Making space for writing

For the last year or so, I have been teaching at an inner-city women’s centre. Mindful that reading and writing in everyday life increases success in literacy, I wanted to talk with the group and see what sort of reading or writing they do in their own everyday lives.

I introduced the discussions, asking the women to share their own personal literacy habits, but also making explicit reference to the fact that the more writing they do, the better they will get at writing, etc. I also shared my own experiences of this.

It became quickly obvious that there some members of the group that didn’t read much or write at all in their everyday lives. There can be many reasons for this but, with this particular group, I believed one of the reasons might be a lack of resource. Some of the women are living in difficult housing situations, which can be one of the reasons they might get referred to the centre. One woman is in temporary accommodation with her three children, another is in sheltered accommodation, a third is living in a hostel for women leaving prison.

In the following session I talked to the women about writing and shared some stories from the past where people had found writing an empowering act. When discussing everyday writing, we had considered personal diaries and journals, but I also now shared with the women the concept of “commonplace books”*. I shared some of my own journal with the group, reading aloud some of the quotes and notes I have collected (especially those that would resonate or make the group laugh!).

Although we often supply notebooks for class use, plus pens and paper and folders, etc, we hadn’t previously identified a need for helping the women to access materials for their own personal use. It might sound like a small gesture, but I gave all the women their own notebook. I told them it was for their own personal use and I let them know that I wouldn’t be checking up on their writing in anyway, although they were very welcome to share if they wished to.

Immediately there were some suggestions for what the notebook could be used for. Recording recipes, writing poetry, storing quotes, sorting through personal thoughts and issues were just some of the suggestions. I was extremely pleased to notice that some of the women wrote their name and “commonplace book” on the front cover. They all agreed that keeping their commonplace books would be a great target for the year and we thought about how writing would help them, plus in more ways than just improving their literacy skills.

I was struck by the importance of making space for writing. That’s not just physical space, but a mental or even emotional space too. Virginia Wolf stated women need “a room of one’s own” to be able to write and, again, she didn’t just mean a physical space. She meant the time, the resource, to know there’s food on the table and that the world hasn’t stopped turning as we’ve taken time out of it to write. For some of these women that is a massive challenge. If you are “couch surfing”, in temporary accommodation, or being moved from one social housing to the next, pushed from pillar to post, how can you make space to write or to even value writing?

I’m hoping those notebooks start to make that space. Even if only one woman picks up her pen, it will be worth it.

Note: I am also working to make space for reading, so watch for a future blog article.

*definition of commonplace books from Wikipedia:
Commonplace books (or commonplaces) are a way to compile knowledge, usually by writing information into books. Such books are essentially scrapbooks filled with items of every kind: recipes, quotes, letters, poems, tables of weights and measures, proverbs, prayers, legal formulas. Commonplaces are used by readers, writers, students, and scholars as an aid for remembering useful concepts or facts they have learned. Each commonplace book is unique to its creator’s particular interests.


The motivation to write

I’m generally really motivated to write. It’s like anything really: we enjoy it, we do it some more, then we get better at it and that’s rewarding, so then maybe we do it some more…

Except for I didn’t. I didn’t actually write what I’ve wanted to write for a long time. I’ve wanted to write and I enjoy writing, plus I thought I had a great idea for what I wanted to write about. But still I didn’t write.

At first I thought I had a good excuse not to write. I’d had an idea for my blog: that I could share my interest and passion for everyday literacies, perhaps even using it to connect to other like-minded basic/functional skills professionals but, in my mind, I had an excuse. I thought I couldn’t start at that time because I was seconded to another role for a while. I also kept telling myself I didn’t know how to set up a blog, that I didn’t have the technical skills to do it nor the time to learn how.

When I came back to my adult teaching role, I got myself a notebook and listed all my ideas, things I was working on, and the differences that a social approach to literacy can make. But still I didn’t write.

So then, when I had some self-development time, I made myself accountable to my lovely friend and colleague Isla*, who gave up her valuable time helping me set up my blog. That solved the excuse that I didn’t have the technical skills. But still I didn’t write.

This got me thinking about the many barriers that adults may have to starting writing in their everyday lives. They might lack the motivation, lack the time, or not know where to start. They might not value their own writing for writing’s own sake, or they might choose to write what is expected of them, not what they want to write. Opening my own eyes to these possibilities challenges me as a functional skills professional because it helps me understand the motivations (or lack of motivations) of my own learners, plus it firmly places me in the shoes of those I seek to inspire.

In fact, sharing this experience with some of my learners has been really powerful. To know “even the tutor” can get stuck, can not know where to start, can make mistakes or put things off, has been very empowering indeed.

Anyway, here goes. I’m going to do this thing and try to learn from it. Maybe I might connect with other like-minded souls and share some ideas. You never know, as I do more of it then I might even get better at it, and then I might want to do it some more. But first and foremost, I’ve promised myself: I’m going to learn and develop myself, and I’m going to damn well enjoy it!

(*a MASSIVE thank you to Isla because without you, I still wouldn’t be writing!)


More talking, more thinking, more valuing of Reading for Pleasure

Following on from the fabulous OU/UKLA Reading for Pleasure (RfP) conference, I’ve been making time for more talking, more thinking, and more valuing of reading for pleasure with my adult classes.

Lately we’ve been learning about ‘reading’ as an expressed (and curriculum-led) process of skills. We’ve discussed the concept of quick reading through learning the skills of skimming and scanning; we’ve been learning how the headings and subheadings help us find the main point and predict what’s coming next; we’ve been learning about the impact purpose and audience has on a text… Hang on – when I look at that list even I, someone dedicated to reading both professionally and personally, feel a bit like reading can be a bit tedious and almost contrived at times!

So, this week, we turned our attention to everyday reading practices and the joy that reading can give us.

I started the same way with each group and just let the discussion go where it went. (This in itself was successful, with learners commenting they felt valued, and stating it was nice to have the freedom to discuss things and to share their own opinions without fear of judgement).

The first question I asked was: who considers themselves a reader? This question either brought about an energetic nodding of heads, a half-hearted shaking of heads, and even a bit of an embarrassed eye-roll! However, the second question, what do you read, was then an opportunity to demonstrate that everyday reading isn’t necessarily reading a novel (although it can be), but could be one of the many things we read throughout everyday life. Reading newspaper or magazine articles online, for example, was a very popular answer, but hadn’t necessarily been valued as ‘reading’ by the groups. It was great to have the freedom to discuss this and being able to value all types of reading, plus it was great to then return again the question: who considers themselves a reader? Only one person, out of all the head-shakers, couldn’t now identify something they read, and enjoy reading, on a regular basis.

When planning, I was conscious of the RfP research findings regarding ‘teachers who read and readers who teach’. This was such a great opportunity to role-model my own reading practices and to make suggestions for reading, but I was even more excited when one of my learners said “I’ve just finished a book you’d enjoy” and enthusiastically shared it with the group. Adding value to that experience is so important too – “I’d love to read that” – to ensure each individual feels their experiences matter.

Having discovered ourselves as readers, we then made explicit links to reading to/for/with children, especially as so many of my learners are parents. Certainly there was more than one person who, when asked do you read, said “only with the kids”.  I challenged that ‘only’! As well as discussing the educational benefits, we explored other benefits of reading for pleasure together with our children, not least our own enjoyment.

Finally, I made explicit links to how reading for pleasure means we’re ‘practising without noticing’ and that it makes it easier to read the stuff that we have to read. (Interestingly, when asked if they read, only one person out of all my classes mentioned anything work or college-related).

Again, with my mind on the ‘teachers as readers and readers as teachers’ research, what use is it if I recommend folk read more, if I don’t (or can’t) then advise what to read? I’m planning some future activities using Quick Reads and I especially like the idea of a ‘book blanket’, which we explored at the conference.

As ever, watch this space!

OU/UKLA Reading for Pleasure Conference

“International evidence indicates reading for pleasure offers significant benefits cognitively, socially and emotionally. This conference will help you develop your knowledge of children’s literature and create an authentic, flexible and interactive reading for pleasure pedagogy that supports young readers!”

Yesterday I attended the OU/UKLA Reading for Pleasure conference at the University of Cambridge. If you aren’t familiar with the OU/UKLA’s project into Reading for Pleasure, then find out more here.

As my main work is with adults, it might not seem immediately obvious why I was attending a conference that was intended for primary school teachers. Actually, I attended effectively wearing ‘two hats’!

Firstly, I am passionate about reading for pleasure and the benefits that it brings. I deeply believe that everyone benefits from reading for pleasure, not just children, and therefore I took the opportunity as an adult literacy professional to benefit from the great work that is going on in this area. After all, the adults I am working with can also benefit from reading for pleasure, but so can the children in their care. I’m always seeking to show parents that they are reading role-models for their children. What would we rather our children see us doing and seek to copy? Mindless scrolling through social media feeds or enjoying reading?

Secondly, I was wearing my ‘primary school governor’ hat and considering how I can support my primary school colleagues. In fact, being a governor was the ‘ticket’ that allowed me to book in, so it’s nice when volunteering has such great perks!

Teresa Cremlin, from the Open University, opened the conference by highlighting the importance of teachers as readers, as well as talking about changes in pedagogy, not just activities, which I believe is key.

The keynote speaker, Sonia Thompson from St Matthew’s CofE school in Birmingham, was inspirational when discussing the differences made in this inner-city school in an area of deprivation. There was also an amazing keynote speech from an author, Kiran Millward Hargrave, and a panel on non-fiction.

The workshops were equally inspiring, which led me to consider my own “reading identity”, the hidden messages we communicate about reading, and thinking about using reading to bring families and communities together.

One of my happiest workshop moments was when asked to share our own reading habits on our table, I turned to others on my table and all of us said “I love reading picture books”! Another happy moment – spending time (and money) in the children’s bookshop, which was on-site all day.

How can I take this forward?

Possibly the most important part of the day for me was my own reflection on how I can improve my own pedagogy and practice, as well as how I can best support my school.

In my own practice: further promoting reading for pleasure to students (and to staff), giving time and space to talk about reading, to value reading, and to role-model good reading practices; possibly organising a CPD session for colleagues.

At school: to report on the conference to the relevant school colleagues; possibly to support a CPD session at school; to offer to run family-learning style workshops at school to help engage parents; to support an invitation to an author to visit school.

Watch this space!