KEEP WRITING (in Grafton Primary school, Islington)
Ten-year-old Tolga has offered to hand out the pencils. The other 28 pupils in his literacy set are sitting on the carpet opening their writer's notebooks. Even as they begin to note the date, a transformation takes place: no longer a class of year 6 school students, but authors practising the art of writing.
For two years we have been working together on an evolving scheme of practice modelled on my own continually developing methodology as a professional writer. Original Creative Practice aims to inspire courage, authenticity and free-flowing expression through the written word. This morning, they take a few moments to write in preparation for a field trip. We choose an "anchor" phrase, "I am a writer and today...". They know the score. They use these words to kick off the writing and keep it going whenever it threatens to dry up. The imperative is to write without stopping. Silence descends. The teachers are engrossed, too. If anyone pauses, I remind them: "Keep writing."
The writer's notebooks are decidedly not exercise books. They have bright covers, they are never scrutinised or marked, and in here the emerging writer is encouraged to liberate whatever voice wants to speak, experiment and play. In order to keep writing, they can abandon all concern for correct spelling and punctuation, make no corrections, avoid crossing out. There is an invitation to write nonsense, and if it happens to make sense, then that'll do just as well. Trust that intuition. After 15 minutes, the children are invited to share a fragment of what they've written. Kai is keen to read and, whereas two years ago he would write not a word, now he has covered the page in a stream of phrases that skip and rhyme and sing to his mum then turn into peas. Then we pack our bags and head for the National Gallery. On the bus, the children observe and write or sketch. In the gallery, we "free write" some more in front of European art from the last six centuries. We decide on the anchor phrase "It is dusk and..." in front of Turner's The Fighting Temeraire, and closely observe "What I see is..." to get a handle on what is happening in Joseph Wright's An Experiment on a Bird in the Air Pump. The extent of the realms that these artistic voyagers explore continually expands. When they were eight years old, we spent a day in Highgate woods collecting objects, making installations and sitting in trees, as William Blake once liked to do, writing silently. All they need is that pen and notebook.
I have been a professional writer for over 15 years, with a focus on playwriting for adults and children. My play Kindertransport was first performed in 1993 and is revived regularly. Most recently I've worked on material as diverse as Chekhov's Three Sisters transposed to my home town of Liverpool in the late 1940s; the epic and quintessential love story of Psyche and Eros; and I am currently finishing a new play for the Unicorn Theatre, Echo and Dorian, in which the besotted nymph of the Narcissus myth becomes a contemporary pre-teen falling for a model in his late teens whose distorting picture lurks in a Wildean attic.
Writing is the backbone of my life, come rain or shine, and, as any writer knows, it requires the regular sustained practice demanded of all art forms. Each writer has their own particular method. Many keep journals. Most carry their notebooks with them at all times. Mine involves writing freely the minute I wake every morning and again in the moments before I drop off to sleep at night. I also keep a journal, and note what I see and hear as I go about my days. This is the raw material that may feed a developing piece of work, like gathering clay from the river bed. Michael Rosen once talked about catching a passing idea as if it is a butterfly fluttering by. If you miss it, it's gone. I am also a trained teacher and once worked in inner-London secondary schools. The question I have asked over and over is why what I have encountered of creative writing in schools bears so little relation to what working writers do. A gap calls to be bridged. I started to develop Original Creative Practice as part of my teaching as a visiting lecturer in higher education. And then an organisation called Text: Writers in Schools sent me to run a couple of workshops at a school in Islington. There, something took off.
Grafton school is a contemporary primary school in a Victorian building. Children from a range of backgrounds, with a host of different needs, come together here. There are not many primary schools that would employ a permanent writer-in-residence, but the headteacher, Nitsa Sergides, in consultation with assistant headteacher Anna Sutton, did not hesitate. And so, at the end of 2006, I was attached to the school to work one day a week with a different year group each half term, right through from years 1 to 6. I also work with the teachers, encouraging their own creative practice and nourishing their artistic lives to inform their teaching.
Over these two years, many brightly coloured writer's notebooks have been distributed and filled with reams of words. We integrate drama with writing practice, and I always share my professional work with the children and teachers along the way. We spent a term last year writing about giants and looking at sibling bullying, alongside visits to the Unicorn Theatre to see the company's production of my play How to Beat a Giant. As I was writing a new play, Psyche, the children entered the Greek myth and encountered the jealous wrath of the goddess Aphrodite. Tolga, Kai and their group are following up their National Gallery trip back in the classroom. They recently became artists with their teacher as model, and drew him sitting, back turned, in front of a projection of the back of a woman in a Hammershoi painting. Their writing from the phrase "He turned his back on me..." was linguistically expressive, brimming with rage, rejection and longing. And then their teacher read to them his free-writing, written as they had sketched him, jagged phrases of disorientation about what he could not see behind him. The real stuff of art. And every single one working as a writer with their own take, practising and developing their craft. Needless to say, the Sats results reflect this confidence and fluidity. A recent Ofsted inspection of the school was utterly glowing. And we all really enjoy ourselves, too.
Published article in the Guardian newspaper: http://www.guardian.co.uk/education/2008/dec/09/english-teaching-primary-schools