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NAWE Open Space: what is the state of play, and where next for writing in education?
Wed 21 Oct 2020
Julia Payne from the hub who will be facilitating the NAWE Open Space event on 17 November 2020 talks about what makes Open Space unique and what attenders can expect.

Was Alice right when she said, “one can’t believe impossible things”? Or did the Queen of Hearts have something when she declared that she’d, “sometimes believed as many as six impossible things before breakfast”?

With writers who work in education and community settings, and writing organisations across the UK, having to wrestle with the ever shifting sands and uncertainties created by the pandemic, now definitely feels like the time to try if not exactly the impossible, then at least the newly invented or the ingeniously re-purposed.

Over the years, I’ve written loads, but I don’t consider myself a writer, at least not a ‘proper’ writer. My writing has been for venues, festivals and arts organisations - words that help them put bums on seats and raise money – and stream of consciousness scribbles in a journal. But I absolutely understand the power of words, their ability to change lives, and I’ve done what I can to share my passion. A love of reading as a child transformed into teenage volunteering, helping adults with learning difficulties to improve their reading. All grown up and working in the music industry, I co-founded Phrased & Confused, an organisation that over a decade introduced thousands of music fans and festival attenders to the power of poetry, way before it became cool. You get it. I love words.

That’s why I’m so excited to be facilitating NAWE's Open Space event on 17 November 2020. Like NAWE, I see the event as a chance for writers and writing organisations to from across the UK to explore the future of writing in education. Getting inside the challenges and opportunities you might face – as the world continues to wrestle with the uncertainty the pandemic brings, and in a post-Covid world - my hope is that it will help foster the sharing of ideas, start to identify new solutions and bring some renewed hope. 

Change has to start somewhere, and open space events are a great place to (as Phelim from Devoted & Disgruntled says) “engage with the stuff… I only knew how to complain about before”. 

Open Space is people power in action
This is no ordinary conference. It’s called an ‘open space’ event, because the agenda won’t be set by NAWE, or determined by the agendas of those funding or sponsoring it. It will be set by those of you who come along. No government task force is going to crack this for us. Neither will funders alone be able to get us back on the road to recovery. You are. The writers, writing organisations, venues, festivals and others who make up your ever-evolving sector. You all have a part to play in working out how the sector can rebuild, renew, and hopefully come back more resilient than before. And if you’re going to do that, you need time and space on an equal footing to explore, discuss and identify how you might do that. I hope that this event provides just that, and that it will be where the seeds of a collectively re-imagined writing in education scene might get sown.

So, how’s it going to work? Read on for the low down…

So, what’s going to happen?
In the ‘Before Time’, ‘open space’ events happened in a physical space, buzzing with the sound of conversation, networking and much slurping of frothy coffee. These days they happen online, powered by Zoom… and much slurping of not quite so nice coffee. But that’s pretty much the only distinction between this NAWE event and any others I’ve run in the past. At least I hope it will be! (If you’re worried about using Zoom, please let NAWE know, and we can give you whatever help you need.)

As usual, the process starts with a gathering of people; people who’ve come along because they care about the future of writing in education, a group of people that’s unique, and who have never and will never again be together in exactly this grouping.

Open Space ‘technology’ is simple. It’s people. At the outset of the session there’ll be a chance for anyone with a burning issue, big question or great idea to timetable a conversation about it. Normally you’d post your idea on a big ‘market place’ wall; in Zoom we’ll post it on a screen everyone can see. All the questions and ideas put forward will get timetabled, and the agenda for the event will come together in front of our eyes. Thanks to the magic that is the Zoom breakout room, over the course of the couple of hours that follow, people will join the conversations that ‘speak to them’ the loudest.

At any one time, there might be 5, 10 or even more breakout conversations going on at the same time – each of them in a separate Zoom breakout room - with people in each one working hard on the topic at hand. The ‘law of 2 feet’ (or of ‘personal mobility’) means that you can dip in and out of conversations as you want (again using simple Zoom wizardry to do so); you might sit through 2 conversations from start to finish, or move like a bumble bee between loads more than that, adding a few ideas to all of them as you go. The choice is yours. The responsibility is yours. Then, at the end of the event, everyone will come together again, to share their reflections, learning and the actions they want to commit to after the event. People power in action, taken together, these conversations and pledges will stand as a snapshot of our collective hopes, ambitions and plans for writing in education; a kind of manifesto if you will.

More than just a talking shop, the aim is to get things and people moving
‘Open Space’ isn’t about any one person or organisation taking control or promising to solve everything; rather, it’s way of bringing together people who want to address a complex issue, focus on what matters to them, make essential connections, and do what they think must be done. It’s about a culture of shared responsibility through which ordinary people can accomplish extraordinary things.

At ‘open space’ events I run, I like to document all of the thinking, all of the ideas, all of the pledges. Because the aim is for this event to feel like a beginning of something bigger not an end in itself, NAWE will produce a manifesto from it that captures all of this and will act as a potential blueprint for whatever participants want to do next – individually or collectively. Themes that emerge from this event will shape conversations at the virtual NAWE conference in March 2021.

I’m hoping for some ‘atomic collisions’ that will propel the sector forward
(We’ve heard a lot about ‘the science’ over the past few months; this is my dodgy science analogy!)
I love the ‘atomic collisions’ that occur when you bring together people with different ‘norms’ and starting points to explore and invent new ideas and alternative realities that wouldn’t otherwise have seen the light of day. I’m expecting some real ‘atomic collisions’ at this event. My hope is that everyone will leave the Zoom with some new insights, some potential new collaborators and friends and some clear action points to keep them busy and connected in the weeks and months that follow. But who knows exactly what will happen, which ideas will surface?! I certainly don’t. That’s the beauty of open space, and what makes it so exciting!

I’ll sign off with two ‘wordy’ reflections I think are pertinent to where we all are at the moment. The first comes courtesy of Suzie Dent (of Countdown Dictionary Corner fame), who took to twitter a couple of months ago to remind us of the word ‘respair’, which means ‘fresh hope and recovery from despair’. The second, as old as the hills, is that in Chinese, the word 'crisis' is composed of two characters, one representing danger and the other, opportunity. Both of these represent the kind of curious and generous thinking that’s definitely propelling me at the moment, and that I hope will power us when we get together in a few weeks’ time.

Julia Payne
Director, the hub

NAWE’s open space event takes place on 17 November 2020, from 10.00am-1.30pm, and is free to attend. Head here to book your ticket. 

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