The benefits of making personal writing a whole school activity

Two years ago my good friend and colleague from the English department, Catherine Wylie, invited me to come and speak to a group of her students about reading. As a male PE teacher and a lifelong reader, she thought that I might be relatively inspiring, particularly to the boys in the class. I agreed and delivered two sessions talking to pupils about how and why reading had made such an impact on my life. I didn't realise at the time, but the cunning Mrs Wylie had been listening fervently as I talked about how my own English teacher had encouraged and inspired my own love of writing as a youngster.

A couple of weeks later she invited me to come and see some of the work her S2 class had been doing on the Scottish Book Trust’s My Favourite Place campaign and she issued me with a challenge: if I was to truly inspire young people then I should also write a piece and enter. Not one to refuse a lady, I agreed.

The story came out fairly naturally for me. My favourite place and time in my life were my childhood summers in Montrose, and sitting down and reminiscing with myself was cathartic. Although I work largely on a laptop at work the idea of story writing on one didn’t seem to fit and I returned to the old favourite of pencil and paper, the sound of which still reminds me of the classroom I sat in with Mr Simpson as an S2 pupil.

The story When We Were Kings took me around three days to write and I found I had far more than the 1000 word limit and set about the task of stripping it back to what I thought would be a fitting description of a time and place in my life where I was invincible. The more I wrote and tinkered with it the more I realised how much I was enjoying making it readable and understandable to everyone. Mrs Wylie had rekindled a small flame that had been hiding behind countless excuses and "tomorrows".

I entered close to the deadline, pleased that I’d delivered on my challenge. Catherine was delighted that I had entered and we agreed job well done. That was really supposed to be the end of the matter so months later, on receiving the email to say that out of the hundreds of entries I had been selected to be part of the book, I was delighted and a bit flabbergasted. For someone to actually say that they liked and enjoyed what I had written was amazing, and it still gives me a thrill to know that people will read my tale and get the same feeling that I do when I read others' work.

It was only really at the book launch and on reading other winning entries and seeing how many already published writers had entered that the scale of what I had managed to achieve really hit me. It has inspired me to believe there are other stories inside me, maybe even books. Most of all though it’s shown me that I love writing. Since the publication I’ve bought myself a laptop, I carry a notebook most of the time and my phone is full of conversations with myself about ideas for stories. I now write for pleasure and whether or not people will read it doesn’t matter to me; the act itself is worth the effort.

We have two class sets of the book in school and every now and again a pupil comes up to me to say they’ve read my story, usually with the end line of  "and you’re a PE teacher as well... it was guid". It makes me feel good to know that children are reading my work, but more so that they can see that anyone can write a story and that loving language is not something to be ashamed of or hide behind.

To finish I would say to all teachers out there: let me be your Mrs Wylie. Write something, write anything, embrace the challenge. Who knows what you will discover?

If Phil has inspired you to try personal writing again, why not enter our new campaign for 2014, Scotland's Stories of Home? We want to know what 'home' means to you. We'd also like to hear from your pupils in our schools campaign. You can make Scotland's Stories of Home a whole school writing activity! There are free learning resources available, as well as free writing workshops for adults taking place around the country. Full details are available on the Scotland's Stories of Home page.

Phil Stephen

Phil Stephen is a PE teacher at Alva Academy in Clackmannanshire.