Creative Writers as Arts Educators
Summary and Keywords
In the field of writing in education two strong, even common-sense, views exist, drawing largely on everyday logic rather than evidenced justification: first, that to teach writing effectively teachers must be writers themselves and second, that professional writers, those who are writers themselves, have a valuable role to play in supporting young writers. But rarely have these views been brought together to explore what teachers can learn about being a writer from those who are writers. Nor are these perspectives unquestioned. The positioning of teachers as writers within and beyond the classroom has been the subject of intense academic and practitioner debate for decades. For years professional writers have visited schools to talk about their work and have run workshops and led residencies. However relatively few peer-reviewed studies exist into the value of their engagement in education, and those that do, in a manner similar to the studies examining teachers as writers, tend to rely upon self-reports without observational evidence to triangulate the perspectives offered. Furthermore, the evidence base with regard to the impact on student outcomes of teachers’ positioning themselves as writers in the classroom is scant. Nor is there a body of evidence documenting the impact of professional writers on student outcomes.Historically, these two foci - teachers as writers and professional writers in education - have been researched separately; in this article we draw them together.
Predominantly professional writers in education work directly with students as visiting artists, and have been positioned and positioned themselves as offering enrichment opportunities to students. They have not therefore been able to make a sustained impact on the teaching of writing. Moreover, while writers’ published texts are read, studied, and analyzed in school (as examples for young people to emulate), their compositional processes receive little attention, and the craft knowledge on which writers draw is rarely foregrounded. In addition, writing is often viewed as the most marginalized creative art, in part due to its inclusion within English, which itself has been sidelined in the arts debate.
Notwithstanding these challenges, research and development studies have begun to create new opportunities for collaboration, with teachers and professional writers sharing their expertise as pedagogues and as writers in order to support students’ development as creative writers. In such work the challenges, constraints, and consequences of students and teachers identifying themselves as writers in school has been evidenced. In addition, research has sought to document the practices of professional writers, analyzing for example their reading histories, composing practices, and craft knowledge in order to feedforward new insights into classroom practice. It is thus gradually becoming recognized that professional writers’ knowledge and understanding of the art and craft of writing deserves increased practitioner attention for their educative possibilities; they have the potential to support teachers’ understanding of being a writer and of how they teach writing. This in turn may impact upon students’ own identities as writers, their understanding of what it means to be a writer, and their attitudes to and outcomes in writing.
Teachers as Writers: Mining the Evidence Base
Looking Back: The Evolution of the Field
The notion that “teachers of writing must write” was initially articulated in the 1970s and 1980s as a way of enabling teachers to learn about writing in order to enrich their teaching and potentially impact upon student achievement. The argument was often premised on a notion of expertise that was evident elsewhere in the curriculum: that art teachers themselves had trained in art, or physical education teachers were accomplished in sport, but teachers of writing were not expert writers, in the way, for example, that professional writers are. The “teachers as writers” argument is commonly associated with the work of both Emig (1971, 1983) who argued for “frequent inescapable opportunities for composing for all teachers of writing” (1983, p. 95), and Graves (1983), who in turn asserted that teachers need to be able to control the “inseparable crafts” of both teaching and writing (p. 5). Within the process writing movement that developed at this time (in response to the emphasis on writing exercises and drills), teachers were expected to voice their thinking aloud in class, demonstrate the process, and position themselves as fellow writers alongside their students. While from the outset Graves’ body of work was subject to criticism for its lack of research rigor (Martin, 1985; Smagorinsky, 1987), for selectively reporting success stories alone (Smith & Elley, 1998), and for its “evangelical reportage” (Beard, 2000, p. 41), his assertion that “teachers of writing as writers must write” and make visible the challenges and pleasures of composition has persisted. Internationally, the value and purpose of teachers being writers continues to receive considerable professional attention and remains the focus of research (e.g., Cremin & Locke, 2017).
The assertion that “writing teachers must write” was popularized by the US National Writing Project (NWP) and has been enshrined as one of its key tenets for nearly 50 years (NWP & Nagin, 2006). It was also a central strand of the government-funded NWP in New Zealand (1987, 1991). In other parts of the world too, myriad projects encompassing attention to teachers as writers have developed, both within higher education in the context of training student teachers and as part of continuing professional development (CPD). Advocates of teacher writing come from different but interrelated fields; many are drawn from the process writing movement (e.g., Calkins, 1994; Elbow, 1998; Graves, 1983; Murray, 1982); from NWPs (e.g., Caruthers & Scanlan, 1990; Lieberman & Wood, 2003; Sunstein, 1994; Whitney, 2008); from teacher research, where it is advocated professionals’ voices deserve to be heard (e.g., Cochrane-Smith & Lytle, 1993; Whitney, 2017); and from research into teacher identity and self-efficacy (e.g., Cremin & Baker, 2010, 2014; Locke & Johnston, 2016; McKinney & Giorgis, 2009; Woodard, 2015, 2017). There is, nonetheless, a silence about the place of the expertise of professional writers in this, perhaps suggesting that the value is placed more on the activity of doing the writing than on the gaining of knowledge and understanding about writing and being a writer.
The debate about the efficacy of teachers’ writing, of understanding how writers write and how they position themselves as writer-teachers in the classroom, was particularly intense in the 1980s and 1990s. In advancing support for this position, many educators argued it represented a generic good (e.g., Dahl, 1992; Perl & Wilson, 1998; Sunstein, 1994) or claimed beneficial consequences for students (e.g., Root & Steinberg, 1996; Susi, 1984). Some authors even asserted that when teachers engage as writers, student writing improves (Caruthers & Scanlan, 1990). Such claims were dismissed and derided by others (e.g., Frager, 1994; Gillespie, 1991; Jost, 1990; Robbins, 1992, 1996), many of whom agreed with the view of Geekie, Cambourne, and Fitzsimmons (1999) that “teachers are not writers in any but the most superficial sense” (p. 219). Other practical critiques included the challenge of teachers finding the time to write in class. It was argued that if teachers do so they not only shirk their responsibilities as educators (by wasting instructional time) but become susceptible to exposure (Gleeson & Prain, 1996). In addition, concerns were expressed that the focus on teachers as writers was overshadowing the importance of teachers’ conceptual understanding of the nature of writing and the significance of their expectations of students (Robbins, 1992, 1996).
In the first two decades of the 20th century, researchers have continued to examine this arguably common-sense notion that to engage and reflect upon the craft of writing will enhance teachers’ professional practice (e.g., Cremin & Baker, 2010; Daisey, 2009; McKinney, 2017; Morgan, 2010; Norman & Spencer, 2005). Practitioners too have retained an interest in this notion and have engaged in writing workshop opportunities and projects, within teacher training (e.g., Gardner, 2014; Luce-Kapler, Chin, O’Donnell, & Stoch, 2001) and CPD (e.g., Street & Stang, 2017; Whitney, 2009). In addition, some professional writers who are also teachers have published their reflections on the process, from the point of view of the university tutor-writer (e.g., Jinkins, 2004; Vakil, 2008) and the school-based teacher and writer (e.g., Spiro, 2007; Yates, 2007). In the same period, in England at least, there has also been a parallel growth in creative writing courses at the undergraduate and master’s level at universities, which have always involved professional writers as tutors or course leaders but which have had negligible impact or interaction with writing in school.
Researching Teachers as Writers: Challenges and Opportunities
From the outset educators have faced methodological challenges in documenting the difference that teachers being writers might make to their understanding, their identities and practice, and student outcomes. Indeed, much of the early work in this field, including the plethora of studies that emerged from the NWP in the United States, have been described as “discursive, journalistic and anecdotal in nature” (Cremin & Baker, 2014, p. 3). Despite the size and sustained nature of the US NWP, its research base, as Andrews (2008) observed, is not strong. While multiple reports about the value and efficacy of the NWP approach exist, few document or seek specifically to focus on the pedagogical consequences of teachers being writers, further investigation “into the specific outcomes of NWP participation for classroom practices and student outcomes” is sorely needed (Whitney, 2008, p. 151).
In order to review the available evidence in this contested field, and cognizant that in teacher education and training contexts internationally, teachers’ development as writers is often supported, Cremin and Oliver (2016) undertook a systematic review of this area. Encompassing the years 1990 to 2015, they interrogated the data on teachers’ attitudes to writing, their sense of themselves as writers, and the potential impact of teacher writing on pedagogy or student outcomes in writing. Inclusion criteria ensured that all studies focused on teachers’ identities and practices as writers; focused on primary, secondary, or preservice teachers in mainstream education; and were peer-reviewed reports of empirical investigations. Of the 439 papers identified, only 22 were judged to meet the relevance and trustworthiness measures employed (relating to the methodological detail and contribution of findings to the review questions). This reflects the relative lack of rigor in the field across this period. Only post-2000 studies were considered appropriately rigorous for inclusion; earlier papers tended to rely on self-reports and be anecdotal in nature, with educators asserting their various positions with supporting evidence, rather than submitting data to systematic analysis.
From a methodological perspective, the studies included in the review and related papers published since, within Cremin and Locke’s (2017) edited collection for instance, reveal the challenge that sample size and research methods present in terms of evaluation. Influenced by context and conceptual frame, studies fall into two main types: they are either small-scale qualitative studies, frequently with fewer than five teachers (e.g., Baker & Cremin, 2017; Dix & Cawkwell, 2011; McKinney, 2017; Whitney, 2009) or larger-scale quantitative surveys, predominantly in the context of preservice education for the elementary phase (e.g., Daisey, 2009; Gallavan, Bowles & Young, 2007; Whyte et al., 2007). The former afford in-depth data, but since some involve teachers who are published poets (Gannon & Davies, 2007), “exemplary” teachers of writing (Brooks, 2007), or master’s students (Morgan, 2017), it is not known how the work might relate more widely. It is notable that none of the studies actively engaged with the role of professional writers in supporting or collaborating with teachers as writers. The larger studies, while offering more representative samples, raise questions about the appropriacy of surveys as a tool to explore teachers’ beliefs, practices, and identity positions. In these studies additional data to elaborate participants’ responses were rarely gathered and self-reporting was relied upon.
In terms of the research methods other than surveys employed, the smaller-scale studies utilize a mixture, including interviews (individual and small groups), teachers’ writing journals, assignments, questionnaires, and writing samples. Some include observation of teachers’ participation in writing workshops, but very few indeed observe teachers’ teaching writing in school. As such they are unable to offer any detail about this lived experience and the potential influence of teachers’ writer identities in this context. There are three exceptions, one UK study (Baker & Cremin, 2017; Cremin & Baker, 2010, 2014) and two US studies, one of which focused on a US NWP Summer Institute (see McCarthey, Woodard, & Kang, 2014; McKinney & Giorgis, 2009; Woodard, 2015, 2017). All three in different ways examine how teachers construct and negotiate their identities as writers and writer-teachers in the classroom. Finally studies very rarely consider evidence of the impact of teachers’ positioning themselves as writers on students’ writing outcomes or attitudes. Only four include student data: Cremin and Baker (2010, 2014, 2017), Locke and Kato (2012), Whyte et al. (2007), and Woodard (2017).
The database of studies from the review and later publications therefore indicate that further high-quality research is needed, with more observational data drawn from practicing teachers and their students, preferably with analysis of written outcomes and a wider conceptualization of writing, since very few studies include awareness of the digital and multimodal nature of contemporary writing.
Teachers’ Attitudes About Writing and Sense of Identity as Writers
With regard to teachers’ attitudes, the systematic review suggests that while the picture is complex, a tendency toward negativity can be noted; very considerable self-critique is voiced, and doubt and discomfort are often expressed (Cremin & Oliver, 2016). Past school and university experiences of writing appear to play a significant role in influencing teachers’ attitudes, and these shape their later writing identities in diverse ways. Unsurprisingly perhaps, a sense of emotional angst and challenge is also documented within psychological studies of novice and professional writers (e.g., Brand & Leckie, 1988; D’Mello & Mills, 2014), but in education this represents a potential cause for concern. If teachers have low self-esteem as writers, are concerned that they have nothing significant to say, and express disquiet about the possible value judgments of others, there may well be pedagogical consequences and ramifications for the dispositions and identities of younger writers. Gardner (2018) in a recent paper discussing the differences between personal and school literacy, highlights the not inconsiderable challenge of reshaping a young person’s negative self-definition as a writer. The evidence also suggests that tensions exist between teachers’ literate practices and instructional practices and that these are compounded by the emotional struggle experienced in enacting the dual identity positions of teacher and writer in the classroom (e.g., Cremin & Baker, 2010; Woodard, 2015). The cognitive, social, and emotional demands of enacting this dual persona deserve increased recognition and attention.
Teachers’ Conceptions of Writing and Their Writing Practices
Research evidence also suggests that teachers have rather narrow conceptions of what counts as writing or what makes a “writer.” The kinds of writing noted by many preservice and practicing teachers only include academic writing and narrative or journal writing (Cremin & Oliver, 2016). Few value or recognize the range of writing in which they engage daily and rarely note their digital practices; instead they tend to associate “writing” with “creative writing” connected to literary print-based publications and notions of authorship (e.g., Cremin, 2006; McKinney & Giorgis, 2009; Woodard, 2013; Yeo, 2007). Their perceptions are often rooted in historical conceptions of writing and traditional notions of authors as “creative writers” whose literary work is well-known and respected. However, the teachers do not seem to see possibilities for learning from these creative writers: rather they put them on a pedestal. It is possible that educators tend not to self-identify as writers for this reason. However, Cremin and Oliver also revealed considerable diversity and connections between teachers’ histories of literacy and their adult conceptualizations of writing. In some studies preservice teachers, many of whom were reluctant, ill-confident writers, saw a writer’s ability as “fixed,” an innate creative talent that is present or absent (Norman & Spencer, 2005; Street, 2003). Potentially such views have disempowering consequences for practice and for children’s development as writers, although views varied and some more self-confident writers saw writing as a skill that could be developed in supportive environments.
The Pedagogical Consequences of Teachers’ Attitudes, Conceptions, and Personal Practices
The evidence base in relation to pedagogical consequences is scant. While the survey data from the available evidence (Cremin & Oliver, 2016) indicates that teachers and students teachers perceive there may be consequences if they position themselves as writers, few follow-through studies have been undertaken. Studies in the area of pedagogy predominantly rely on self-report and teachers/student teachers’ professed professional intentions following writing workshops, for example. Their intentions tend to cluster around affording more social and emotional support for writing and include, for example, a desire to create more secure writing environments where greater sharing and increased choice would be offered (e.g., Gardner, 2014; Morgan, 2010). Offering more positive feedback was also mentioned (e.g., Daisey, 2009). Teachers’ planned classroom changes appear to have been derived from the experience of writing and reflecting upon being writers in intensive writing-focused CPD and workshops led by university lecturers and NWP consultants. These opportunities are claimed to enhance teachers’ understanding of the writing process and their self-confidence as writers (e.g., Dix & Cawkwell, 2011; Locke & Kato 2012; Whitney, 2009). Yet none of the workshops in these studies were led by practicing professional writers. It may be that the lecturers and workshop leaders involved sought to mediate the knowledge of such writers, but no study documented their direct involvement.
The few classroom-based studies that have encompassed observation indicate there are challenges for teachers seeking to draw upon their personal writing practices or demonstrate writing in school. The struggle they experience impacts upon their assurance as writers, their personal authenticity, and their sense of authorial agency (e.g., Cremin & Baker, 2010, 2014). Additionally, the pressures of state standards and limited curricula create challenges for teachers’ wishing to connect to their own writing practices (Woodard, 2013, 2015). Although the evidence is inconclusive with regard to the consequences for students’ attitudes, outcomes and engagement as writers, Cremin and Oliver (2016) do suggest that teachers’ writing histories and sense of themselves as writers, both negative and positive, can influence classroom practice. Preservice and CPD opportunities offer the potential to explore and transform teachers’ attitudes and identities as writers (e.g., Morgan, 2010; Whitney, 2008, 2009). In particular teachers’ confidence as writers seems to impact upon their pedagogical choices and may influence the extent to which they are enabled to respond flexibly to policy requirements and skills-based models (Woodard, 2017).
Professional Writers as Educators
Looking Back: Evolution of the Field
Although, as reported earlier, the notion of teachers as writers has a history reaching back over 50 years, there is no parallel body of research relating to professional writers as educators. A search of two major education databases, the British Education Index and the Education Research Complete (ERC) database illustrates the paucity of research in this area. Table 1 illustrates the results of the search and the search terms used. Despite what appears to be a high number of relevant publications found in ERC, none were research studies directly related to professional writers as educators. The research studies instead related to teachers as writers, students as writers, second-language learning, academic writing, professional development, professional writing, and publishing. The search also uncovered several publications that were not research—a newspaper article, a magazine article for practitioners, and a poem with commentary.
Table 1. Outcomes of a Literature Search
British Education Index
Education Research Complete
Professional Writers and Teaching
Professional Writers and Education
Professional Writers and Creativity
Professional Writers and Schools
In the light of dearth of research, this section offers an overview of perspectives on the role of professional writers as educators from a broader lens, including literary and arts practitioner perspectives, as well as professional publications for teachers.
First, however, it is important to pause and reflect on the term “professional writers.” Many contexts include writing as a key part of professional activity, such as journalism, marketing and public relations, academic publishing, and many more where writing is an important element of a professional role. Nonetheless, there is a broad tendency in publications that consider professional writers as educators to conceive of this as relating to “creative” professional writers (novelists, poets, playwrights, etc.). Atypically, research by Cremin, Lillis, Myhill, and Eyres (2017) reports on a study that sought the views of writers from journalism and academia, as well as creative writers, to consider writer identity, and in the higher education context, Sims (1991) refers to journalists as professional writers in the context of a journalism course. For the purposes of this article, however, we acknowledge that professional writing occurs in many contexts, but we restrict our attention to creative professional writers as that is the principal group referred to in consideration of writers in schools.
Professional Writers Reflecting on Their Own Practice
Given the focus of this article on the educative possibilities that professional writers may be able to realize in writing classrooms, it is significant that there is considerable literature where creative writers discuss and reflect both their own writing and how they write. Arguably, The Paris Review represents the most significant resource in this respect, with a dedicated section, Writers at Work, which includes interviews with writers about their writing spanning nearly 70 years. The very first interview was with E. M Forster (Forster, 1953), and subsequent interviewees across the intervening decades have included a string of literary “giants”: T. S Eliot, Graham Greene, Kingsley Amis, W. H Auden, Raymond Carver, Margaret Atwood, Umberto Eco, and Hilary Mantel. The interviews tend to be a mix of biographical information regarding their literary journey, discussion of their mission as writers and the content of their work, and reflections on how they write. For example, Simone de Beauvoir (1965) reflects on what motivated her to write:
It may be that in my case the vocation was accentuated because I had lost religious faith; it’s also true that when I read books that moved me deeply, such as George Eliot’s The Mill on the Floss, I wanted terribly much to be, like her, someone whose books would be read, whose books would move readers.
Joan Didion (2006) describes a writing routine she uses to get back into the rhythm of writing:
When I’m working on a book, I constantly retype my own sentences. Every day I go back to page one and just retype what I have. It gets me into a rhythm. Once I get over maybe a hundred pages, I won’t go back to page one, but I might go back to page fifty-five, or twenty, even. But then every once in a while I feel the need to go to page one again and start rewriting. At the end of the day, I mark up the pages I’ve done—pages or page—all the way back to page one. I mark them up so that I can retype them in the morning. It gets me past that blank terror.
Without doubt, these interviews provide rich insights into the lives, identities, and practices of creative writers, and there are many other similar accounts by writers themselves that give voice to their authorial identity and their compositional practices (e.g., Atwood, 2015; Hughes, 1967), including by authors of children’s books (Le Guin, 2004; Morpurgo, 2006).
In a similar vein, there is a substantial body of work often referred to as the “handbook” literature, where professional writers give advice to others specifically about how to write. These books are less personal and autobiographical and focus instead on communicating to aspiring writers the specific skills and techniques that will help them become successful. They are often sharply focused on technique, with chapters titled, for example, “Sentence Length and Complex Syntax” (Le Guin, 2015), “Narration” (Prose, 2012), “Understanding the Power of Words” (Fairfax & Moat, 1998), “Writing on Schedule” (Brande, 1981), and “Elementary Principles of Composition” (Strunk & White, 1999). Many of them incorporate exercises for readers to try out their skills, and they are predominantly oriented toward adult writers, rather than children as developing writers. Table 2 gives a flavor of the authors and titles of some of this handbook literature: it is worth noting that several (Hemingway & Philips, 1999; Strunk & White, 1999) are reprints and new editions of books published substantially earlier, a testimony to their enduring appeal.
Table 2. Sample of Handbook Texts for Aspiring Writers
Ursula Le Guin (2015)
Steering the Craft: A Twenty-First-Century Guide to Sailing the Sea of Story
Francine Prose (2012)
Reading Like a Writer: A Guide for People Who Love Books and for Those Who Want to Write Them
Stephen King (2012)
On Writing: A Memoir of the Craft
Julia Bell and Andrew Motion (2001)
The Creative Writing Coursebook: Forty Authors Share Advice and Exercises for Fiction and Poetry
John Fairfax and John Moat (1998)
The Way to Write
Dorothea Brande (1981)
Becoming a Writer
W. Strunk and E. B. White (1999)
The Elements of Style
Ernest Hemingway (1999)
Ernest Hemingway on Writing
Such advice to writers is also evident in the media and on websites. In recent years, these have included The Guardian’s “Ten Rules for Writing Fiction,” drawing on advice from authors such as Margaret Atwood, Roddy Doyle, and Neil Gaiman (The Guardian, 2010) and “30 Novel Writing Tips” (New Novelist, 2017). These pieces testify not only to professional writers’ capacity to reflect on their own practice but also to their capacity to verbalize and share their understanding of writing and being a writer. This in itself points to the fertile possibilities for a reframing of the teachers as writers discourse to include working with professional writers and drawing on their expert knowledge and understanding.
The Writer’s Craft
Indeed, what the Paris Review and the handbook literature show, above all, is how many writers do see themselves as writers with a craft to share: they have an understanding both of the process of writing and of writing as text that draws on their professional experience. The notion of writing as craft is important here as it signals that it is something that can be learned, not an innate aptitude, in the way some teachers conceive of it. A feature in The Guardian (The Guardian, 2011) encapsulates this with its heading “On Writing: Authors Reveal the Secrets of Their Craft” and its strapline, “How do you set about writing a novel? What inspires a poem? Pencil or computer? Pain or pleasure?” This directly connects what writers know with what others might learn about writing, yet the piece was not pitched at the education profession but the public more generally. The idea of writers being masters of a craft is not new: Frank Kermode described E. M. Forster as “a critic who knew how to write novels and his practitioner’s knowledge of the craft was what would distinguish him from his Cambridge audience” (Forster, 2005, p. xii) and, from the perspective of the classroom, Leigh and Cramer (2011) argue that “Writers know writing. They have acquired knowledge that enables them to successfully practice the art and craft of writing. Writing is their work and livelihood, their frustration and pleasure, their success and failure” (p. 82). However, it is evident that this awareness of professional writers’ craft knowledge is exploited principally within its own field, with others who aspire to join the professional writing community. There is very little that makes a direct connection between writers’ craft knowledge and how this might be a valuable resource in the writing classroom. Without doubt, this a rich vein for future research, as the “learnability” of a craft has a strong educational angle: arguably, we might reconceive young writers in school as apprentices in the craft of writing.
Professional Writers as Educators in School
This educative potential for writers to work in schools with children, and teachers, as writers has only recently become a focus for genuine consideration, and as noted earlier very little robust research has been conducted in this area. Historically, the idea of author visits to schools, usually children’s authors, has been a more familiar concept, although recent curriculum pressures to meet assessment targets appear to be reducing arts engagement in schools (Jeffries, 2018). Such pressures notwithstanding, arguably the author visit was only ever an occasional experience, rather than an embedded practice, and these visits focus more on reading and motivating children to read through inspiring encounters with the authors.
Recent work is signaling more strongly the benefits of professional writers working with children and teachers with a focus on writing, rather than reading, with both arts organizations and educational organizations advocating the benefit of involving professional writers with schools. The United Kingdom Literacy Association, for example, has published a substantial resource for teachers, offering professional development guidance on planning and organizing the engagement of writers in schools (Cremin, Reedy, Sprackland, & Starling, 2010), and the creative writing organization First Story (2017) has a new program of writer residencies in schools. Indeed, in the UK there is currently more advisory material for schools and writers than research, including Coe and Sprackland (2005), Goddard (2012), Marsh (2004), and Dixon (2006).
The title of Dixon’s (2006) contribution, “Surviving and Thriving as a Visiting Author,” is a salient pointer to the fact that writer visits to schools can be challenging, a fact satirically summarized in Carol Ann Duffy’s poem “Head of English,” where the writer is seen as somewhat tangential to the core concerns of the writing classroom. In contrast, a characteristic of emerging work in this area is a very deliberate reframing of professional writer visits in schools as a collaborative partnership, where teachers and writers work together. Two research studies have looked at this in some depth. A new professional body, the National Association of Writers in Education was established in 1987 specifically to promote writer engagement in schools, and its study, titled Class Writing (Owen & Munden, 2010), investigated the effectiveness of writer residencies in schools. Writers in residence worked in nine schools across England, a mix of primary and secondary, for three years. The project outcomes suggested that this kind of residency can improve students’ attainment in writing but only where the schools genuinely work with them collaboratively. Horner’s (2010) study was commissioned by the Arts Council England “to initiate discussion across the arts and education sectors about developing good practice for involving young people in writing in ways that would be sustainable in the future” (p. 2). It also found that there could be significant benefits for students in working with writers, particularly in motivation and engagement, but it highlighted the crucial need for teacher and writer partnerships and, the report suggested, among other factors, that there is a need to “develop ways of working with writers and others so that aims are agreed, there is mutual support and evaluation is taken seriously, including contributions from writers and pupils” (Horner, 2010, p. 5).
This overview of professional writers in educators makes it clear that this is as yet a relatively unexplored area. The professional practice of writers actively engaging in schools as writers, rather than as authors, is an emerging area of interest in arts and education: the sparsity of research will, in part, be due to this. It is a field ripe for a systematic program of research in the coming years.
Teachers and Professional Writers Learning Together
Historically, as noted in the initial summary, professional writers in education have tended to visit schools to talk to students about their published works or to run workshops, but in the last decade or so, at least in England, more collaborative projects with teachers working with writers within and beyond school have developed, with the intention of enabling teachers to learn from the experience and teach writing more effectively.
The Journey From a Writing Residential Program to the Classroom
In such a partnership project between Arvon (a UK creative writing foundation) and a team from two universities, 16 teachers attended an Arvon residential program and were also given the opportunity to build co-mentoring relationships with professional writers through CPD and working together in school. The concept of co-mentoring was at the heart of the work as the professional writers and teachers worked together for their mutual benefit (as writers and pedagogues) and in order to support student writers (Cremin et al., 2017). The project used mixed research methods, combining a randomized controlled trial with a complementary qualitative data set; the latter included case studies. Thirty-two primary and secondary teachers were involved in total: 16 were assigned to the intervention and 16 to the comparison group, with 8 secondary and 8 primary teachers in each group.
The teachers who attended Arvon were positioned as writers from the outset, and although several voiced initial trepidation, the relaxed ethos and opportunities to participate in workshops and tutorials and to incubate ideas and share their emerging writing proved highly engaging. They became personally involved, often drawing on life experiences as they explored memories and identities, although this dimension of being a writer and personal reasons for writing were not foregrounded. Utilizing an identity lens revealed that while the teachers consistently demonstrated strong teacher identities (noting texts and activities for later classroom use, for example), the experience impacted upon their identities as writers. Despite an early reluctance on the part of many to view themselves as writers, by the close of the week almost all were willing to acknowledge, accept, and in some cases embrace the title. The community of writers’ ethos at Arvon that offered challenge and support appeared to play a significant role in this identity shift/broadening. Interviews undertaken more than a term after the project ended indicated that the teachers’ newly claimed writing identities had been sustained and strengthened by further writing and teaching in which they had reportedly sought to foreground “writers not writing” and more “creative” approaches.
The teachers’ pedagogical intentions at the close of the residential program oriented around a desire to re-create the relaxed, inclusive, and supportive Arvon ethos back at school. They voiced a desire to commit to periods of “just writing,” offer students more autonomy and choice, and make more time for revision and supportive feedback, as well as use Arvon writing activities. Many also expressed an intention to write alongside their students in class, undertaking the same activities. Observational evidence and data from the teacher and co-mentor reflections suggest that as they embraced the Arvon creative writing ethos; the teachers did make more flexible use of time and space for writing, created freewriting opportunities, and shared written work, thus emphasizing the writing process. The professional writers also foregrounded the idea of being a writer, with some also prompting their teacher co-mentor to write in class. However, some aspects of the Arvon experience were less evident; explicit teaching of the craft of writing and focused feedback was rarely observed. When this was seen it tended to be led by the professional writers, perhaps due to teachers’ lack of confidence in critiquing writing, as noted in other studies (Myhill & Wilson, 2013) and in the absence of set curriculum criteria related to their students’ own writing.
In relation to the impact of the work on students, the qualitative interview evidence indicated that the majority of the students (six to eight per focus group in 16 classes) felt the project had had a positive impact on their motivation, confidence, ownership of writing, and skills as writers. Commonly they expressed enhanced enjoyment and engagement in writing, because they perceived more creative freedom, choice, freewriting, and the chance to share and discuss ideas. In identifying approaches that had helped, students commonly noted the advice of professional writers and teachers who shared their own writing as well as time to reflect and dialogue about their writing. In contrast the statistical results showed that the control group students improved writing scores more than the intervention group. There was very significant variation by class, indicating a strong teacher effect: that is, how teachers implemented the Arvon ethos and experience of working with a professional writer varied considerably. It is likely that the teachers, through prioritizing space for freewriting (which fostered student engagement), not only profiled the generation of ideas over evaluating and revising them but also reduced the time available to prepare students for the assessment tasks. The results also raise questions about the inclusivity of assessment rubrics—perhaps part of what is valuable in developing as a writer is less readily measurable.
Co-Mentors Teaching Writing
The Arts Council England report (Horner, 2010) into the work of writers in schools found some evidence of a positive benefit of writers working in schools, but it also made a number of recommendations, including that professional writers should “consider ways of working with teachers, such as mentoring or team teaching to enable schools to continue to teach in ways that encourage creativity in writing to flourish” (Horner, 2010, p. 6). In the “Teachers as Writers” study (Cremin et al., 2017), referred to earlier, an important element was that the notion of co-mentoring was built into the way teachers and writers worked together in school, seeking to recognize and complement each other’s roles. Through interviews with the teachers and recorded discussion between the teacher and the writer after teaching a lesson together, new understanding of this particular co-mentoring relationship was generated.
Both teachers and writers learned much from the co-mentoring experience, but the focus here is on the perspectives of the professional writers. The writers were all experienced visitors to schools, though for most the dominant experience was the more traditional author visit, typically a short one-off session with students rather than any sustained engagement. Several of the authors were very aware that they treated these author visits as a performance, or a kind of show, which they repeated in different schools and tended “to deliver in a similar way” each time. To an extent, these reflect rather formulaic engagement with schools that is more author-centered than child-centered, and, as one writer observed, “it’s very easy after a while to go into an act when you’re being the writer.” But the writers expressed frustration at the fact that so often author visits were “a one-off thing” and “you’ve got an hour and a half and you’ve just got to go bang, bang, bang, bang.” Another writer reflected on this rather ephemeral role:
I am sure that so often people want their money’s worth—you don’t have the luxury of the preparation sessions or talking with the teacher or anything. Or the teachers didn’t have any ideas anyway or they disappeared. It was just a way of bringing a writer in. It’s not an ongoing thing necessarily, it’s just a one-off, and I think there’s much more of that than there used to be.
One writer was openly critical of the “writer as performer” approach, where the school implicitly adopted a stance of “Here’s the writer, they’re going to do their stuff and you stand up and you do you’re the stuff you’re doing and you go away and everyone thinks that, thinks it’s wonderful.” This writer felt that this kind of engagement was superficial and made little long-term difference because the end result effectively a response of “hooray, that’s great, and now we’ll go back to doing what we always did.”
In contrast, the co-mentoring experience was a new way of working, and one that made several of the writers reevaluate their normal ways of working in school. Some of the writers realized that they had not always thought sufficiently about what kind of relationship they should develop with the teacher and they could helpfully be “open to a bit more collaboration” and consider how to generate “more involvement from the teacher.” One writer reflected that “I play my cards close to my chest a bit. . . . I know what I’m going to do and I just go in and I do it and maybe I could give them a bit more information beforehand it would help them to plan about it and also to think about what they could do with it in going forward.” A similar sentiment was expressed by another writer who felt the experience had made her more aware that as a writer she has “something that is special and different to offer” but also that she needed to be better at “tying that in with what they need in the classroom rather than me kind of just going off in whatever direction takes my fancy.” At the same time, one writer came to realize the need “to respect the role of that teacher as a writer as well” and draw on that.
The co-mentoring experience also developed greater understanding of the classroom from the teachers’ perspective. For one writer, the co-mentoring had overturned previous negativity toward schools: “before . . . I was a bit anti education systems and I was a bit anti teachers sometimes. . . . I kind of see it from the other side more.” For other writers, the experience made them much more aware of the pressures and constraints that teachers face in terms of workload, curriculum change, and the dominance of performance targets, and in particular that “there doesn’t seem to be much room for creativity in the curriculum.” Specifically in relation to writing, there was a new awareness of the pressure exerted on teachers to teach writing in a formulaic way, drilling children on what should be included in their writing and “on the boxes you need to tick to get them through the exams and the curriculum and all of that.” This teaching of writing where the pressure is “to do things in a certain way” and “to get the children to use all of those . . . what they call it, complex punctuation, tricky words and complex sentence structures” created a conflict for teachers as “they know that’s not what good writing is.” One writer concluded that “there’s an increasing divide between curriculum writing and what I would call real writing.”
What is evident from the reflections of these professional writers on their co-mentoring experience is that effective educational engagement of writers in schools requires careful consideration and negotiation of the roles of the teacher and the writer in the classroom and recognition of their mutual reciprocity.
Teachers of writing and professional writers in education have only relatively recently begun to work in collaboration in order to explore enhancing the teaching of writing and students’ outcomes. The two fields have developed separately, with more attention paid to teachers’ development as writers and less to the ways in which professional writers operate in educational contexts. As noted, there is limited research literature documenting the contribution of professional writers to teachers’ assurance and skills as writers, to these practitioners’ pedagogy, or to students’ motivation and achievement as writers. Framed too often as “performers” visiting to share their published products, professional writers in schools have had their hands tied and their voices quietened; they have been offered up, and indeed often have offered themselves up, for enrichment or entertainment, not for educational purposes. Yet they have a great deal to offer specialist and nonspecialist teachers, since research indicates a considerable degree of tension and negativity surrounds the teaching of writing in the years of schooling. This relates not only to the challenges presented by narrow conceptualizations of writing in policy documentation and curricula but equally as importantly to teachers’ lack of assurance as writers, negative writing histories, and the tensions that arise when they seek to enact the dual identity positions of teacher and writer in the classroom.
Rather than modeling writing, demonstrating, and composing publicly in front of whole classes, it may be more helpful for teachers to develop the practice of writing alongside their students. Through experiencing the process as fellow writers (as professional writers do when leading workshops), teachers thus positioned may begin to re-view writing, recognize the challenges and satisfactions involved, and identify themselves as writers. In so doing they make come to widen their own conceptualizations of writers, which are currently dominated by romantic notions of “authorship” and limited to published novelists and poets. Recognition of the diversity of writing and writers in the 21st century is essential if students are to see themselves as writers, authors, and designers within and beyond school. In developing their own identities as creative young writers, they will be enabled to select the most appropriate media with which to communicate their own authorial intentions. On the journey toward teachers and students identifying as writers, not merely pedagogues and pupils, professional writers have a potentially rich role to play. Their in-depth understanding of the process of writing, their craft knowledge, and full membership of a wider community of writers can serve to motivate, engage, and educate both teachers and students as writers.
However, more research is needed in order to help teachers create an effective balance between developing students as writers and developing their writing skills. In particular teachers’ capacity to bridge between experience and practice, and between professional writers’ craft knowledge and the teaching of writing, needs close documentation. The ways in which professional writers’ knowledge and practice is reappropriated in classrooms and with what consequence is an area for future research. A new UK project The Craft of Writing is addressing this. Additionally the breadth of writers needs attention and more journalists, scientists, playwrights, comics, songwriters, web designers, and so on involved in education. The extent to which such writers’ craft knowledge varies is another area for research.
The idea of writing as a craft, which seems particularly to characterize the way professional writers conceive of it, has much to offer professional practice and writing pedagogy. In an educational context, in England at least, where writing is positioned largely as a skills-based activity, the notion of craft reframes learning to write as an activity that requires creativity and judgment, not simply rule mastery of skills. It is also a powerful reminder that it can be learned, as the idea of “learning a craft” is a culturally familiar trope. Viewing children as apprentices in the craft of writing generates an intellectually coherent place for professional writers as educators, sharing their craft in the classroom. But it also requires that professional writers verbalize their craft knowledge. In the “Teachers as Writers” project (Cremin et al., 2017), referred to earlier, the professional writers were not all confident in articulating the craft knowledge for writing when asked directly. However, analysis of their interviews, their tutorials with the teachers as writers, and their reflections with teachers on the classroom teaching experience revealed a rich and complex repertoire of craft knowledge. It was also evident that professional writers, unsurprisingly, are not a homogenous group, and some writers were much more able to verbalize craft knowledge than others. In the new project, The Craft of Writing, some of these issues are being explored in more depth: professional writers’ craft knowledge is being investigated in a more focused and explicit way, and a Craft Framework for Writing is being developed, drawing on writers’ craft knowledge but with the classroom in mind.
At the same time, it is important to be critically mindful of key differences between young children learning to write and professional writers, who by definition are both highly successful and highly experienced in their craft. First, there is a fundamental discussion to consider concerning whether the approaches employed by professional writers in their own writing practice can justifiably or usefully be employed in the classroom. At a basic practical level, children in classrooms are unlikely to be able to get up and go for a walk, or take a break for an hour if they hit a writer’s block, yet professional writers can. At a pedagogical level, the fact that professional writers are experts and young writers are novices signals dangers in simplistic assumptions that we should reproduce professional writers’ ways of working in the classroom. Research into the writing process in the field of cognitive psychology provides considerable evidence of some important differences between novice and expert writers that need to be considered. Very young writers, who are still learning how to shape letters and spell words, devote most of their working memory to the effort of writing at this level and have no memory capacity to advance plan, think ahead, or imagine the whole text (Bereiter & Scardamalia, 1987). Even older writers who have largely automatized the transcription process may be unable to handle the cognitive demand of managing the iterative cycle of planning, drafting, and revising and need to treat each of these processes one at a time (Berninger, Fuller, & Whittaker, 1996), counter to the practice of professional writers. As writers become more expert, apart from the automatization of transcription, the writing process becomes more effortful. Unlike any other practice, which usually speeds up with greater expertise, with writing “expert writers paradoxically spend more time on their text and operate more complex processes than novices” (Alamargot & Chanquoy, 2001, p. 185). Thus a key consideration for both future research and professional writers’ engagement in schools is how best to use professional writers’ expertise to support teachers and how to match this with young writers’ developmental needs.
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