Wednesday 21 January 2015

Some more thoughts about school visits

I’m not shy about visiting schools. Even before I was established as a writer, whilst I was in a period of transition doing free-lance work and writing as well, I used to offer workshops in schools. I’d been a high school teacher for over twenty years so actually had some idea of how to behave in front of a group of children.    
I still do several school visits a year even though I have a full-time job as a Senior Lecturer in Creative Writing. I offer different types of visit, each one serving a different purpose.


The standard author visit

This is typically about an hour and a half long. I read some of my book, I answer questions, I may offer one simple creative writing exercise and I’ll possibly sell books and sign copies. This is easier for me than for some authors- I write for children and young adults, mainly the latter, so my main audience is in fact in schools.


Workshops on writing

These can be anything from a half day through to a whole week or one day a week over several weeks. One can build up a really strong relationship with students and teachers. Many teachers appreciate having a writer show children that they can write.  Sometimes, though, I feel a bit of a fraud. Surely they can teach this just as well as I can if not better? They know their own students better. Apparently not though. They are always grateful.

Sessions to do with the topic of the book

We explore the topic of a book through writing and role-play – just like I did when I wrote it. Topics that I can therefore cover include:
·         The Holocaust
·         World War II
·         Other religions
·         Relationships
·         Otherness


Other topics

  • Creative writing in other languages
  • Build a Book (students write and publish a book)
  • Story-building
  • Character-building    


Promotion visits

These I do on behalf of the university. We provide taster sessions of some of our courses to persuade students to come to us. I do have to represent all of our English courses, not just my own.   


Different energy

It is slightly different running a one-off session from teaching regularly in a school.  You’re more on the go but can mainly leave any discipline matters to the normal teachers. It’s different again as well from university teaching. The latter is much more intense – two hours in a seminar can be more exhausting than a whole day in a classroom though actually also less emotionally draining. Preparation is also more intense.
More often than not you are treated almost like royalty when you visit a school as a writer. However, not always and you should be prepared for anything to happen. Do make sure you know the way out. I was once left standing in a hall and didn’t know how to get back to reception.

Writers should be paid for visits

Of course they should. However, it is part of my remit at the university to visit schools – in part for promotional purposes and partly for the purpose of general community engagement. I limit this to twelve a year and do expect travel expenses to be paid. I also operate a system on my Build a Book Workshop where the visit pays for itself through book purchases.
There is also an argument that it’s fine and probably desirable to offer a few free or very cheap visits whilst you get used to working with schools and to help you pick up a few good endorsements.  

Two schools of thought amongst authors

  1. A writer is different from a teacher and what they bring has value, even if it subverts the curriculum – or indeed perhaps because it does. Not every child will become a writer but they will probably become a fluent reader. So, the standard author visit should continue.    
  2. A writer should bring some expertise on writing, not just talk about their books.
I actually think both views are valid and these arguments suggest that all sorts of different types of visits are desirable.     

Five top tips about school visits

  1. Join NAWE – the National Association of Writers in Education. Plenty of support for writers who go into schools there and a chance to network with other writers.  
  2. Always find out about car-parking and lunch arrangements.
  3. Try not to arrive or leave at the same time as the students.
  4. Craft some standard email info sheets and contracts.
  5. Be very clear about what you expect on the day and how you expect to be paid.    

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