Working as a Writer in Primary Schools
by Jean Sprackland
Starting out as a writer in schools
I vividly remember my first experience as a writer running a workshop in a primary school. The Headteacher rang me, and I was so excited I said yes straightaway. I didn't bring up any of those issues which materially affect the success of a writer's visit. When I arrived at the school, 90 children were sitting cross-legged, waiting for me in the hall, with no tables or chairs, and pens but no paper. No teacher was present, and I had this same group all morning, including a 'wet playtime'. If this happened now, I'd probably be able to rescue the situation, but back then I had no experience to go on and it was awful.
When I go into a school now, I try to sort out all these details in advance. I will work with a class-sized group, with a teacher present at all times (it's a legal requirement). Paper and pens, whiteboard and markers will be provided. I tell the teacher I'll be arriving 20 minutes before the session is due to start so that we can have a cup of tea and iron out any remaining logistical problems.
When a writing project works well, it's like magic, but it can go wrong! I see the school as friend not foe, but sometimes they will try and arrange things in a way you know won't work - it's important to say so, not just agree stoically.
Fortunately, there are many things you can do to maximise your chance of success.
First establish yourself as a writer
This means getting published, or having a strong track record as a performer of your own work. Even if you are principally a writer for adults, it's a good idea to write some pieces for children and young people - they will stand you in good stead in the schools you visit, and the fact that they've seen your name in a few schools anthologies will give teachers confidence in you as a writer.
You'll probably need to get some unpaid experience of working in school. Primary schools in particular have changed dramatically in the past 20 years, and a visit or two will help prepare you for the realities. Arrange to go in with another writer to observe and learn. All writers have their own style - the idea is not to ape someone else but to begin to see how you could approach schools work yourself.
When you're ready, let schools know you're available. Get your name onto the NAWE database <www.artscape.org.uk>. Your local Arts Council England office may also maintain a list of its own - ask the Literature Officer. Consider printing a leaflet which describes you as a writer, your previous experience, what you will deliver (workshops, performances, readings), what age-range you're able and willing to work with. The tone of this leaflet is important: publicity material which sounds pushy and arrogant can be very off-putting, but you do need to present a good case. One or two quotes from satisfied teachers or colleagues are real assets. Remember also that teachers are extremely busy and have to deal with large quantities of unsolicited mail. Make your leaflet relevant, concise and easy to read.
The National Literacy Strategy
Its introduction has radically changed the context for our work as writers in schools. Without a basic understanding of this, you will struggle to communicate effectively with teachers and gain their confidence.
On the other hand, we are writers, not teachers. Quality work in schools is based on a genuine partnership, in which your contribution is your skills and expertise as a writer.
It's well worth investigating the NLS. It may look daunting, but a read through can make you realise the full value of the work you're delivering in schools. You always knew it was creative and enjoyable, but did you realise how much literacy learning goes on?
Find the NLS at http://www.standards.dfee.gov.uk/literacy/ and cultivate a friendly teacher who will answer your questions.
Teachers are under tremendous pressure
They have to cope with a succession of new initiatives and mountains of paperwork, as well as carrying out quality teaching, often under difficult circumstances. It's not surprising that sometimes they have unrealistic expectations of the writer's visit. They may be hoping that certain learning objectives will be met, without ever having discussed this with you.
Some problems can be forestalled by having a clear, open discussion with the teacher before your visit. Ask what he hopes to get out of the day. What creative writing has the class been engaged in recently, and what problems have arisen?
One common frustration is that the teacher you talk to on the phone is not the teacher you meet when you walk into the classroom. You may feel you've laid the foundations for a successful visit, but all the details you've negotiated so carefully have not been communicated to this teacher. This teacher may have been told about your visit only the previous afternoon. She's had to change her plans to 'fit you in'. She knows next to nothing about you, and doesn't feel any sense of ownership about the project. Unfortunately it's not always possible to avoid this situation. A quick friendly chat to set the scene may rescue the situation.
The planning stage: issues to discuss
Planning v 'winging it'
- What does the school want? Why are they keen to invite a writer in? What impact do they hope it will have? Sometimes the source of funding is a big clue.
- Have they had writers in before? What went well? What might they like to do differently this time?
- Ages of children. Learn to understand about key stages and year numbers.
- Differentiation: edu-speak for making learning experiences appropriate for the full range of children. If there are children with special educational needs in the class, you need to know so that you can plan your activities accordingly. On the other hand, you don't necessarily need to know the names and the detailed case histories - it can be liberating for children to work with an adult who has no preconceptions about their academic potential.
- Size of group(s). the majority of workshops involve whole classes (up to 35 children). Smaller groups necessitate supply cover, which is expensive and scarce. At KS1, a whole class is a different sort of challenge: what will you do with 30 four-year-olds for an hour and a half? If you do get the luxury of working with smaller groups, it can be amazingly productive, and gives you a fighting chance of getting to know each child's name and make some sort of individual connection.
- Length of session(s) and exact timings: you need to be clear about this for your planning.
- Sometimes schools want a writer to visit every class in the school in the course of a day ("to be fair to everyone"). In fact, this is unlikely to be good value for money. Given the choice, I like to work with one class in the morning and another in the afternoon. Longer sessions do require careful planning though; a major change of activity after playtime is a good idea. Agree time of arrival and departure and times of breaks.
- Teacher supervision: this is a legal requirement, and needs to be agreed unambiguously in advance. It's worth talking a little about what role the teacher will have: would you like him to join in the workshop, help groups of children with their writing? Talk about it on the phone beforehand and you may avoid the situation I had recently where a teacher greeted my arrival with: "You don't mind if I clear out my stock cupboard while you get on with it?"
- Materials and resources: if you're going to need something, ask for it in advance.
- Payment: make sure the fee is clearly agreed. If travel expenses are to be paid, what will the school need for its records (train ticket, petrol receipt?). Agree when and how the payment will be made: it's no good expecting a cheque at the end of the day unless this is understood in advance. You will in all cases need to provide an invoice.
There's no substitute for thorough planning, but always have a range of activities available to you as back-up. It's never easy to be certain what will work in an unfamiliar situation. Changing direction smoothly and calmly is one of the most useful skills to acquire.
The physical environment
Take control. Change the furniture layout rather than struggle on in an L-shaped classroom where some of the tables are out of sight. I've recently come to the conclusion that my style of workshop operates best when the children can all see each other, and can move around, group and re-group flexibly. So wherever possible I get rid of the tables. I have my own set of 35 clipboards which I take with me instead.
There's a dramatic difference between KS1 and KS2 work. You need to learn a whole new approach before you can work confidently and effectively with children who are not yet writing, or 'emergent writers'. As writers, we're all aware that creative writing is not merely the physical business of making marks on paper, but activities based on oral work require a different kind of management, especially when you're dealing with a room full of very young children who can't be expected to sit still for very long.
Evaluating your work
Ask teachers and pupils for feedback, verbally and perhaps also written. Teachers won't want to have to write a long report, but they'll be happy to fill in a simple form you've designed which asks pertinent questions: were the pupils engaged? How would you assess the quality of the work they produced? Was the workshop appropriate for KS2?
Pupils may enjoy drawing smiles and frowns onto photocopied faces to indicate their responses.
You'll have a pretty good 'feel' for how it went yourself. Keep a diary of your schools work, noting what activities you used and how well it worked.
A faultless model of good practice?
I'm sure there's no such thing; there are so many unpredictable factors in schools work. Sometimes a project works well in spite of the faults.
I recently made a series of ten half-day visits to a primary school in a socially deprived area of Greater Manchester. I worked with the same small class of 6-7 year-olds, whose literacy levels were much lower than average. The brief was not entirely clear, but the school was very open in its attitude: they wanted the children to have some good experiences with poetry, and they were happy to let me deliver these in my own way. As a result, I felt able to experiment with different approaches, some of which worked better than others. We used different stimuli: music, movement, games, objects to smell and touch.
Working with that same group over ten weeks removed the pressure to achieve quick results. There was plenty of time to get to know individual children, and we did lots of talking and thinking and creating together as a group. The project was at least 80% oral work. When we were making poems, I scribed on the board, or more confident writers scribed for their small groups. We read poems at the start and finish of each session; we learned some off by heart. I had a rule: I must ensure that every child contributed at least once to each class session.
Working as a group took away much of the pressure these children have sometimes found discouraging. In the last session, they 'interviewed' a pebble which they named Spiral: Where do you live? How old are you? Who do you love?
I live in the middle of a sandy beach.
I like to see fish
jumping and flipping their tails.
I am older than dinosaur bones
but younger than the moon.
My name is Spiral
because of the pattern on my back.
I love my family.
I love the sand: sometimes warm and smooth,
slippery and soggy when the tide comes in.
And I love the sea washing me clean and shiny,
sparkling and glittering in the midday sun.