Saturday, 16 July 2016

Day 5 - reflections

It is the last day of the summer writing institute.  We gradually fall in from 9.30 onwards for a 10.00 a.m. kick off.  We begin with daily log and then we journal.  Journaling always seems a little more reflective on the last day.  It is good to have the time to pause before we launch into what is ahead; we have two demos and author’s chair.  Author’s chair is a celebration of the writing we have been doing all week.  In a week of highs, author’s chair must be near ‘peak experience’ terrain.

Peter presents the first demo of the day.  He tells us it is about accounting. The group may be wondering how he’s going to pull this one off but any concerns we have are entirely misplaced.  From the beginning, we are reassured that his interests in terms of writing and supporting his students as writers echo the messages and methods we have been hearing all week.  We are laughing as he describes how in accountancy, you really can’t tell a book by its cover; his opening slide is one of jellybeans, colourful and tempting.  He declares his distain of images such as these which so frequently appear on accountancy textbooks.  One is beguiled by the attractiveness of the cover only to find, well, accountancy inside and no further attempts to enthral the reader; inside the covers the trivialities imagination are neglected for the purely functional.

Peter, however, talks to us of digital storytelling and the narrative that underpins economic transactions.  He recounts the history of accountancy, before it was even called that, and traces its evolution as business and industry became more involved and complicated.  We follow ‘Jenny’ as her business goes from a cottage industry to an early corporation.  In this manner, we learn about accountancy through stories; we are then encouraged to write our own accountancy narrative in response to the prompts that Peter gives us.

In our four groups we are each told what our business is and given one adjective to describe it.  I want to be in the cafĂ© group who are running their business as a ‘hobby’ but I end up with fictional accountants who are setting up an uber cool new firm.  We are to record 20 transactions.  Despite my complete lack of corporate nous, I fall in with the discussion and we start to build the story around money in and money out: our first lodgement is of hundreds of thousands which we have procured from the sale of one of our parents’ art works; we recruit a receptionist on minimum wage; we employ a trendy design house for logo and website development; we lease a fleet of cool cars, including a Land Rover Defender.  I’m getting kind of taken with it now! 

After about ten or fifteen minutes each of our groups presents to the others.  We have all enjoying writing these stories which are engaging but revolve around considered financial transactions i.e. accounting.  Peter has done it – nice one!

There is coffee which is followed by the last demo of the week.  Pauline has been waiting it out and over coffee she produces a range of props which appeal to the senses.  She starts her demo by telling us about her background, how she has come to writing and teaching. It is an inspirational story and one which in many ways captures the transformative spirit of the week.  Access to education and our experiences in education shape our work as teachers and listening to Pauline prompts us all to think about our journey as educators. 

Pauline’s demo reminds us of ritual associated with writing, writing spaces and important statements/quotations about writing.  She encourages us to use our senses to write.  She shares several experiences and ideas around writing.  She admits that she was nervous about contextualising her work in the literature; the intimidation of theoretical frameworks is declared.  I apologize to her for causing unnecessary worry.

Pauline’s demo brings us to lunch. Today’s midday meal is a celebration of our work and our writing over the week.  It precedes author’s chair.  We sit and chat over food; there is a buzz of expectation around hearing some of our group sharing their writing with us.  I have brought a cap and red gown for those who choose to don robes to read.

There are four readers, Fiona, Mick, James and Pauline.  The way author’s chair works is that we only comment on that which we like about the work.  It is not a moment of critique; it isn’t even a time for questions about the text or wondering.  It is rather a chance for the writers to hear what we have enjoyed in piece, or what struck us a powerful or moving.  In author’s chair we continue the celebration of the group as writers.

I enjoy it so much and it is the most fitting way for us to finish our week.  I am struck by the generosity of the writers and the diversity of the pieces.  It is interesting to see how many of the pieces began on day one and have been fermenting over the week.  I absorb the words and share in the newfound or reignited confidence of the writers.  For some, this is a first public reading of personal writing; for others, a first dip into performance.  For all, there is a palpable sense of achievement; for the author’s chair writers the moment is profound and unforgettable.


I will need some time, and to go away, before I can reflect fully on what has happened over SWIFT 2016. Now, at the end of the week there is the practical closing – a quick evaluation which we will follow up later.  And the gradual leave taking. I am indulged in unnecessary thanks and acknowledge, I hope graciously, the pleasure and privilege it has been working with everyone all week.  There are hugs and promises of follow-ups which I am confident will come good.  As the room clears, I gather up the kit that we have been using over the week; I pack a box.  I will drop Jeni and Mari to the airport.  Deirdre will make the long drive back to Donegal. 

We all leave, satisfied for now and planning where to next …

Wednesday, 13 July 2016

Day 4 - reflections

I begin Day 4 in absentia.  I drive to the airport to pick up two UK colleagues who will join us for today and tomorrow.  Jeni Smith I have met before when she worked in University of East Angelia, from where she is now retired.  She is travelling with her colleague Mari Cruice who works in University of Roehampton.  Both are involved in National Writing Project initiatives in the UK particularly in teachers’ writing groups.  Jeni has just published on the work with Simon Wrigley: Introducing Teachers’ Writing Groups: Exploring the Theory and Practice.  Having collected the travellers, we join the group before coffee and just as participants are about to write feedback for Jane.  Jane’s demo has been on the topic of reflective practice.  She had asked the group to read a piece the night before and to write about it.   She connects this with a flipped classroom approach.  This is our second dip into reflective writing which is an important part of our professional practice as teachers.

We have coffee together and as we begin our work again I admit to being the person who seems to leave us chasing our tails all week.  Deirdre has been facilitating the morning session and everything has run like clockwork.  I confidently declare that we will have lost any benefit she has accrued and will be behind schedule before long again; I am not wrong.

Following coffee I seek volunteers for a role-play; this is later described, unfairly, as pressganging.  We will spend the time from coffee to lunch in our writing groups.  Having previously agreed our guidelines for what might be good practice in writing groups, the coerced would-be thespians take their place at the front of the room to enact the worst-case scenario writing group.  Deirdre convincingly portrays a shy reader who has just finished sharing her work.  In succession, and relentlessly, she is subjected to a range of characters including, the obsequious writing group cheerleader, the grammar and punctuation pedant, the red pen wielding corrector, the agenda queen, and finally to the participant for whom its all about her writing, as opposed to anybody else’s.  The results are hilarious and we all enjoy the ease with which our colleagues adopt their roles.  No exaggeration is spared in the farcical portrayal of the writing group from hell.  We break into our own writing groups ready to quell in ourselves any lurking paler version of the melodramatic characters that we have just seen.  At writing group everyone will read their work and get feedback.  The groups will also decide who will contribute to author’s chair tomorrow.

After lunch Jeni and Mari work with us.  They tell us about how they have been working with teachers and how they bolster teachers’ and their own writing.  Jeni briefly contextualises the work before Mari reads her contribution to Jeni and Simon’s book, ‘Hiraeth and Hinterlands’.  This piece is again about place and about writing; we are captivated not least by the rich snippets of Welsh.  Jeni and Mari lead us through the afternoon with writing and reflection.  Jeni asks us to write down 7 words we like or that we find interesting.  We then articulate these in canon around the room listening for spontaneous rhythms and unplanned musicality in the words as they move and connect.  We consider the ‘rights of writers’.  We hear, from Jeni and Mari, of the impact on teachers that the writing groups have had.  Those groups, like SWIFT, seem transformative for participants.  It is inspiring and enthusing to hear from our UK colleagues about their work; I am so glad they have made the effort to join us.

We finish Day 4 with only one day left; we are freewheeling to the finish line!

Tuesday, 12 July 2016

Day 3 - reflections

SWIFT is always a busy week but thankfully it includes scheduled time for personal writing.  Following the daily log provided by Maria, I sit and enjoy the personal writing time and I scribble the blog for Day 2;  I am enjoying the looseness of blogging. 

After personal writing there is coffee and ridiculously good cookies; they have Smarties on top.

Over coffee I welcome Oona Frawley from the Maynooth University English Department who has very graciously agreed to join our group to talk about how she supports our student writers, how she contributes to the institutional conversation on writing and what it’s like to be a published author.

Oona is understated and apologies for her Birks; with this we all feel a little less intimidated by the fact that there is a *real* author in the room.  We have been performing ‘I am a writer’ since Monday; it is hard for us to make the statement, unapologetically.  Small wonder that our undergraduate students and postgraduates, including doctoral researchers, also find it difficult to declare themselves as writers.  Inasmuch as we endeavour to demystify and democratise writing, it seems to maintain an elusive quality as though what we do as writers, like this blogging, is somehow inadequate in comparison to the work of a real writer/author.  It isn’t even the fact of professional versus amateur writing.  Many of us are professional writers in that our jobs involve a great deal of writing, across a range of genres everyday, and we get paid to do that work. 

Oona reads from Flight and we remember the pleasure of being told a story.  I have people in my life who are fluent readers, who ask to be read to, sometimes only to correct you or to remind you that you’ve missed a bit: ‘You forgot the ‘great’, ‘In the “great” green room there was a telephone …’  These stories are known by heart and yet there is a longing to hear them.

We stop short of putting our heads on the desk and listen to a story of place and displacement.  Preceding the reading, Oona tells us of how much place means to her; her American accent signals that she is not from here though she is settled in Ireland.  Her remarks remind me how little I think of place except maybe in terms of how comfortable it is.  Place returns throughout the week, chiming at regular intervals, calling us to stay, compelling us to leave.

Oona talks of writing processes and how the ways into creative writing can equally lead us into academic texts.  She confides in the group her love for creative writing and how it works alongside her achievements in academic publishing.  She notes how she wasn’t swayed by the temptation of getting published at all costs and how she maintained the integrity of waiting nearly 11 years to see her book in print.  I am reassured in all kinds of ways.

We are so grateful for Oona’s time.

We continue the day, moving from a focus on creative writing to one on academic writing with Mick’s demo.  Mick works in further education (FE), a sector with great diversity.  He valiantly tries to explain how FE works: I am sitting at the back wondering how he will spell out what for me are indecipherable acronyms let alone describe the sector.

Mick begins his demo reminding us of the need for silliness.  We create hybrid animals of our own invention; we draw them and give them a name.  Mick is unembarrassed sharing with us his elephantorse; its interpretation benefits much from its labelling as elephathorse.  From his surreal pachyderm, Mick continues his demo which involves the collaborative writing of an essay type answer to a question about ICT.  We are in groups of 4 and we brainstorm a part of the answer.  Each group focuses on one thing and when we have worked on it for some time our ideas are recorded on the white board under different headings.  We discuss them and then in our groups we each take a section, a group of ideas under a heading and we freewrite a paragraph.  We share these with each other within our group. 

Two features of the demo that appeal to me are the fact that we answer the essay collaboratively and that we begin with what we know in order to make our case.  We start trying to make an argument, we write a draft of what it could look like, and then we explore where its potential lies, what direction we want to take it in, what areas we need to explain further and particularly what evidence we need to find in order to back up our claims.  I have taught a lot of academic writing classes but I’ve never used this exact approach; I add it, appreciatively, to my portfolio and plan to use it in the coming academic year.

I make an indiscriminate gift of a signed copy of Flight to Mick who has done such a good job. He is chuffed J

After lunch Catherine brings us back to primary school with her demo.  We are asked to think as though we are in primary school.  We are given no further instruction.  I see myself first in junior infants but then in sixth class, not in the main building but in the convent itself.  The convent has scented parquet floors covered haphazardly with barely-there rugs that slide along the polished surface.  When you come up the steps and through the too-small door, if you take a regretfully short run at it you can hit the rug just right, and it takes you whooshing down past the reception room door, up over the saddle board until you are stopped by an upright piano in the hall next to the entrance to the parlour. 

The group seems to love this exercise; there is eagerness to share our young voices.  There is something low risk about speaking as we were; how we can’t really be blamed for getting anything wrong if we are using our primary school voice.  This voice is not expected to be sophisticated and error-free. 

Catherine then shares a beautiful illustration with us.  It is of a mouse, on steps to reach a Belfast sink in a room that Deirdre describes as the kitchen of a PhD candidate, 2 months from submission.  It is chaotic.  We are to write about what’s in the picture; what do we see.  We are then to consider what happened before and what is to come.  We are learning about sequencing in a story and we are taken with the idea.

The two demos are wonderful.  They are so different and yet we can see how we can take elements from them and repurpose them for our context.

We leave the Library at the end of the day having enjoyed the visit.  Day 4 takes us over the hump of the week and back to the north campus.

Wednesday, 6 July 2016

Day 2 - reflections

After a long pause at the end of Day 1 Pauline volunteered to provide the daily log for Day 2.  She began Day 2 with her recording of the Day 1’s activity mingled with reflections.  The daily log helps us to remember the previous day and to situate our Day 2 efforts.  Pauline’s recounting was comprehensive and insightful.  Once we have had a chance to listen to her account of the day, we take about five minutes to write our own journal of how we experienced it. 

From our own scribblings of Day 1 we moved into the second demo of the summer institute.  James, a post-primary teacher chose the topic of form which we explored through various pieces of texts whose form he had manipulated or deconstructed.  We began with one piece of text where we are asked to engage in a guessing game around its genre.  Was it a memoir?  Was it micro fiction?  An anecdote?  It was projected on the wall, just a string of words, its form only defined by where the page ended.  We considered the piece assisted (and equally challenged) by questions posed by James.  Low-key, quiet, questions which leave your head spinning.  James revealed the text to be a poem by Rita Ann Higgins It wasn’t the father’s fault and when presented as the writer intended it seemed that everything had changed. Nothing seemed to have impacted so much on the tone and meaning of the text as the insertion of sentence breaks; their inclusion bringing something ominous to the text - a rattling sense of the sinister.  Where some of us had considered the unbroken text trivial in tone, maybe even mildly amusing, with the insertion of sentence breaks and the dividing of the text into stanzas the effect was immediate and malicious.  The impact/influence of form is stark, masterfully revealed in a most understated manner.  James continued to help us to explore form moving from free text to poetry, from prose to poetry, allowing us to pilfer lines and to rework them, to swipe phrases or single words.  He moved from the west of Ireland writing to works from the United States with a poem by William Carlos Williams To a Poor Old Woman and an extract from Harper Lee’s To Kill a Mockingbird. Of the former, the rhythm of the piece caught our attention; the repetition of the line ‘They taste good to her’ and the way the poet breaks it, creating a sound where you want to move to the cadence (I managed to stay seated – just).  With the latter, we shared our concocted efforts succumbing to the temptation to tamper with evocative sentences such as ‘Ladies bathed before noon, after their three-o’clock naps, and by nightfall were like soft teacakes with frostings of sweat and sweet talcum’.  We could have been in the Deep South.

Transported from there, after the break, we considered writing/writers’ groups and how these work, or don’t.  We were reminded of John McKenna’s advice to SWIFT 2014 to, in essence, run, very far away, from writers’ groups about a year or two in; that there would be no point beyond that.  But colleagues in the room had had different experiences and some of those had involved groups that had been meeting successful over years.  It was remarked that it’s usually women in these groups (in the interest of time/space, no comment).  We agreed that we would brainstorm around how groups might operate and that we would then review the guidelines agreed by SWIFT 2015 to see how we might wish to repurpose them for our intentions.  I will post the consensus here tomorrow.

Following lunch, we returned to our childhood as Annette presented Demo 3.  Annette is a primary school teacher and most recently taught 3rd class (9 year olds mainly).  She told us about how she used writing notebooks in her class and what they mean to the children.  The notebooks are used for first drafts, for free-writing and for capturing ideas.  Sometimes, Annette asks her students to just write spontaneously on topics that bubble up during the day, for example, an interesting visitor.  In terms of what we can learn from across the education levels, I am always struck by how we might capture the enthusiasm with which primary school students write; in Annette’s class they all want to write.  They just do!  Annette explained how she uses word chunks with her classes and gave us a handout of these.  From this page, she identified three chunks that we were to work with and from which we could develop a short piece of text.  To finish her demo, she shared finished booklets from her 3rd class writers with us.  These were beautiful handwritten publications, illustrated by the children and containing such wild, generous texts as:

I love ice-cream, it’s better than mice.
I don’t know about you
but I’ll save it for tonight. 
Chocolate, vanilla, strawberry and banana. 
I’ll save it for my friend Santana. 

William Carlos Williams eat your heart out J

The day finished with a session from our Maynooth University colleagues Aine Neeson (University Writing Centre and Department of Applied Social Studies) and Carmel Lillis (Education Department and Professional Development Service for Teachers).  Aine and Carmel talked about professional conversations (a phrase I have learned from Carmel and which I employ regularly now) and deliberately presented to the group what they describe as a ‘dialogic space’ between them.  They consider reflective writing, reflective practice, its purpose; they talk about what reflective practice looks like and the use of ‘I’, ‘me’ and ‘my’.  Their starting point was an improvised conversation between them on reflective practice and its meaning and place in their own lives and work. Among other things, Aine spoke of knowledge generation and meaning that can be gained from critical reflection, and Carmel spoke about possible value to the school community. After a few minutes, they opened the conversation to a group discussion which went off in many directions - from mindfulness and self care in professional reflection, to an imagined world where reflection would be a normal element of professional teaching practice. There was some reflective writing, of course, and a further discussion around the ethics of revealing our reflections publically, and in doing so, how we represent both ourselves and others. Food for thought then.     

Deirdre closed the day with Day 3 on the horizon … bring it on.