Yesterday I experienced something moving and lovely. It was as joyous as anything I have heard or seen since I have been at Christ the Sower, and it represented for me a first-fruit fulfilment of something I longed to achieve at my school back in Shropshire in 2010-11, but was never able to. Back then I was googling for information to help families get writing with their children and through a Family Reading Association in the US I chanced upon a copy of Art Kelly’s wonderful study of writing with families in Las Vegas, Nevada, which is nearly the most exciting book as I have read on writing (not perhaps as inspiring as Choice Words and Opening Minds by Peter Johnston, but close).

Well yesterday afternoon, thanks to Kaajal Mushtaq and Tracey Feil, I got to attend one of our new Family Time workshops. These began just before the half term holiday, and to sit in and observe one, to talk to the children and the parents about the experience of attending and then to see the tender and careful way that Tracey and Kaajal worked with the families was a delight. It felt still like the very beginning of something good, rather than the well-developed finished product, but still a fantastic event. The idea has come from Kaajal’s project for her NPQSL course, trying to meld the features of Talk for Writing with her ongoing work with community and families. Kelly’s work has been a jumping off point, but the work is designed to fit with the way that we are going about the teaching of writing, and the responses that our families have made to that work.

What I saw was a group of 19 people – 9 parents with 10 children, sitting at tables in Cherry Hall (our upstairs hall near the Children’s Centre), richly engaged in talking to each other – children and parents – about what they liked about writing. The session had been in play for 20 minutes when I went in and everyone was just starting to write simple acrostics based on the first names of the children and adults, before finding things in the hall that began with each word and making simple stories from the words that they collected. Really simple, but absorbing for all concerned.

This sharing of language together was just the beginning of the main event. Families last week had been asked to bring along a matchbox with a small treasured object in it to talk and write about. And they had. There was a 2 groszy piece from Poland, a little elastic hair band, some coins, and other “valuables”.

Tracey introduced the session by sharing Paul Fleischmann’s Matchbox Diary, a wonderful book of the recording of memories, where each matchbox contains an object representing a slice of life, a story or a person or event. It has huge power and Tracey asked the parents and children together to write a short piece of writing about the object, to be tied up with red ribbon and replaced carefully in the matchbox that they had brought with them. Really simple, and profound. At this point there was a rich purpose provided, and parents in particular approached the task with some reverence and care.

At the end of the session, Tracey and Kaajal gave out more matchboxes, this time for the other family member to find an object and place it in and write about it. I will be going back next week just to see what happened.

Art Kelly begins with 11 founding principles for his “Family Scribe Groups,” and they are worth repeating here, as they might provide future guidance and “covering” to the efforts of Family Time (which I really hope grows and develops):

  1. Remember that participants are families
  2. Focus on families and facilitate the sharing of family experiences
  3. Recognize families as teachers: “parents and grandparents have knowledge far more expansive than any classroom teacher could ever pretend to offer”)
  4. Appreciate that kids are people too. “They have opinions and ideas: what they believe matters.”
  5. Let families shape your project’s focus: “deal with lived experiences and knowledge gained from family life”
  6. Create an accepting environment: this was done beautifully by Kaajal and Tracey yesterday, one of the real strong points of what I saw.
  7. Give voice to the voiceless: watch out for those who may find it hard to express their voice at home and give an opportunity in the group, so get to the point where the work is published!
  8. Give writing importance: “in a Family Scribe Group, writing is a revered activity, a treasured experience – anything but basic”
  9. Measure success outside of given standards: rate self-perception as writers, opportunities to write about how they feel as writers.
  10. Honor native languages: this is a critical issue, as it gives honor to languages that our culture might dishonor through implicit racism or lack of interest. All languages are precious to God, and are the way we express depth in our lives.
  11. Balance mind and heart: FSGs strike a balance between the intellectual and the emotional…. and this is what I saw and experienced. Kelly’s work explains why I found it so chest-tightening to see children and their mums and dads writing together.

Everything I saw yesterday pointed to one end – of getting children and their families writing together; it was great. Perhaps in the future, the focus might move from the writing as an end to writing as a means, so that a deepening family life and awareness of family within community might be part of the outcomes. I am looking forward to what is created as the families begin to share with each other and a sense of togetherness for all the participants is created.

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About Huw Humphreys

I am a headteacher in the city of Milton Keynes, where I have been since April 2011, looking to make education effective for the whole child and keeping a distant relationship with the powers that be and their narrowing approach to education... but most of all I am looking to find out what it means to be both a follower of Jesus Christ and a passionate educator in the midst of an unsettled community. I am also a part time musician, part time linguist and lover of history and literature...committed both to freedom to learn and depth of learning for all our children. The views on this blog are all my own, and not in any way those of the school I lead!

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