Advice to New Writers in Secondary Schools
by Alicia Stubbersfield
Although I have worked for the last twelve years as a teacher of creative writing and published two collections of poetry in the same period I still think of myself as an English teacher. Partly because I have returned to teaching for limited periods during those years (and am just about to take over a full-time post for a maternity leave in the local comprehensive) but partly because I do identify with teachers and their particular environment. I began writing as a result of taking sixth-formers to The Arvon Foundation at Lumb Bank and will always be grateful for that unique experience and opportunity. If I can help someone else on the same journey I feel profoundly honored. So the following advice is from someone who has experienced every aspect of the situation: teacher, student and poet-in-school.
The first thing to remember as you walk through the school doors and approach reception is that every school is different. Different culture, different expectations. The second thing to remember is that every school is the same. Same surreal atmosphere, same infantilising of everyone. Think of the scene in Gregory's Girl when the kid dressed as a penguin goes to the staff room door. No one bats an eyelid. Kids are dressed as penguins every day, or so it would seem.
Before you walk through those doors and meet the penguin it's important you find the school. Make sure when you arrange the visit with the member of staff you know the following:
- What time you should arrive.
- The name of the teacher in charge of your visit.
- The phone number of the school or extension number and home number for your teacher, especially if you're being met from the station as the train could well be late.
- Where the school is. Ask for a map and instructions.
- What the arrangements are for lunch.
- The size and composition of the group.
- How long each session is.
These are practical details. You have to do the difficult negotiations about money as well and then move on to the details of the day itself. Teachers are under a great deal of pressure. Often visits from writers depend on one enthusiastic member of a department who is not receiving much, if any, support from that department. The rest of the school will often (usually) see the time spent in a workshop as the ruination of the student's chance of a decent grade at GCSE. This applies to Year 7 as much as to Year 11. Therefore:
- Be very pleasant to the teachers, however difficult they appear to be.
- Find out what space you will be working in but be prepared for it to change as the French orals (or whatever) have to be there and no one bothered to let your teacher know. My most memorable workshop was on the school stage with 30 year 9 kids, the black curtains drawn, no natural light and a performance workshop going on in the hall below us.
- Ask for paper and pens to be provided. It?s better if the group doesn't use their English books from which they may not remove pages. It makes drafting impossible.
- Find out if a member of staff will be with you.
- Find out about the group and what they've done before. Some schools regularly attend residential writing centres and often use writers in schools. You should know if these are sophisticated students (my son has been to Ty Newydd six times with school as it is possible for students to go twice a year from year 8 onwards).
- Find out if there may be discipline problems. You should not have to deal with them. A member of staff must be responsible for dealing with any problems.
It's important to discuss the visit with the teacher so everyone's clear about what is expected and what is possible. The unexpected appearance of the headteacher on one residential course I tutored involved a production line of poems completed in haste, sent down to be typed and then delivered to another place where the display was being put up. This isn't, and shouldn't be, usual but however much we promote the importance of process the teachers have to validate the experience and that validation is frequently shown through product. Devising an opportunity to "finish" a poem within the session, however short, is useful. Some schools will give students time to work on what they began in a workshop but often this will depend on individual members of staff who weren't in the workshop. Prose pieces obviously can't be finished in one session.
Running a workshop demands flexibility, good timekeeping and planning.
- Plan short tasks, which lead into a greater whole. One big task which some individuals may not be able to "do" will make them feel inadequate. Several smaller tasks allow everyone to find something they can achieve.
- Don't be afraid to tackle serious subjects. Pleasure comes from doing something well and that something doesn't have to be just superficial and "fun".
- School students look for "right" answers because they've been trained to. Try to bypass that desire. Find ways to help them redraft. But remember they get edgy if they don't know what they're meant to be doing. And edgy means difficult.
- Expect them to read their work out. There will always be volunteers. Try to encourage shy ones to read out or at least talk about what happened for them in the writing. Sharing your own experiences of reading out and how you feel will help.
- Listen to each piece and respond with encouragement. Be specific about which bits worked and why. Be equally specific about a change they could make to improve the piece. Make notes as they read to remind you of these specifics. There is nothing worse in a workshop than that bland poetry-reading "mmm", followed by a breezy "Next?" Always make individual comments and encourage the rest of the group to respond constructively too. Be rigorous but confidence building.
- It's worth telling the group how you're going to approach this aspect of the workshop and what you expect from them.
- Do encourage the teacher in the workshop to write. Your coaxing might be all they need to open up a new life for themselves through writing. But remember they are likely to be terrified or, sometimes, convinced they could do the job better than you. Treat them gently in either case. Many write in the style of Keats but can be cajoled into approaching the twentieth century. Some are completely wonderful people, saintly in their dealings with the kids, efficient, and thrilled to be in your workshop. Some are excellent writers. Be sensitive to their needs as well as to those of the students.
After your initial discussions with the teacher it should be possible to assess whether you achieved what you/they wanted. It's in the nature of good workshops that something unexpected may happen. The one child who surprises themselves and their teacher may be your greatest success and you may not even know about it. It can be the student who suddenly opens up to you about something very personal. We (usually) aren't therapists and all you can offer is a sympathetic ear and help in finding a way of expressing feelings through the rigor of writing. If you're worried about what you've learned tell the teacher. Schools have strategies in place to deal with child protection and should be aware of anything that may come into that area.
You are your most valuable resource in schools. You are not a teacher and that's marvellous. You're outside the system. Be who you are. Talk to the students like you would your friends. They appreciate all that. But be careful. It doesn't help any of us if we talk about sex and drugs in a way that is inappropriate for a school setting. Residential courses are slightly different but, even so, it's important that the students understand how to respond and not to go back to school bragging about reading, or writing, porn. Most students respect the constrictions of school life and understand how to subvert them better than we do.
It is great fun to work with young people and a privilege. Enjoy it.