The first peer review of the day was provided unprompted by Jane in response to the haphazard and crooked sign I had created to point to where SWIFT 2016 was taking place: 'It looks like a ransom note!' she declared, her uncompromising New Yorker accent adding to the candid declaration. A good friend from the sector, (and I have heard her described as a 'legend' among librarians), I accepted the comment in the manner in which it was intended and responded with my first burst of laughter of the day.
SWIFT 2016 is the third summer writing institute that we have hosted in Maynooth University. With the unwavering support of the University, we invite in or around 20 participants, teachers from primary, post-primary, further and higher education to work together for a week in order to spend time developing as writers and to learn about how we can support our students as writers. If you are fortunate to love to what you do, and I am, choosing the best part of your job is impossible; like selecting between offspring. Generally, when put wriggling to the pin of my collar, I cave and say 'you are all my favourites'. As is the case with SWIFT; it is one of my favourite times on campus and a genuine privilege to be involved.
Yesterday, Day 1, we spent some time meeting up and writing. By coffee we had spoken with numbers, written a story that began 'A long time ago' and finished with a zebra, considered what it is we think we know about writing (and a lot of what we are unsure of - always interesting), and spent some time writing about the foods we remember from when we were young. Some of this writing is private, some semi-private where you can share if you want. Many participants were happy to read fragile, unformed, early work; the sort of work that you sometimes stumble over but that has an integrity in it that when successfully shared does something that might be plotted at some point along a continuum of transformation; it's just a little bit transformative, but then that might be enough to start out with ...
The day continued with Joan who shall forever be known as the Superhero of Day 1 where she did the first demo of the week. A demo at SWIFT is a class that we teach to each other; it is not a finished piece as such, more like a work in progress. Joan did the smart thing and began by showing us a movie clip (in my experience groups rarely complain if you begin by creating a cinematic atmosphere). We sat back and looked at the opening scenes of Little Miss Sunshine and were charged with watching carefully and being ready to write about what we saw around 1 or 2 of the characters. Joan wanted us to show, not tell. Colleagues volunteered their writing, some choosing to scribble descriptive pieces, others turning the assignment on its head and getting into the mind of minor characters. Joan continued the class with reference to Raymond Carver and a short story called Careful. She peppered her class with references to writers and her own experience of working with groups. Her contribution truly set the tone for the demos and modeled the good practices that we aim for during the week.
After lunch, two Fellows from SWIFT 2014 returned to work with us. Donna is a teacher of some of the luckiest girls in Dublin; she is a phenomenal teacher. Donna spoke with great authenticity about what being at SWIFT had meant to her; how she had 'signed' up for it in order to learn how to help her students to become more 'effective' writers and then realised that the goals of the week were so much more expansive than that and that in our 'reckless optimism' (and what was rebranded as ‘reckless wobble’ yesterday), we actually want our students to adore writing and to turn to it with a sort of fizzing anticipation and an excitement about what could actually happen if you took the time to put words on a page; as Margaret, also SWIFT 2014 Fellow, asked later that afternoon, 'What if writing changes lives?' Heady stuff.
Donna told us about how she worked with her student to create screenplays. Besides the experience of these efforts for her students, their produced play achieved some notoriety in the national press. In addition, Donna bid for and achieved funding to make this happen. I am confident that Donna provided her students with an experience that they will never forget (and this may rank it under the general heading of 'writing changes lives' perhaps? Not too big a leap).
Margaret finished the day in a circle which physically brought us back together after the directions we had gone wandering. She talked about her work, which can only fairly be described as part of the revolution, which goes beyond her passion to a way of being. She shared with us the steps she had taken and typically underplayed her achievements in providing spaces and opportunities for people to write. Her vision for the work is profound and reaches to the heart of what drives many of us in education; to help others, and ourselves in the process, to make meaning, to find meaning and to learn to be more human. It is a spectacularly ambitious goal which is achieved incrementally and with more faith than certainty. Margaret told us about Storyhouse www.thestoryhouseireland.org and her work with this project. She also led us through two writing exercises. The first reinforced that all writing is fiction, that there is a writer who is narrator, that in that role we draw on our experience but it isn't quite our experience, it's an interpretation, a recounting at best. We were asked to talk about the history of our name but to include one lie. When volunteers read their pieces their mendacious intentions went largely undetected. Following this we wrote about pieces of treasure that we discovered in the now lesser-known film containers. There were pieces of crepe paper, a block of Lego, a ribbon, a spool of red thread. From everyday objects tentative texts were crafted.
The day finished with an agreement that we would come back tomorrow and see what happens next …