Wednesday, 12 July 2017

SWIFT 2017 Day 5 - Last day :-(

Day 5 – It’s the last day.

I’m not quite sure how we got here and at such a pace.  I’m in the in-betweenness where I’m not certain if I’m in it, or if it’s finished, or if I’m still mentally running through it in my head preparing for it next week, or the week after, or the year after.

There is such a good feeling in the room this morning.  Not just of ‘see we have come through’ or indeed a sense of an ending, but we are buoyed up with the essential human sense of hope.  As I go through my professional life I realise that more than knowledge, skills, strategies, plans, it is hope and relationships that sustain me.  Why else would we get up, get out, get on?

Melatu is the first demo today, second last demo of the week, and our last demo from a SWIFT participant.  Melatu reminds us of the importance of knowing our students.  We surprise ourselves to find that we know some of them seemingly well, and others, maybe the ones least like ourselves or the quieter ones, we know less so.  We resolve to be more mindful of our tendencies.

Melatu reminds us of world English and we read different extracts that capture the richness of various versions of English.  It is good to do some reading again; we have been writing a great deal all week and it is interesting to bring our writerly selves to other reading.

We take a coffee break after which I contribute on the topic of academic writing.  There is a good portion of higher education participants in this year’s institute and they will be very familiar with the demands the Academy makes in terms of writing.  I suggest that good writing in higher education requires that we mind the GAPS i.e. Genre, Audience, Purpose and Stance.  We see these considerations mattering in other writing too and we map the similarities, of which there are many, between an extract from a millinery-mad magazine and a journal article; humorous comments abound about the lack of frocks, hats and horses in the latter.

Lunch, which is a little more elaborate than previous days, is followed by Author’s Chair.  Author’s Chair is my favourite part of the week.  This is the moment where brave volunteers from the pop-up writing groups agree to read for we SWIFT Fellows.  Author’s Chair is incredibly special.  It is the moment when participants are moved to tears and doubled over with laughter.  And so it is this year.  The pleasure and the privilege of this part of the week never fails to affect me.  I know that everyone in the room will remember this because of how it makes them feel.  I know that I will need to tap into the unique character of this moment throughout the year to remind myself how significant moments such as this afternoon are and the importance of continuing to provide these precious spaces where we can be ourselves and share that authenticity courageously.

We finish with sighs.  For all the power of writing, it is the closeness that we feel at this moment that I will remember most.

And I have the last words which can only be of joy and of gratitude.

Thank you.  Thank you.  Thank you.

Friday, 7 July 2017

SWIFT 2017 - Day 4

With thanks to Deirdre Mc Clay - co-director SWIFT 2017 - who wrote this piece.

Gee, that cuneiform writing is tough going – particularly with a pen. I took a photo, as I wasn’t going to waste my hard work. Here’s some examples from last night’s homework.
We started the SWIFT day, as usual, with the daily log. This time it was written and read by Angela. She had written it in the style of a speech and incorporated many of Jenny’s features from yesterday, including, a striking opening. Thank you, Angela, for an informative and highly hilarious account of day 3. We realised just in time and gave her a few shout-out words of encouragement. Then, Alison produced some prizes – she’s prone to bouts of issuing random prizes. Jonathan got one for excellent cuneiform translation, Rebecca got another for a promise that she really would finally stop apologising before reading out her writing - and finally, after four years of puppy-dog eyes, she gave one to me for sheer sticking power.

Next up was a demo by Jonathan. He works in Further Education and is developing classes on film and TV production. His demo was an introduction to scriptwriting for mainstream film. He introduced us to new terms, and worked from a book called Save the Cat by Blake Snyder. We heard about: save the cat, loglines, and beat sheets. His exercises focused a lot around loglines which are a one sentence synopsis of a film – really useful for brevity and key points. He showed us lots of film clips to illustrate his points and also, text examples of loglines from well-known films. We had fun guessing the films. Next, he gave us some features of successful loglines - such as irony, compelling visual description, mindful of audience. Then, Jonathan handed out a worksheet with ideas and sentences to finish that would help us write our own logline. We had to think of a film concept and write a logline. We then shared some examples and discussed. Finally, on loglines, he gave more advice that would help to improve our drafts. And then, he showed us another example.

Moving on to the beat sheet, he explained that this was a plan for a typical mainstream film from beginning to end. We went through it and discussed with examples – interesting to views films in this way. He then focused down on three aspects: an opening image, a secondary storyline, a final image. We only had time for the first one, but he asked us to take our logline idea and start to set up a first scene. As usual, we all had a go, and then we shared some of our work. We finished up, as we’ve done all week, with a discussion of the lesson and written feedback involving positive comment and some questions. Thank you Jonathan for a really interesting and entertaining learning experience on script writing.

After the break, everyone met up in their writing groups (set up on Day 2), for small group time. Each person had previously been asked to bring work to the group that they had been drafting during days 1-4. Groups met under rules they had drafted on Day 2, and read work to each other. One to two members (or more) were encouraged to volunteer to read their work at an author’s chair session tomorrow. Groups dispersed across the campus to work, but two groups stayed in the main room. There was a great buzz of energy in there as they read and commented on each other’s work.

After lunch, we had a final session with a returning SWIFT fellow from 2014, Donna. She led a discussion based session on taking writing outside the classroom in various ways. Donna is a secondary school teacher, and she described various initiatives that she and her colleagues have tried in order to foster writing for pleasure in the school. She was refreshingly honest about the joys and challenges. She gave us lots of ideas and resources – thank you Donna.

So, it’s hard to believe that this was the second last day of SWIFT 2017. Gina volunteered to write the daily log, after the weight of silence made everyone wonder if we were ever going to finish up for the day. Alison just stopped short of threatening to chain herself to the door (that did work on day 3 in the Russell Library). Learning point: nobody likes summer holiday homework. But, the daily log is so worth it the next day.

Tomorrow is author’s chair day and more lovely demos.  

SWIFT 2017 - Day 3

With thanks to Deirdre Mc Clay - co-director SWIFT 2017 - who wrote this piece.

Day 3 of SWIFT and we had a change of venue. We moved to the library on the south campus and into a big airy room with glass walls. It naturally shifted the dynamic, as we all had to change our seating arrangements. As usual, when I arrived, there were a few people deep in chat. The day had started already over tea and coffee.
Right on time (we’re good on timing at SWIFT), we settled to daily tasks. Rebecca had volunteered to write a daily log for day 2. She read out a thoughtful and gently humorous recollection of yesterday’s highlights. I related, and I reflected on another day of learning and how much we packed in. Rebecca’s account reminded me of the fun side of SWIFT and the enjoyment and craic while we learned.

Now we were warmed up for the first demo of the day. It was by Aoife, who teaches English in a very large, diverse, and co-ed secondary school. Her lesson was on story writing and development of character, and her focus was on the importance of discussion in the teaching of writing. Aoife started by handing out lollipop sticks and then she explained the embedded usage of Blooms Taxonomy in her own school environment and an encouragement to use rotational questioning techniques. Her school makes Blooms visible through posters in classrooms and teachers are encouraged to refer to it during lessons from 1st to 6th year. In Aoife’s lesson, as she explained to us, we were heading right towards the top piece of that triangle – create.

Aoife introduced us to various techniques that she uses to aid responses to her questions: lollipop sticks (we had all now written our names on one and she had collected then into a jar), and another called snowballing. Snowballing is where students write answers on a piece of paper, scrunch it into a ball and fire it towards the front. The teacher lifts and reads some out loud. I was now imagining Aoife pelted by paper, or knee deep in paper snowballs.

Aoife started the lesson with examples of text which effectively described character. She asked for two volunteers to read aloud and then she asked questions - we answered if our lollipop stick was drawn. Aoife built to a second task, and asked us to write down the first thing we tended to notice about a person when we met them. We were asked to share based on the lollipop sticks again. Now she showed us some images of people with different expressions. She asked us to choose one and write a list of describing adjectives. We shared and discussed again. Next she asked us to visualise a character and to answer the following questions: what is their main talent, ambition, fault, secret, fear, best friend, and enemy? What have they lost in their lives? What do they want to change? Lastly (to avoid earlier distraction), what is their name? On discussion, we were revealed to have created a one armed juggler who wanted to turn professional, a concert pianist with stage fright, and a man whose best friend was his enemy (his secret was that he had killed someone).

Next, we were asked to circle one or two of the questions about our character. We had to think of a scene to suit those questions and how our character might be feeling in that scene. To help with feelings, we were asked to do a short writing exercise which involved picking a feeling and naming it. So, we gave it a colour, listed describing words and metaphors for that feeling, and wrote sounds, tastes and smells that resonated with it. These helped to generate description and to elaborate on feeling and character. We ran out of time, but we had fun building up to a scene that we could write next and we had loads of ideas and vocabulary to do so.  

After lunch, the second demo of the day was with Jenny. Again, she is a secondary school teacher teaching 12-18 year olds - with a lot of leaving cert English classes. She focused on speech writing and explained that many in that age group lacked confidence in their own voice through lack of experience in the world and fear of exposing their own values and beliefs. She finds it relatively straightforward to teach students to identify features of speech writing, but very difficult to persuade them to apply these in their own writing. She has developed a range of inventive techniques to help.  We diverted briefly into a discussion of the influence of social media on student writing habits and debated whether the condensing of facts into digestible sound bites has left many teenagers lacking in exposure to extended argument, analysis and elaboration. Predictably, we raised problems with no easy solutions.  

All through Jenny’s exercises, there was a pervading sense of fun – a silliness, with clear purpose, that made it very entertaining but very informative (no mean feat). First off, she encourages her students to seek to elaborate and exaggerate, in order to build their skills, and later, to pare back.
So, our first task was to listen to a speech from Braveheart and to identify its language genre from a list given – it was the language of persuasion. Then a ‘word dump’ exercise on what made it persuasive – some brainstorming in pairs and then class discussion. This aided formation of a list of features (Jenny had one she prepared earlier to speed us along). Now we were handed a checklist of features and she played another clip – this time the rousing speech from The Great Dictator. We listened and ticked when we heard a feature. We were looking for elements such as: a striking opening, use of contrast, use of personal pronouns, an anecdote and many more. Jenny had the checklist now formed into a mnemonic. Next, we were given a topic and asked to write a really short speech incorporating as many features as possible. Then, a really fun bit, where Jenny attributed shout-out words for each feature e.g. ‘whohoo’ for a striking opening, ‘schtoree’ for an anecdote, ‘ying yang’ for a contrast etc. Class members were given a feature to look out for, and their word to shout out. Then a volunteer read their speech and we shouted our words as we heard our designated feature. It kept us listening, gave feedback on features and was entertaining – a winning combination.
Two great demos today – thank you Aoife and Jenny.

The final hour of our day would need a post of its own to do it justice. We were privileged with a tour, presentation, and artefact viewing in the magnificent Russell Library in St. Patrick’s College, Maynooth. It houses historic and ancient books and artefacts

It is home to 66 ancient artefacts with cuneiform writing – some dating back pre-3,500BC. We were treated to a presentation on cuneiform writing and a viewing of three pieces (a strictly no touch policy). Thank you to the staff of the Russell Library for such an enriching and enlightening hour in such beautiful surroundings. And, the smell, wow, the smell of all those old books.

Lastly, Angela was persuaded (a lot of persuasion was used) to write the daily log for tomorrow. And, Alison gave us homework – a post-it to fill with cuneiform writing.

Tuesday, 4 July 2017

SWIFT 2017 - Day 2

If we could have arranged it – we rely more heavily on happenstance than on a dictatorial style – it couldn’t have worked out better; Kate was the first Fellow to contribute this morning and she began with the daily log.  The log captures what has gone the day before, documents it if you will, and includes some reflections, reactions, insights and wonderings.  Though the guidance to Kate was minimal, she captured all of this in an informal but very thoughtful account of Day 1 of SWIFT 2017.  We have journaling time now and I’m glad of the chance to intellectually and emotionally situation myself in the room.  It’s always great to have moved to Day 2 of SWIFT – there is a momentum that is lacking in a sort of pre-institute inertia – and there is a still the building of the week, the group settling in, folks still not sure of each other’s names, the reluctance to sit at a different place at the table.  We will rearrange the room a little today.

We continue with the today’s first demo – it’s Colette and she is going to help us to consider point of view.  We are going to look at characters: we’re actually going to write a character – invent one.  Colette’s demo has its origins, its prompting, in how afraid she finds her students are to articulate their voice.  They feel vulnerable and nervous.  They fear being understood/misunderstood.  They fear being wrong.  To help them to get over this fear Colette encourages them to write as someone else; to write as a character.  We work through this by choosing an object and using it to build our character.  We are given a hand out which helps us to respond to the object: we are to describe the object, say why it matters to the character, give our character a name and age, say what they would change about their lives.  We make a telescope of another hand out and use it to look at room we are in, in an effort to see it as our character might.  We finish by writing about the character and the object.  We see them in a room like the one we are in – we imagine a scenario.  When we finish we are all invited to read some of what we have written.  We don’t need to share it if we don’t want to.  We can if we would like.  Everyone contributes something.  Some people read their first paragraph or two.  Others read their ideas – where they were going to go with the writing.  It really interesting to hear what folks have done.  After this we chat about Colette’s demo: folks note things that are useful for them, and things that turned their heads.  We give Colette written feedback and consider how we might use what we’ve learned – what we have experienced.

We have a break – for coffee/tea/chat.

Before the next session Margaret from SWIFT 2014 arrives.  It is a complete pleasure to see her.  We catch up and chat about her work and remember her group.  We plot ways to keep our ideas alive and gaining pace.  She stays with us for the session on writing groups and joins us for lunch.

When we regroup we consider writing groups.  Hitherto unknown thespians in the group are gently coerced into role-playing the villains of writing groups past: there is the cheer-leader, the soap-boxer, the ‘enough about you, let’s talk about me’, the one who always agrees, the punctuation/grammar extremist.  There are award-winning performances all round and it sets us up good humouredly to continue our discussions about writing groups, our experiences of them, what they do, how they behave, what their functions might be.  We share ideas around this and then break into smaller groups where we work through draft guidelines for writing groups.  We are to come to a consensus around what we would like to see in our own guidelines.  This is for future reference and also in preparation for writing group on Thursday where we will each share a piece of writing that we have been working on.

Lunch is followed by Joan, Fellow from SWIFT 2016 who takes us through another demo that uses objects as a way into writing.  This time we are urged to consider the objects, that represent our lives, that we would put in a museum.  We are to gather them and curate the collection: questions around what to leave, what to include.  When we have them gathered we are to write something about them – about the collection, or one object.  Form is personal – it can be a poem, a story, a piece of memoir, whatever we fancy.  We are treated to a verse, a series of 6 word stories about 10 objects, a image of a car sagging under the number of artefacts of a life which may be substituted for a profound, existential vacuum!  Joan follows our writing by giving us a piece of reading, from Seamus Deane, Writing in the Dark.  It is about objects and the view from being hidden, being the nearest thing to underground, and feeling a tragedy but avoiding describing it, like spiralling in but then veering out again, unable to bear the centre of grief.  I am struck by the fact that we haven’t read too much so far and that, as we know, it does something to our writing.

We have postcard writing and personal writing time to finish.  I’m glad of the chance to blog in the room.  I like the sense of us writing together.  Remarkably it isn’t in any way distracting or irritating; this may have a lot to do with having had lunch.

Tomorrow we move to the Library.  Rebecca has agreed to journal.  It will be Day 3.  I’m glad of today.

Monday, 3 July 2017

SWIFT 2017 - Day 1

Today SWIFT 2017 begins.  I arrive early.  The room is quiet and has been rearranged from how it was set up last Friday.  It’s fine.  Maybe it’s be better like this.

I am reassured to see the tea and coffee has arrived.

Before 9.30 one of the participants shows and then Deirdre.  Deirdre and I will co-facilitate the week.  It feels better now that she is here.

By degrees all of our Fellows arrive, take a tea/coffee.  Sit at the table and, I hope, relax.  By 10.00 there is a lot of chat which is great.  We spend some time breaking the ice, writing a little, thinking and talking about writing.  We have a nod to our wonderful colleagues from the Bay Area Writing Project  - Greta and Kristen and we start the day with Greta’s exercise – Foods from my Childhood.  Deirdre works with us to bring us through the various stages from listing foods, to picking ones of interest and saying a little more about them. Eventually, we pick one to write about.  We share these with our partner and with the group.  In discussing the exercise afterwards we note that though this writing is in some ways low risk, because of its link with childhood it taps into memories, reflections and feelings, both good and bad, of being younger.  A couple of Fellows agree to read for the group and I am reminded again that this year, as with previous SWIFT gatherings, we will be privileged to hear the voices of the group.

It’s a great start.  I feel a bit steadier despite not admitting this year to any concerns around the event.

After more coffee/tea and cake, James, returning Fellow from SWIFT 2016, presents on form in poetry.  James has been invited to work with the group based on his exemplary demo during SWIFT 2016 – captured below in the then blog post.

With him we explore form in poetry, consider how we recognise a poem, relish the richness of William Carlos Williams and Harper Lee.  We are given scope to rework these the words, to reinvent.

After lunch, Jenny, brave soul, provides the first ‘official’ demo.  She has clearly read the guidelines and fulfils their demands.  Her work is contextualised in the challenge of urging young writers to be more descriptive, to move beyond constant action.  There is a suggestion that this tendency to hurtle through writing is more often observed in boys’ writing; this is tossed about a bit at different times during/after the demo.

Jenny is super prepared and the demo excellently structured.  We write a short story which has it origins in an audio-visual prompt and the coloured blocks bearing writing from fellow participants, shared.  The work is scaffolded into manageable chunks which we are urged to complete but which we are encouraged to see as drafting or indeed writing fragments which may be stitched together or altered or eliminated in preferred writing environments later, or never.

Fellows note that they ‘want to finish it when they go home’.

And to home we must – Day One done.

Kate agrees she will journal and provide the daily log in the morning. Colette will do Demo 2.  Joan, Fellow of SWIFT 2016, will return.  And we will consider writing groups.  And there is time for personal writing – much needed.

Et, a demain …

Blogging about the demo James did - SWIFT 2016

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.

Friday, 23 June 2017

A little over one week and counting to SWIFT 2017

Really looking forward to welcoming colleagues from across the education levels and across the country to Maynooth from the 3rd - 7th July for SWIFT 2017.

Follow our writing adventures here ... :-)

Sunday, 26 March 2017

Announcing Summer Writing Institute For Teachers (SWIFT 2017)

We are delighted to announce our fourth summer writing institute which will take place in July 2017.  This offering builds on previous institutes, held in 2014, 2015 and 2016, which were originally designed in consultation with a range of teaching and learning networks, including Maynooth University Early Childhood, the Further Education Support Service, the Reading Association of Ireland (now Literacy Association of Ireland) and the Irish Network for the Enhancement of Writing.  The institute draws from the US National Writing Project model and is designed to provide an opportunity for teachers, from all education levels, to meet, share good practice, and learn more about writing and the teaching of writing.

At the institute you will look closely at your own writing and student writing, explore issues and ideas in the teaching of writing, work toward becoming teacher leaders and share classroom practices or activities.

The institute will take place in Maynooth University from 10.00 a.m. to 3.30 p.m. from Monday 3rd July until Friday 7th July inclusive.

The institute is free to all participants but places will be strictly limited and allocated across the education levels.

If you are interested in attending this event please contact us for an application form.  The completed form should be submitted to us before Monday 8th May 2017.  All applications must be made by email to All shortlisted applicants will be contacted by Friday 12th May 2017.

All queries about the project should be directed to the