Here Barbara Bleiman introduces EMC’s exhibition of examples of writing from Let Them Loose! The exhibition gives a flavour of what happened on the day. With 1000s of pieces of writing being tweeted and sent to us for display on Flickr, it’s only been possible to select a few. True to the spirit of the event, Barbara, Simon Wrigley (of the National Writing Project) and playwright, Sarah Hehir, chose pieces that caught our attention and spoke strongly and freshly to us, rather than applying any fixed criteria or being overly concerned about technical accuracy or a highly polished final product. Following on from Barbara’s introduction and the exhibition is a reflective report by Simon about what he took from the day.
Wednesday 21st June was National Writing Day, the first of many, I hope. The English and Media Centre discussed what we could offer on that day and decided to set up an event called ‘Let Them Loose!’ We wanted to encourage English teachers to allow their students to write without the constraints of assessment, to write for its own sake, for pleasure and for themselves, without teacher intervention or marking. We have observed, over the past few years, how a data-driven accountability culture has been transforming the teaching of writing – and not in a good way! When everything is assessed to within an inch of its life, and students are given highly prescriptive (and proscriptive) instructions for everything they write, then students start to write in stilted, formulaic and inauthentic ways. ‘Let Them Loose!’ was an open offer to write unfettered by these strictures. Students were to be given 30-45 minutes to write, on a choice of mystery stimuli provided by EMC on the day. The stimuli included two intriguing photographs, plus a selection of poetry fragments, from which they could select as many or as few as they liked to spark off their imaginations. A fourth option was ‘Write whatever you’d like to!’ The poetry fragments included unusual phrases like ‘I can only half-hear you John’ and ‘The vacuum cleaner sulked’. Teachers were also encouraged to write alongside their pupils. (You can download the stimulus PDF here.)
In the run-up to National Writing Day, we began to realise that we had hit on something big. Hundreds of English teachers were getting in touch by email, or via Twitter, to say that they were going to take part. We encouraged them to do it with whole classes, year groups and even whole schools and one or two started to tell us that not only teachers and pupils would be taking part, but the whole school community. We had clearly touched a nerve.
Why had this event so captured English teachers’ imagination? It tells us something important, and rather sad, about the state of play in schools at the moment. For many of these teachers, the idea of 30-45 minutes of free writing was clearly an exciting opportunity, a chance to break free of some of the shackles. To those outside our pressure cooker world, this might this seem rather strange. It is strange! Creative writing and freedom to express yourself, making choices about what to write and how to write it, have always been at the heart of English lessons. Pupils have loved English for the pleasure of discovering themselves as writers. As most published writers will tell you, writing is only ever partly planned. What is generated often emerges in semi-conscious or even sub-conscious ways and can often take even the writer by surprise. Now, endless rules and regulations, and the fear of risk, playfulness and experimentation, have brought the shutters down and rather than opening up possibilities, avenues for inventiveness and individuality are, all too often, closed off. English was always a favourite subject for pupils. Sadly, this may be changing. Colleagues who teach A Level are reporting that numbers are likely to be significantly down in September because students associate English with boredom, anxiety and lack of pleasure.
On National Writing Day ‘Let Them Loose!’ happened and it was even more vast and magnificent than we had imagined. By mid-morning, our Twitterfeed was full of images of writing and photographs of students engrossed in writing – at desks and under desks, in the playground and on benches, under trees, along with their teachers and alone, in Scotland, London and all over the UK, as well as India, Italy, Pakistan and Shanghai!
Students were writing poems, playscripts, filmscripts, graphic novels, stories, diaries, speeches and personal pieces. Thousands of children wrote. They wrote crime, thriller, sci-fi, fantasy, realist stories and ones drawn from experience – in fact anything and everything one could imagine, and more. They were unfettered, unencumbered with concerns about what mark they’d get. The writing was often inspiringly clever, moving, witty and fresh. That sulking vacuum cleaner caught the imagination of more than one student and teacher and produced surprisingly brilliant writing. Some students wrote in Polish, Mandarin or Shona, and then translated their home language pieces for their classmates. In one school, a photo popped up on Twitter of a canteen worker writing to our prompts, and the Headteacher of that same school posted his bit of writing on Twitter (in response to an image of a pair of boots), so that the whole school, and everyone else doing ‘Let Them Loose!’ could read it. Thousands of pieces of writing have now been shared via EMC on Flickr.
If the writing has been stunning, the reactions of staff and students have been equally so. ‘We took our paper and imaginations outside and wrote in the playground’ said one teacher. For some, there were initial nerves. ‘The concept of no rules/success criteria/mark scheme was initially daunting’ but then found to be ‘LIBERATING!’ Freedom was the recurring motif – ‘the girls said they loved writing without restriction’, it was ‘a fabulously freeing afternoon’. It wasn’t just the more able students who took up the baton. ‘Our students have had many barriers to their learning,’ said one teacher. ‘I wasn’t sure how they would react to this challenge, but they rose to it and were very successful!’ Reading their writing, we agreed.
We hope that ‘Let Them Loose!’ will take place again next year. But more importantly, we want the message to ring out up and down the country that this is what should be happening in our schools all of the time, not just once a year, but for every pupil, in every classroom. Giving pupils choice, the chance to experiment, to write for themselves, to write (at least sometimes) without explicit teaching or lists of what to include or avoid, are all vital aspects of learning how to write with confidence and a strong, authentic voice. We saw them do this last Wednesday. Let’s see it happening every day of the week.
Barbara Bleiman, Education Consultant, English and Media Centre
To all the teachers and students who took part – thank you! And an especially big thank you to the following who tweeted during the day or submitted their writing for our Flickr gallery (apologies if we missed you on Twitter):
Acland Burghley (Camden), AESG, All Saints C of E School (Wyke), Anand Niketan Shilaj Campus (Ahmedabad), Angmering School, Astor College (Dover), Avonbourne College, Aylesbury Grammar School, Barnard Castle School, Barton Court School, Bishop Challoner, Bishop Luffa School, The Blandford School, Bishop Challoner, Shadwell, Bishop Challoner School (Tower Hamlets), Bloxham School, Bourne Grammar School, Breadalbane Academy, Aberfeldy, British School of Milan, Bullers Wood, Carr Hill School, Chesham Grammar, Chiswick School, Christopher Whitehead Language College, The City School – Gulshan Campus A (Pakistan), Collingwood College, Cooper’s School, Cotswold School, Darrick Wood School, Dartford Grammar School For Girls, Debden High, Driffield School, Dorothy Stringer School, Durrington High, Eastbourne College, Eastbury School, ECC, Elm Green School, Tulse Hill, Exmouth Community College, Farrington’s School, Furze Platt School, Gosford Hill School, Greenacre Academy, Haberdashers’ Girls School, Haggerston School, Harris Beckenham, Heathfield Community College, Heathside School, Heckmondwike School, Hellesdon High School, High Storrs, Holcombe Grammar, Holmer Green Senior School, Hornsey School for Girls, Horsforth School, Ilkley Grammar School, Isleworth and Syon School for Boys Yr 7, Ivybridge Community College, JCoSS, Kemnay Academy, Kesteven and Grantham Girls’ School, Kimbolton School, Kimberley School, Kings School (Chester), Kingston Grammar School, Kirkbie Kendal School, Langley School, Solihull, Langley Park Girls School, The Latymer School (Enfield), Lea Valley High School, Liskeard School (Cornwall), Loreto Grammar School, Manchester High School for Girls, Mayfield School, Millfield School (Somerset), Mount School York, Mountbatten School, Moorbridge PRU (Shiremoor), The Norwood School, Newstead Wood School, Notre Dame Roman Catholic Girls School, Southwark, Orleans Park, Ormiston Six Villages Academy, Oxford High School, Parkstone Grammar School, Portobello, QE, QKS Kendal, Pont High, The Priory City of Lincoln Academy, Portland Place School, Raine’s School, Rainham Girls School, Ramsey Academy (Halstead), Reaz Kurimbux, Royal Latin School, Buckingham, Sewell Park Academy, Sharnbrook School, Sittingbourne Community College, St Christopher’s Letchworth, Suffolk One, St Anne's Academy Winchester, St. Anthony's Girls' Catholic Academy, Sunderland, St Bernard's, St Francis’ College, Hertfordshire, St John’s College (Southsea), St Joseph’s (Wokingham), St Michael's, Suffolk One, Surbiton High School, Sutton High, South Wilts Grammar School, Swanwick Hall, Teeside High School, The Burgess Hill Academy, The City School, Gulshan Campus A Pakistan, The Co-operative Academy of Manchester, Thomas Cowley (Donnington), Thomas Tallis School, University of Birmingham School, Uppingham Community College, Uxbridge High School, Wallingford School, Wanstead High, Westonbirt School, Whitgift School – A Curtis Rouse, William Hulmes Grammar School, Wimbledon High School, Wirral Grammar School for Boys, Wren Academy, Writer’s Club Norwood, Wyedean English
And the schools at which the following teachers work: M Harrison, Tiffany Yates, Dawn Yardley, Amika Salter, Sharon Stead, Neil, Miss Bish, Anton Viesel (Northampton)
For the full Let Them Loose! experience, visit our Flickr gallery ...
... search #EMCLetThemLoose and #LetThemLoose on Twitter or scroll through the feed for @EngMediaCentre (scroll down to 21st-24th June).
To view the writing full size, click on the image.
On Thursday 22nd June, while more and more writing was arriving by the hour – from all across the UK and as far away as India and China, I sat alongside Sarah Hehir and Barbara Bleiman and read page after page of pupil writing. It was a privilege and an insight.
Writing on the summer solstice evoked, unsurprisingly, fantastic tales of heat and Gaian matters: ‘fighting a goblin called Morte on the summer solstice’. Many wrote passionately, with a fierce morality about our weak stewardship of the environment:
This is what Earth is doing to us. He is giving up on us. All of us.
There were touching personal pieces about human relations – discord in families, sick relatives, as well as the loss of uncles, parents and siblings:
Unable to sleep, I watched as the dusk began to coop in my great uncle John’s wild and overgrown garden – as it did in him.
Some writers told horrific apocalyptic and dystopian stories – trains were hijacked, killer dolls roamed the streets leaving pools of blood in their wake, and there was even one darkly humorous story which drew on the fears of our times, ending:
... and that is how North Korea became a deserted radio-active country that no-one had ever heard of.
But however far away the young writers travelled, and whichever prompts they responded to, it was wonderful that, for forty-five minutes or so, they had been allowed to unleash their imaginations and reconnect with things that rose in them, rather than struggle with things imposed from outside. Whether they approached this directly or obliquely, it felt healthy – even when they wrote from the ontological heart of teenage angst: ‘No one understands me. I’m going to die.’ Of course contemporary events, film and fiction were ‘re-processed’, and one hoped that it had been cathartic for them to recreate painful pasts and step into possible futures and to listen to oneself without fear of judgement: 'Meandering, aimless, he is the wanderer' wrote one; ‘The window is me,’ wrote another.
‘Let Them Loose’ was a chance for each student to choose their own pathway, assume the mantle of the expert, and discover what might be possible when they followed their own imaginations – rather than obeyed someone else’s requirements.
Writers across many schools wrote with an ease and fluency that implied they were more used to taking responsibility: they ploughed their own furrows with confidence. They seemed quite capable of harnessing what they knew of writing, consciously or unconsciously, and set off straight away, borrowing and extemporising at will. (eg: ‘And so it begins ...’ Gruzorok exclaimed, eyeing the spear-wielding man stood before him’) Some found voices and structures to hold their thoughts about identity crises, fires, orphanages and other monsters. One used the last word of each paragraph to springboard a whole new paragraph in a scintillating leap-frog. Another dived straight into powerful self-reflection, ending unashamedly ‘Because that’s the way I am.’ And yet another projected herself confidently into an orphan’s mind and wrote an electric piece which sparkled with attitude and hybrid patois worthy of Anthony Burgess:
I have the power to read minds and I can see all the pity you wretched creatures have for me. Thoughts flying here and there, some saying ‘Lord, deliver this demonic soul!’ I’ll have you know I’m being delivered right now. I am all packaged up like a present on my way to Cellwick Avenue. The old plonkers needed a squidge buddy, reckons I’m the one. Excuse my English, my first language is Jibberish – after all it’s the only thing I understand. My parents are a lost cause – probably some earl halfway across the world. I couldn’t give a toss about them. When I am a star like Iggle Piggle they come at me like a wrecking ball – the only known knook and crannies. Being an orphan is hard – not being able to have a slave (referred to as mum) and a bachelor (also known as dad). Could life be any easier? Hope Cellwick ain’t that bad – it’s the least an orphan like me could wish for.
After an eternity and a half I am here. I don’t think the grannies can see me. Should’ve gone to Specsavers.
Free writing of this kind should regularly open and extend learning. Writers will also benefit from discussion of personal processes and of the many affordances of writing (not just grades), from listening to what is distinctive rather than conventional in each other’s writing, and from reflection on what may help and hinder. If we can cultivate different writing spaces for students and allow them to take a full part in the cultural conversation about conventions and values, they will become the writers they can be and democracy can be the stronger. ‘Let Them Loose’ was a powerful reminder of what lies inside young people – and how good it is for their confidence, their learning and their emerging agency for them to have opportunities to express themselves independently.
Simon Wrigley, National Writing Project – Opening and Extending Learning