Writing the Words, and Dancing the Steps Together
Not many people think of teachers as writers, yet we are always writing. We write lessons plans and resources, we write the same things many times in many different ways, to make them accessible to everyone. We write exemplars to share with students, model writing to everyone on whiteboards at the front of class – we write collaboratively with groups and individuals, and we write feedback to and for each other.
When we went into lockdown and school closures were announced, the teaching team I work with leapt to keyboards and Chromebooks, to write our way through the crisis. At first, we thought it might be like being gifted a couple of unseasonal snow days; the guilty pleasure of gaining some time, at a most inconvenient point in the academic year, just as the helter-skelter towards exams was beginning.
We quickly pulled together work books and independent tasks, mirroring what we had already written to use in school, changing the form of learning almost magically overnight, through manual dexterity and sheer hard work. To begin with, it was clear that we were tackling our challenges of setting work remotely as individual writers, raising our hands, virtually on WhatsApp, to take responsibility for particular skills and year groups, and the learning we felt most able to offer.
We all thought we would be back after Easter, and spoke in our team of little lost time, and how nice it would be to return to face-to-face teaching, though it was clear that something interesting was happening with how we were making things work online. When we realised that lockdown was going to continue for much longer, something significant happened to us as writers. Teaching can be a relatively lonely profession, despite the constant company of thirty of so teenagers. As practitioners, we tend to work alone, passing in corridors as we hurry from one location to another, fielding footballs and mediating conflict on break duties, grabbing coffees and talking strategies as we walk. Somehow, being physically distant from each other allowed us the opportunities to work together in ways never possible before.
As we began to plan the remote academic year, something changed our work as we began to write together, as a whole team. Several of our teaching plans had to be scrapped, as we did not have, and could not distribute enough shared texts to students. As members of our pastoral teams worked overtime making sure families were well, and even cycled our catchment area giving out flower seeds for children to grow, as a team we were germinating.
Though we were sad to lose some of our time honoured and much loved content, Pride and Prejudice, A Midsummer Night’s Dream, and others, we began to realise that we could make our teaching more responsive to the events of the world if we let go of how we had always done things. With all of us new to the technology we were now expected to work with, our learning was less a curve and more a north face ascent, yet we pulled each other up, helping via text and email, combining and collaborating in new ways through.
As we mapped the year in slides and worksheets, and spoke across the miles to students through the wonder of meeting technology, we were constantly writing together. In synergy with colleagues in other subject areas, we wrote about current affairs, followed science and politics, examined media, and asked our students to consider and write their own thoughts and ideas on them. We wrote about the natural world, new ways of living, and what this time has allowed us to see and be aware of. We wrote about racism and the groundswell of opposition to statues celebrating the power of empire, and how we feel about the markers of the shameful actions in history found in our own city. We wrote and shared diaries and pen portraits, protest poems and essays showcasing rhetorical skills.
As we learned how to turn the weeks through distanced lessons and meetings, the messages were constant: write and share, write and share! ‘I have done this, and I will send it to all of you’, ‘I have this extra thing that I think could be useful’, ‘Here are some resources that pitch this a bit differently’ and in true Blue Peter spirit, ‘Here’s one I made earlier.’ The immense capacity of the teachers I work with to give, and to go on giving to each other and students alike, in spite of complex family circumstances, and ill health for many, has been astounding. Our boss likens us to a ballet company, who work perfectly with any choreography, even when the director makes last minute changes. When we did meet recently, many of us highlighted the absolute pleasure of being able to work so closely with others, despite the strange circumstance.
As we look forward, we have learnt that writing together is our strength and our inspiration, and if we can pass on the spirit of loving communication and the written word in any way, we will feel as though we have done important work. We know now the pitfalls of barking dog in a meeting background or an internet connection that drops and ends the lesson unexpectedly, leaving a class in a weird online void. If it all goes on longer, or we get locked down again, we now can make things work for our students and ourselves, through the simple act of writing the words, and dancing the steps together.
Alison Jones’ work has been widely published in journals such Poetry Ireland Review, Proletarian Poetry and The Interpreter’s House, The Green Parent Magazine and The Guardian. Her pamphlet, ‘Heartwood’ was published by Indigo Dreams in 2018, her second pamphlet, ‘Omega’, came out in June 2020.