Liz Fincham on making the most of a visiting writer
No More Lucky Dip!
It is a truth universally acknowledged that a school in possession of good sense must be in want of a writer. But whom to choose? Aye, there’s the rub. If there’s one thing in even shorter supply than pay rises, for most teachers it’s time. Negotiations with writers are likely to be carried out during the lunch-hour in tiny cupboards off the staffroom. These are called telephone kiosks but they actually house lost property, back issues of the TES and the bran tub for the Christmas Fair. Reader, I’ve been there. To avoid the Lucky Dip Approach so the whole exercise is as valuable as possible for the pupils, teachers, school and writer, serious planning is called for. In fact, if we look in turn at the six elements of every good piece of journalism and think of who, why, what, when, where and how, it will simplify the issue greatly.
Who shall we choose? Ideally, someone somewhere in the school will have read a superb novel, been inspired by a newly discovered poet, become interested in script-writing or some other variant of English teaching. The enthusiasms will have been shared in snatched conversations over cups of coffee or in planning meetings. A brave soul suggests getting in touch with the writer to see if they ever do school visits. Believe me, many of them do, as starving in garrets is a much over-rated occupation. Writers need schools as much as we teachers need writers.
Why do we want writers in schools anyway? Surely much of what they do with the pupils is similar to the work already done by dedicated teachers. Yes and No. The main difference between writers and teachers is that writers spend the chief part of their energy on developing writing. For us, it is only part of what we do. In other words, writers are professionals because that’s how they earn their living. Isn’t it strange how if this was a visit by a professional cricketer or a musician the question wouldn’t even be asked? Our specific reason for wanting a visit by a particular writer could be quite simple. We may want to encourage pupils to tackle his or her works more fully or wish them to develop their own creativity through writing workshops. Isn’t either, or both, motive enough?
What will you ask them to do? Closely linked with your choice of writer and motive for choosing one in particular is your chance to customise the visit. Most writers are not so grand they’ll reject your ideas for the Poetry Day, Book Week, or sequence of visits, but they do like to know exactly what is expected of them. Some understand the terminology we use in schools such as ‘process and product’ or ‘aims and outcomes’. Others will need these to be clarified a little. Many writers are happy to work on something quite specific for your school, perhaps the first draft of a play to celebrate a centenary or a series of poetry workshops. A few prefer to talk in more general terms about their work. It’s essential to establish this framework at the outset; failure to do so makes the visit disappointing for both writer and school.
The favourite weeks tend to be Book Weeks and National Poetry Days in the Autumn Term and Summer Activity Weeks. If you choose a very popular author, book a long time in advance. How about the first week back to school in January? Writers have just as much need to beat mid-winter blues and post-Christmas poverty as the rest of us. If you want to ensure that all of your pupils meet the writer, check whether your chosen dates clash with school trips to France, the geography expedition to central Bolivia, or rehearsals for the school concert or play.
The venue will alter the nature of the experience. School halls, classrooms, local museums and art galleries are all possible locations for visits by writers. Some writers are willing to talk to casts of thousands in the school hall, others prefer small groups of 30 children in classrooms. The work of some writers lends itself to outside venues. For example, poets often work happily in art galleries because they deal, as painters do, in visual images, symbols and myth. A crime writer might love the ruined castle or spooky wood which overlooks your school playing fields. Remember visits off-site will need the usual letters of consent and ratio of accompanying adults to be arranged well in advance!
Aha, the administrative bit…
Q: How long should the visit be?
A: A single visit can be appropriate for a school when time and money are in short supply… A single visit can help a school unused to working with writers make a step into that dimension.
A sequence of visits might take the form of a planning meeting, a full-day in class and a follow-up session to look at second drafts, plan an anthology, poster display or short performance of work.
In a residency there’s time for the work to be developed over days, weeks or even longer. It’s vital that schemes of work allow pupils the opportunity of developing work with a writer over this period of time.
Q: What does it cost and who pays?
A: 1. The Regional Arts Boards – Refer to the Literature Officer of your particular Board and the Literature Development Worker where such a post exists. Money is devolved from the Arts Council of England to these RABs and each uses funding in a slightly different way.
2. W H Smith Poets in Schools Fund – The contact for this scheme (to whom application must be made two terms in advance of the proposed visit) is the Education Officer, The Poetry Society, 22 Betterton Street, London WC2H 9BU (tel. 0171 240 4810).
4. The school itself… after all there are usually some funds available via an accommodating headteacher or PTA. Author visits are, after all, amply justifiable in terms of the National Curriculum in English.
Other questions to consider
Q: How do you find out about your local writers?
Q: Which writers are willing to travel further afield?
Q: What about insurance?
Q: What type and scale of publicity will you want?
Blueprint for Success
In Blueprint, the above are just some of the aspects I’ve considered. There are details of over 30 writers with their contact telephone numbers/addresses and preferred methods of work. During my two years as Literature Development Consultant for West Sussex Schools, I was able to visit dozens of schools and observe exactly what goes on in the classroom with a visiting writer. There were poets, novelists, illustrators and script-writers, children aged six and students of 17 involved in the work. John Agard, Roy Apps, James Berry, Simon Brett, Gillian Clarke, Carol Ann Duffy, Vicki Feaver, Jenny Fontana, Nigel Hinton, Jackie Kay, Anthony Masters, Brian Moses, Hilda Offen, Morag Styles, Jean Ure… they were all there. In all cases the visits enhanced the delivery of the English curriculum, through speaking and listening, reading and writing. Pupils learned that in order to be a good writer it was necessary to give the writing energy, time and status. Teachers were encouraged and supported in their own work with pupils. So, though the visits were always enjoyable they were never frivolous. The emphasis was always on the seriousness of the task in hand whether it was writing a poem, analysing a sequence of poems, listening to a raconteur or trying out short stories using the framework suggested by an expert. The tasks developed from work which was already happening in classrooms and led right back into it. There was a real enriching process going on. However tight funds are in schools, the value of such initiatives is incalculable. Visits by writers need to be fought for: once they are in our schools the writers need to be nurtured. They are a valuable resource.
It might be winter, but there is no discontent
If every writer were to be treated in the way we’d treat Shakespeare if he popped in for a visit to our schools that would be a good rule of thumb. We’d make sure the school orchestra wasn’t practising madrigals in the room next door. There’d be no interruptions half way through Shakespeare’s declamation of Sonnet Twenty-nine by someone looking for Christopher Marlowe due to play in a match against Cheapside Grammar. No self-respecting English teacher would want to miss a minute of his interpretation of King Lear and would have swapped breaktime supervision duty with colleagues in order to listen to his wit over coffee. All the students would have read some of his work in advance so they could ask original questions, not obvious ones like ‘Why did you decide to be a writer?’ Facile questions breed facile answers. Shakespeare might just answer ‘Poaching didn’t seem to pay!’ A spot of braised venison would have been arranged for lunch and there’d be plenty of eager teachers on hand to share a cup of sack with him at the end of the day. He’d be paid promptly and not asked to judge the school poetry competition as an extra unless that had been arranged in advance. We’d know it might interfere with other commitments he had like getting The Winter’s Tale finished. The pupil with the best copperplate writing might even volunteer to write a letter of thanks after the visit. All right, I concede that last bit is far-fetched, but I think you catch my drift…
July 1st 1596
Dear William Shakespeare,
I am writing to confirm the details arranged during our earlier conversation when we spoke on Mid Summer’ a Day.
The dates for the five sessions are as follows
September 17th 1596
September 24th 1596
October 1st 1596
October 8th 1596
October 15th 1596
From nine-thirty until eleven a.m. each day you will be working with thirty pupils aged fourteen on the writing of poetry with particular reference to the sonnet form. It is hoped that a collection of sonnets will be prepared in book form by the end of the Autumn Term to be sold at the Christmas Fair.
Then from eleven thirty until one o’clock you will be working with a group of twelve pupils who are interested in putting together a play-script. They have seen a performance of your latest play and are eagerly anticipating working with you. The age range for this group is from fourteen to seventeen. Two of them hope to become actors themselves.
After lunch, which will be provided for you, we should like you to work with twenty of our older pupils, aged seventeen, on one of your plays, Romeo and Juliet. Arrangements will be made so that each student will have a copy of the play. The afternoon class runs from one-thirty until three p.m. and there is opportunity for working in a rehearsal space towards the end of the residency.
We look forward to hearing from you and hope that these arrangements are satisfactory. Fees will be paid in two blocks, at the end of week two and then on completion of the work. I understand that you are very busy at present putting on a new production but I should be most grateful if you could confirm these arrangements by July 10th.
The zeal of the early converted
I have to confess I was an early zealot to the power of the professional writer. First, in Wales, I shivered in terror and admiration in seminar classes run by Vernon Watkins, friend of Dylan Thomas. Next came the pleasures of hearing Seamus Heaney and Michael Longley read in a draughty hall in Belfast. Then there was Mick Imlah, Oxford poet, working at Oathall Community College in Haywards Heath. This was followed by Gillian Clarke working at the same school in her focused and inspirational way with pupils and teachers. It is the reason I want to support even more teachers and writers as they go about this work. It’s why I wrote Blueprint – to share all I learned during my two years engaged in this work within the Advisory Service in West Sussex. Good Luck! I’m sure you’ll enjoy working alongside professional writers as much as I do. And don’t forget to share your good news; teachers are like magpies – on the look-out for little gems!
Blueprint: A Handbook of Writers in Education Projects priced £5 (cheques payable to West Sussex County Council) is obtainable from Dot Slattery, NEAPC, Furnace Drive, Furnace Green, Crawley, West Sussex RH10 6JB.
Liz Fincham is currently teaching 11-18 year-old girls at a school in Brighton, as well as writing poems and articles for various journals.