Mind the gap!
Bridging a divide through lifelong learning
Tony Dickenson believes the relationship between teacher and student is evolving. Today, a more holistic approach, centred on inquiry requires a “collective approach,” with teacher and student exploring these concepts side by side.
To nurture individual student curiosity effectively the modern teacher must model flexibility and adaptability, and show a willingness to move beyond personal comfort zones of subject specialisation into areas of personal uncertainty. Over the last decade my classroom practice has shifted by sharing my own writing with students.
Writing had always been a private interest. Published in 2015, my first novel Tumbling in Bethnal Green, was a project I assumed a “one off” affair which would end at publication. Writing mainly at weekends, during the week at school I was introducing a more conceptual approach to my teaching, and during the 3-4 years it took to write and publish, I was thinking of ways in which I could bridge the teacher/learner divide.
Then, during discussion on the importance of editing in a lesson one day, I decided to share with students examples of my own writing, focusing on the joy of bringing imagination to the page, the thrill of “meeting” a new character, and “following” an unexpected plot twist I hadn’t seen coming. All under the guise of the importance of a well-edited document.
Even today when I ask students to thoroughly edit their work, the sparkle in their eyes fades. As I edited my novel, (a never-ending task), it occurred to me I was fine-tuning in myself skills I was trying to nurture in my students: motivation, creativity, discipline, editing, and completion of a demanding task. To and from school on the tube each day I was busily editing my novel, and as I reminded them of the importance of editing in a lesson one day, I pulled from my bag a couple of chapters from the novel, page upon page littered with corrections, for them (and me) an unexpected revelation that triggered immediate inquiry. What’s it about sir? Where did you get the idea sir? Is it about you sir? These questions pleased me, not solely for students showing interest in my work, but for sparking authentic inquiry about the varying stages of the writing process.
Once the novel was published, it was somewhat surreal to see students around school reading it. They were excellent critics too, very complimentary in nature, (what else?), many suggesting I write a sequel. Parents were interested too, inviting me to talk about the novel at their book club. However, for years I had spent weekends and school breaks preoccupied with writing, and when it was finally published, I felt at a “loose end” without a project at hand. I realised fiction writing, along with teaching, was central to my life. Nevertheless, the prospect of immersing myself in another lengthy project didn’t appeal, and so I began short story writing, completing a dozen or so stories (which remain in “incubation”) before, quite surprisingly, a second novel emerged.
Feeling I had acquired a certain expertise from writing and editing a novel (and with an idea emerging for a second), I decided to introduce creative writing workshops. At first I considered running these as after-school activities, but from experience, I knew that an hour passes like a minute when writing, and wanted students to experience an unhurried, dedicated stretch of uninterrupted time to craft, and not simply “do more English.” With support from the USLT, I ran the first weeklong Creative Writing workshop in a house in the Cotswolds where, along with another English teacher and ten students, we dedicated a week solely to writing stories. With a word limit for stories between 2000-5000 words, teachers and students were expected to produce and present their stories after dinner on the final evening.
A story emerges
I’d been thinking about a story that in some way explored the shifting nature of teaching and learning, one that commented on a holistic and conceptual approach to classroom practice which, to some degree, I was already implementing in lessons. As characters and plot twists emerged, it soon became clear that the scope of my exploration would require more than 5000 words. I completed the first draft a year or so later and began a lengthy editing process. As I continued to shape characters, I found myself constantly reflecting on my experiences as a teacher, using IB Learner Profile traits, (central to an IB education) to highlight positive characteristics perhaps best exemplified by Tom, the main character, and his “teacher,” Thomas – academic, artist, philosopher.
The result is Puffin Boy published in April 2019. This summer, many students, parents and staff will read it, and I look forward to hearing their thoughts and opinions when I return to school in September.
My summer however, will be spent editing a third novel, in “incubation” since Christmas, aspects of which again I expect to share with my students, as side by side, we discuss the ingredients required for a good story.
Further information/short stories can be found at: tonydickenson.com
Tony Dickenson is an English teacher at Dwight School London. He enjoys writing fiction, learning foreign languages, and is currently teaching himself German.
Feature Image: Viviane- Pixabay