Fri 18 October 2019
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Our thoughts are bees: Writers Working with Schools
Coe, Mandy and Sprackland, Jean
The book gives advice on organising exciting projects in schools, from the author's visit to the long-term residency. It examines the potential impact on young people's lives, and sets out a vision for the future of writing in education.
Mandy Coe is an award-winning poet for children and adults. her work has been widely published and broadcast on radio and television.

Hard Water, Jean Sprackland's latest book, was shortlisted for both the Whitbread Poetry Award and the T S Eliot Prize. Both authors have worked extensively with schools, and deliver training and consultancy on writing in education.

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"This book is exactly what it should be: useful, practical and detailed but also inspiring, enlightening and far-reaching. Writers as well as teachers will find it invaluable. I recommend it whole-heartedly."  Andrew Motion, Poet Laureate

The writer's view

This book is clearly written, readable and informative on organizing authors' visits.even down to providing them with cups of tea. One of the book's charms is its focus both on technical issues such as writers' fees and timetabling as well as plain old good manners such as how to escort writers out of the building, so they don't get lost by the bins.

Aimed at writers or teachers planning visits for the first time as well as co-ordinators familiar with organizing writers' activities with schools, the book focuses on what to do before, during, and after a project. I've reviewed this book from a writer's point of view, evaluating how useful it may be, especially for writers planning visits to schools for the first time. From this perspective, the book seems confusing in its switch of focus from writers to teachers and back again. But this is actually a strong point as it clarifies that there are at least two perspectives - writers' and teachers' - helping you to see where these views converge and diverge in organizing a visit.

I found the 'Before a Visit' section very useful. Reading about teachers' concerns when selecting writers, put me in a better position to 'sell' myself as a writer. I also like the emphasis that everything should be discussed as a 'conference between equal partners.'
'Negotiating the Basics' covers questions to be discussed in planning a visit: what is the day about? Will there be workshops or performance? Is it part of a book week or is there a specific curriculum focus? What about fees?

This section has excellent points concerning planning - first of all to recognize and allow for plenty of planning time - and also to involve all parties, especially the writer, in the planning process. The authors give sound timescale advice: at least one and preferably two terms for a day visit with longer projects planned for a year in advance if possible.

Logistics are set out for workshops, including what happens and why as well as discussions of variables to allow for different age groups and group sizes. While this seems obvious to writers used to working in education, I found it refreshing to see from teachers' perspectives, especially insofar as it sets out how little may be known about workshops. For example, Coe and Sprackland remind that 'for some teachers this word might conjure up an image of sawdust and nails.'

There is strong advice about redrafting. The authors suggest that initial exercises should be developed, including an argument on why it is beneficial, taking account of students' views of redrafting as unwelcome work: Coe and Sprackland argue how writers bring a more positive view, helping students to appreciate that revision is a continuation of the creative process. They even give a handy list of points to explore that writers can definitely incorporate into their patter for redrafting. Similarly useful is the discussion on group and individual work, with Coe and Sprackland arguing that both methods should be used in each workshop.

They also remind writers not to assume the role of educator, so that their identities as writers become almost incidental. This is an important point that often gets neglected in discussions of writers working in educational contexts. Rather, Coe and Sprackland give extensive advice on how writers should keep their passion for writing and their experience as writers up front, through, for example, a question and answer session. The list of questions students have asked in the past is interesting preparation for questions writers might have to answer in their first school visits, e.g. How long does it take to write a novel? A poem? Why is reading integral to the process of writing? What is your workspace like? How many times do you redraft and when do you know a piece is finished?

The authors give especially helpful advice on negotiating classroom roles, setting out for example, how writers are not supply teachers and that the law requires that a teacher is present at all times. They discuss three possible roles a teacher can play during workshops - observer, assistant, and participant - and they convincingly argue why it is best to develop a participant's role for the teacher. Coe and Sprackland's arguments are useful for writers to adapt in making their own cases. There is also advice on good practice, child protection, disclosure, insurance, and checklists that summarize points, e.g.
Looking After Your Writer, Equal Opportunities, Special Education Needs.  (The way these are set off from the main text makes them easier to find on re-reading!) The authors bring up everything you should know if you plan work as a writer in schools.

The last section focuses on the end of a visit, including ways of celebrating a successful project through performances, readings, displays and publications. There's also a discussion entitled:
'Writers: keeping the balance,' which explores ways of managing financial and other practical implications, such as how does teaching in schools affect your own writing? Most useful here is the focus on time.

Coe and Sprackland wisely advise that writers need to keep writing a priority, and they discuss training and professional development opportunities, including a central resource (now provided through NAWE/The Writer's Compass).

The book's main strengths are 1) it is a short and accessible introduction for writers working (or wanting to work) in schools, addressing issues from the perspectives of writers, teachers and co-ordinators and 2) there is ample reference to further more specialized resources throughout the book as well as a comprehensive bibliography, list of partners, useful organizations, and websites at the end.

Heather Beck

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