Wednesday, 13 August 2014

NUI Maynooth Summer Writing Institute

For a week at the end of July, I had the good fortune to attend the first ever Summer Writing Institute at NUI Maynooth. It was organised by the university Writing Centre at Maynooth, and so a huge thank you from me to Alison Farrell. 

The facilitators for the week were two staff members from BAWP (Bay Area Writing Project) University of California, Berkeley, Greta Vollmer and Kirstin Land; so, more and massive thanks to these two women. They have years of experience in both the teaching of writing, and in community building towards the teaching of writing at all educational levels. 

There were about 20 participants mostly from primary, secondary, further, and higher education, and all of us had a common interest in writing. The idea was to bring together teachers from pre-school, school and college levels to share practice in the teaching and uses of writing at all educational stages. There were a number of core features of the week: the practice of writing; participant demonstrations of real writing exercises from their classrooms; guest writer demonstrations; and, process based tasks such as developing work through drafts and the feedback of a writing group.

I teach academic writing (among other things) in a higher education institution, and I wanted to attend the week to get new ideas about how to teach writing as effectively as possible. Boy did I get my wish list and beyond.

In relation to the participant demonstrations, we were treated to nine sessions in total, all very different. But, what they had in common was the fun element. We never knew what was coming next, except that it could be anything from an early primary, late primary, secondary school or college classroom writing session. In every demonstration, we all had to participate in the writing exercises - it was so much fun, and I learned a great deal. So, we created characters from cutting out pictures from local papers, and from chosing a button; we wrote small screenplays; we tried out observational writing tasks; we took a trip out of the classroom to write a poem based on our senses; we closed our eyes and got sweeties to feel and taste and write about; we tried collaborative writing in the voice of a transition year student; and, we even wrote group poems. The demos were all so inspiring, and showed us safe ways to support writers into ever more sophisticated writing tasks. Often the exercises started with short individual tasks, moving to paired readings or paired writing tasks, and sometimes ending in reading aloud to  larger groups. 

What struck me about the demos from early childhood to adult level writing was that there were so many common factors about learning to write across the age groups. Get learners to want to write, and use shared experiences; time spent will create richness of writing experience; use prompts and materials; move from reading into writing; support learner writers using a range of safe strategies; model good writing practice as a teacher; allow many opportunities to write; and, give some choice in writing tasks. The advice just related was from an early childhood perspective, and yet it was agreed by all participants that these elements are equally important through secondary school and on into college level writing.        

Writing practice was integral to the whole week with time for journalling and a range of interesting writing exercises. From start to finish we were writing away. Teachers of writing should be writing themselves, so we wrote and we wrote.

There were also very interesting guest demonstrations. John MacKenna who teaches at NUI Maynooth gave us some writing related exercises and spoke to us about his writing process. He said something that really struck me as very true which is that writing requires discipline, imagination and courage. We also had speakers from Froebel on early childhood writing supports, and from the Regional Writing Centre at University of Limerick about using interviews on writing process to help support and encourage student writers (How I Write Ireland). Our final talk was from a member of staff of the education department at NUI Maynooth on educational leadership. 

During the week, one of the writing supports demonstrated by the team from BAWP was the use of a writing group with exercises on listening and responding appropriately to first and second drafts. We also had the delightful and hilarious experience of listening to a role play where the participants acted out some atrocious and stereotypical writing group characters, and their typical advice. Strategies were discussed on how to avoid being one or other of the following: The Cheer Leader (everything is always wonderful), It's All About Me (self-explanatory), The Piggy Backer (always agreeing with others), The Re-writer (also self-explanatory), The Editor (lots of grammar, spelling and punctuation suggestions), The Teacher (giving a heavily annotated and unsolicited written response), The PC Pundit (everything is related back to favorite agendas).  It was funny, but very informative, about what is and isn't helpful advice.

Thank you so much to our host, fellow participant, and facilitator Alison, our BAWP facilitators Greta and Kirstin, and to all the participants that made it such a wonderfully rich experience: Eileen, Margaret, Aingeal, Ann, Niamh, Dan, Clair, Claire, Mary L, Ferdia, Josephine, Chris, Chistina, Donna, Louise, Mary G, Trish and Sharon. As a group we hope to continue to share good writing practice and resources both among ourselves and with others.

I hope this initiative gets to run and run in other years. It was one of the most outstanding learning experiences of my life so far, and I've attended many courses across a range of disciplines.It was 5 star, and 10 out of 10.

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