Writers In Schools: A Few Notes for Teachers

We’re well into September, now. The new school year is underway, and with the initial rush over, some schools will be starting to think about getting writers in. And some writers & arts organisations will be starting to think about going into classrooms.

I’ve been going into schools to run writing workshops professionally for the past 6 years. I worked with schools, children and older young people on a voluntary basis for 4 years before that. I’ve seen teachers struggling under the weight of what’s expected of them. I’ve seen teachers who are hugely engaged and passionate about their job. (These two categories are, obviously, not mutually exclusive.)

I’ve run workshops that have been a joy to facilitate. I’ve had workshops where it’s been a struggle to get the children (and the teachers) to engage. I’ve run one workshop where I wanted to scream in frustration. (I may write more about these specific incidents in a future post.)

All of this has added up to a lot of thoughts on the relationship between a teacher and a visiting writer, both in the classroom, and before and after the workshop.

So I decided to write a couple of blog posts setting out some of those thoughts. Next week, I’ll give some advice about what writers ought to think about when going into schools. But for now, it’s the turn of the teachers:

Arts Award Discover workshops

Writers in Schools: A Few Notes for Teachers:

There are joys and pitfalls to teaching. Of course there are – and you certainly don’t need me to tell you that. On the one hand, that moment when a child finally gets something they’ve been struggling over? That’s the moment that can make your heart soar. But the pressure and the paperwork and the marking? I’m not surprised if that gets you down from time to time.

So here are a couple of notes on working with writers, that might make life easier for everyone:

1 – It’s supposed to be fun.

Whenever a visitor comes in, it’s exciting for the children. New faces always are. But it should be fun for you as well. This is a chance for you to learn something new as well. It’s an opportunity for you to think about writing & creativity in a way that doesn’t have to be goal-focused. It’s also a chance for you to see the children in your class engaging with work in a different way. It’s a chance for you to work more closely with some of the children, while somebody else is leading the session.

But all of this relies on you being present and engaged. Some of the best things I’ve experienced from teachers in workshops:

  • Helping the pupils to link what they’re learning about in the writing workshop with other things they’ve covered in class – particularly if something connects to a special topic. (For example, I was once running a winter-themed workshop based around Edward Thomas’s poem ‘Snow’, which the teacher helped them link to their project on World War I & remembrance day.)
  • Building a larger topic around the workshop & the themes it raises.
  • Displaying the work created in the workshop – either on the wall or creating a booklet of the work which goes in the school library.
  • Sharing the work produced at a special assembly – particularly if the rest of the school is there to hear it and / or the parents/carers are invited.
  • Sharing experience of the workshop with other teachers in the school.

And some of teachers’ most unhelpful behaviour has been:

  • Spending the workshop catching up on marking. (This is not PPA time.)
  • Talking to individual children (either about the workshop or, even more commonly, about a completely unrelated piece of work) while the visiting writer is trying to explain something to the group.
  • Leaving the classroom entirely to put up a display in the adjoining corridor.
  • Telling the writer (in front of the children) that poetry is pointless as they don’t have to write it in the exam.

Creative writing workshop in school for Beneath The Boughs poetry exhibition

2 – It should be enjoyable for the writer, too.

If a writer doesn’t enjoy working in schools, then they’re not the right person to be running the workshop. But just because a writer enjoys working in schools in general, it doesn’t mean they’re going to enjoy every single workshop. I’ve certainly had workshops that I didn’t enjoy – usually for the reasons listed in the point above.

Because 99% of the time, an unenjoyable workshop is not the fault of the children, but of the teacher. I’m aware that soudns accusatory, but the flip side is that, as a teacher, it’s almost totally within your power to make the workshop enjoyable for the writer – by making them feel welcome (talking to the writer in the staff room helps – I can’t count the number of times I’ve sat in a staff room and been completely ignored for an entire lunch hour), helping the children to get excited about the visit, and making sure the writer’s job isn’t made more difficult than necessary. (Again, see above.)

3 – Treat the writer professionally.

There’s this weird myth that writers write solely because they enjoy it, and therefore don’t need to be paid. Ok, so the first part is generally true, but the second part definitely isn’t. Writing is a job like any other, and writers (just like everyone else) have bills to pay.

When you’re booking the workshop, you should agree the fee with the writer. Often, the writer will have a standard rate for a school workshop. (This could include travel costs, or they may charge extra for these. Similarly, they may charge extra for additional requests, such as incorporating a special topic, or doing a reading in an assembly.)

Most professional writers will charge a fee for a school workshop.

I repeat: most professional writers will charge a fee for a school workshop.

There are a few exceptions – such as when an author is promoting a book that they’re planning to sell to the pupils, or when the writer’s fee is being covered by a third party, such as a library or an arts organisation. But mostly, you should expect to pay. You’re paying for the writer’s professional skill and experience, after all.

Consequently, there should be a contract between the school and the writer – or at the very least, a written agreement of what the writer will be offering, and what the school will offer in return. (If the workshop is booked through a third party, such as an arts organisation, then they will have this agreement with the writer, and your agreement will be with the arts organisation.) It should be understood what will happen if, for example, the workshop has to be cancelled – either by the school or by the writer.

Unlike most teachers and school staff, the writer is almost certain to be working freelance – so it’s doubly important that, when the writer submits their invoice, it gets paid on time. It’s all about recognising the writer as a professional, and not leaving them unable to buy groceries that month.

Arts Award Discover, Shap Primary School

4 – If you want something specific from a writer, don’t be afraid to ask.

Sometimes, it’s hard to find space for things like a writing workshop within the limits of the curriculum. Writers understand this – and although most of the time we don’t agree with it, we recognise that this directive comes from the government and not from the individual schools. We know that teachers, like most of us, never have enough time in the day.

But there are ways to incorporate a writing workshop into the regular learning day. The most obvious, perhaps, is to link it with literacy. I’ve run workshops within literacy sessions, incorporating a recap on similes / metaphors / kennings…

But I’ve also run workshops to tie in with special topics. You’re doing a class topic on the jungle? Or on Greek myths? Or on the Anglo Saxons? Or the Victorians? Or the arctic? I can run a workshop to tie in with this. (And yes, all of these are examples of topics I’ve run workshops on in the past, at the request of the teacher.)

Unless a writer is promoting a specific book (in which case, you’ll probably have a slightly different arrangement with the writer anyway), they may well be able to adjust a workshop to fit a theme. At the very least, you can ask. The worst that can happen is that the writer says it isn’t possible.

Of course, if you’re going to request something like this, make sure you do it when you’re initially booking the writer. In some circumstances, the writer may need to charge an extra fee in order to do this, as it might mean planning a whole new workshop, or working in a different way, so it’s good for them to know straight away so they can factor that into their quote to you. At the very least, you need to make sure you’ve made this request before the writer’s already gone and planned / prepared the workshop. And certainly don’t leave it till the writer rocks up on the day. (I’ve had this before. Needless to say, the teacher was greeted with a firm ‘sorry, but no.’)

5 – The children should be present in the sessions.

If you want a class to engage with a visiting writer, they have to be in the classroom (or the library, or wherever the workshop’s being held). Obvious, right? But the number of times I’ve got to a school to run a workshop, and half the class haven’t been present for a chunk of it, is staggering.

A common scenario is this: I get to a school to run a 1.5hr workshop over an afternoon. There are 30 children in the class. Once the register has been taken, about 5 minutes into the workshop, 10 of the children disappear. ‘They have IT on a Tuesday afternoon,’ says the teacher, ‘In groups.’ The 10 children are out for about half an hour. By the time they come back, the bulk of the introductory exercises are done, and we’re starting on writing our poems, leaving the 10 children struggling to catch up, and me having to rush them through the first part of the workshop in hushed voices so as not to disturb the rest of the class. Meanwhile, the next 10 children (who have just started getting into what they’re writing) are whisked away for their own half hour of IT. This happens with each of the three groups – with the result that none of them engaged with the full workshop.

I know this is common practice in schools – for different groups of children to be doing different things at the same time, and for children to be in and out of class for things like reading practice or extra maths or music lessons. I know that full-time teachers work like this all the time – and believe me, I have huge admiration for anyone who’s able to work like that.

But if you invite a writer into the classroom to run a session, they need to be able to run the whole session to the full group. As much as anything else, it just comes across as rude, and suggests the school places no value on what the visiting writer has to offer.

But it’s more than that. The workshop is an experience for the children. It isn’t like English, where there’ll be another English lesson next week. It’s a one-off. And sure, some of the children might just see it as a doss lesson – a chance to not worry about how a piece of work is going to be marked. But that playful imagination is important, and something we’re in danger of losing with the current curriculum.

And for some of the children, this could be a workshop they remember for decades to come, and which inspires them well into their adult career. I know this, because I was one of them.

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Next post: Writing in Schools: A Few Tips for Writers

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