Writers in Schools: mentoring and being mentored

Liz Niven was a mentor for Stephanie Taylor as part of our Writers in Schools programme. Here she gives an interesting insight into her experience of mentoring an author through the nerve-wracking first few school events!


This follows on from an earlier blog in which Stephanie gave her perspective on the Writers in Schools experience.



Mentoring with Stephanie was great fun. So often, as a visiting writer, you go about your solitary task. You arrive alone, you leave alone, and in between there's a hyperactive session of creativity which could do with a bit of reflection afterwards.

Being a mentor isn't a one-way process. I learned plenty from Stephanie too. She was full of imagination, knew all about ways to present children's work and we were able to have a good old blether afterwards about the weans, the work, the weather. One of the best outcomes for me in this project was learning about e-books which the pupils loved and fairly brought me into the electronic age.

In response to this invitation to send a blog containing a tip or two, I'd say that working with writers who are at the beginning of their 'visiting schools' career reminded me of teacher training days. The need to prepare is obvious but I'd say it's different from having word for word plans to deliver to a class. It seems to me that being confident of the central aim, ie write a poem or story or drama, is crucial but being creative and flexible and really tuning into the class in front of you is even more important. Being aware of what's working and what's not. What questions are you asking that you notice they really respond to? Can you rephrase your questions and instructions so that everbody knows what's wanted?

The other aspect I became aware of when mentoring was pace. Stephanie was brilliant with creative ideas and sometimes she'd say after a lesson, 'they did that quickly didn't they?' or we'd be surprised how much longer some task took.

So, having something 'up your sleeve' is a good idea. It can be difficult to know the speed or pace at which a class will work through your plans. One day, one school might race through your lesson. Another day, another school, and you find the same activity takes much longer. It maybe depends on the make up of a particular class. You might find particular aspects of your theme or topic spark wild enthusiasm and the lesson grows arms and legs and needs to be further explored, morphed into an illustrated book; or, on the other hand, you just find your fabulous idea has fallen fairly flatly on the desks of this particular Primary or Secondary class. That's when you cut your losses and dip into your master bag of Other Ideas. So smoothly no-one will notice. Perhaps with a line like, 'Well we must move on now because I've been really wanting to work with you on something else.'

Beyond that, I find creative writing workshops work best if I feel enthusiastic about the task. Would I like to be doing this myself? If it's a yes, then it'll generally work well. And with my Mentor's hat on, it was a good litmus test of Stephanie's work. I frequently wanted to be in there with the weans working on her great ideas.