Outbreak! Lessons learned from Writers in Schools

October 2010 and Inveralmond Community High School in Livingston has been transformed. No longer a seat of routine learning, it has become the site of a Zombie infestation, a portal to another world and the scene of a murder. In short, a place where anything might happen.

Welcome to Writer in Schools.

Designed by the Scottish Book Trust, Writers in Schools (the latest incarnation of which kicks off next term) brings together a writer, a teacher and a writer/mentor to explore what authors of all kinds can bring to a school over an extended visit rather than a one off.

For three weeks, twice a week, in autumn 2010 I was lucky enough to take part in this programme alongside writer/mentor Linda Cracknell, teacher Michael Stephenson and his S3 English class.

Here are some of the things that I learned:

Writers are there to offer something different. Collaborate with the teacher from day one to identify what the writer can bring that is complementary and unique. For us that was a focus on process not outcome, modelling our own writing practices to show how a piece of creative work actually evolves.

Change the classroom into a workshop space. It was amazing how pushing back the tables and reorganising the chairs into one big circle helped to generate excitement, anticipation and a sense of what might be possible.

Keep it short and sweet. We encouraged writing in quick, short bursts to build material (three sentences in three minutes on character, setting and plot, etc). We gave no instructions as to form or content. This meant every pupil achieved something within a very short space of time, with plenty of room for quick-fire read outs that eventually took in the whole class.

Keep it simple. We tried various activities to help the pupils develop their ideas (comparative texts, mood boards etc), but just like real writers they were happiest when doing lots of actual writing. The act of writing itself, if given enough time, generates both new ideas and the enthusiasm needed to tackle them. This in turn leads to a desire to write more. A virtuous, creative circle.

Spring a surprise. I ‘outed’ the class teacher as a published poet – something the pupils responded to with amazement and a round of applause. Writers are everywhere, I think that is what they learned. So all you secret scribbler/teachers – reveal your true genius now!

Celebrate your achievements. Our final session became a Book Festival complete with readings, interviews, visiting authors and some very good food all organised by the pupils themselves – a fun way to involve everyone at the end and utilise different skills.

Get feedback. One of my favourites responses was, 'It felt kind of like a free period'. What higher praise can there be?

And last but not least - publish. There’s nothing better than seeing your work collected alongside others and published in some form.

Hence, Outbreak! – an eclectic and spirited collection of short stories, extracts, flash fiction and drama all set in Inveralmond Community High. In here you will find friends lost and vanished, shape-shifters and people who ought by rights to be dead. Above all, you will find commitment to the idea that anyone can have a go at creative writing and make something of it. Not, ‘I can’t,’ but, ‘I can.’


Click here to download a PDF version of Outbreak!

Mary Paulson-Ellis

Mary Paulson-Ellis is a novelist and teaching artist. She took part in the Scottish Book Trust Writers in Schools programme in 2010 and now runs creative writing workshops for the National Galleries of Scotland and the Edinburgh International Festival. She likes to write about the murderous side of family life. Coming soon: www.marypaulsonellis.co.uk.

If you’re interested in developing your own creative writing skills, why not check out SBT’s Teachers as Writers pack?