because it loosens up and exercises their writer’s ‘muscle’ and introduces a real energy, voice and presence into their writing.

Peter Elbow is a great proponent of freewriting  and sums it up perfectly: ‘It is a space for exploring the mind and language–but it must be also be a space for triviality, nonsense, garbage.’ Visit his website to read more about freewriting:

Writing is a process of discovery. It is a meaning making activity. Language is dynamic, the means by which we make sense of the world. Through talk, inner speech and writing, language allows us each to construct our image of the world, our understanding of it. And it is an active and engaging activity. That is why writing, and talk, can be so compelling.

Most young writers have plenty to write about.  Writing can always come from the child’s (and the adult’s) own experience -real and imaginary. Children need to know that what they might regard as ordinary or of little worth is of worth. Equally, they grow through authentic experiences which raise questions and provoke curiosity; experiences that provide the context for writing that matters.

Writing, and reading, happen in the world. The greater and more varied one’s experience of the world, the greater the resource that underpins what we write. The preoccupation with genre and the constituents of different types of writing emphasises the surface form rather than the process of thought. And so the writing loses its intrinsic interest. Rather than being a process of discovery, a way of making sense of something, it becomes a form filling exercise, even if the writing frame is a subtle one. We need to think about the reasons why a child might write an explanation or a report and, rather than contrive an excuse for this, place the writing in the midst of a compelling experience -a visit to the poor house, walking to post a letter, pond-dipping, the preparation of a tea party.

Sometimes, adults and children find that simply handling an interesting object, investigating it, provides the impetus to write. Teachers’ writing groups like to meet in museums and galleries, at railway stations, by the sea, in parkland. The experience provides a context for exploring the world through writing.  Although we may plan with writing directly in mind, we also plan with the idea of enriching our lives, our cultural capital. Our experiences seep into our thoughts, our language, our writing.

If you’ve been following our blog for a while then you’ll know that there’s nothing we love more than making books. But why? Yes, we’re both partial to a bit of crafting but it’s more than that – there is pedagogical reasoning behind the making.

Firstly, there is an obvious surface value to creating beautiful books; whether using simple folds or elaborate sewn techniques. Children feel that their work is valued and it will become a beautiful, published object so they invest themselves more deeply in the writing process. It raises the overall quality of work. You can’t go to the effort of hand sewing a book, paying attention to creating a neat, sturdy cover only to write a load of random rubbish in it. No, if a child has invested time in making something that beautiful, they want their writing to reach the same standard. That’s also a good reason to begin with the making; children need to see what they’re working towards, feel the anticipation of it, in order to want to invest themselves. The process of making can also become part of the drafting process. Children talk and buzz about what they are creating and ideas start forming. They are not forced to sit and struggle for inspiration to fall in their lap; their hands are busy and so are their brains.

Sometimes when we work with groups of children we make folded books in advance for the children to use. This also holds a lot of value, as in some instances you may want the physical structure of the book to provide a structure for the writing. For example, a simple origami book made from a single sheet of paper produces a front cover, 3 double page spreads and a back cover. Voilà, there’s your story plan. No need to spend hours labouring the finer details of what a child will or won’t include in each section of their story – show them the limitations of the paper and let them work it out. The shape of the book chosen by a child allows them both creativity and constructive constraint. A ready-made book invites children in (especially the youngest children) in a way that a piece of paper or an exercise book does not. Children feel a sense of purpose and ownership over their writing – it bestows agency on them. There is nothing more satisfying than watching the care children take over their book-making and the pride in their collection of books they create.