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.