Six Steps to a Successful Schools Writer Residency

This year, I was given an extraordinary gift from the students of Nesting Primary School on Shetland; the gift of the experience of their labyrinth. As I walked to the core of the spiral and back out again, they gathered around me, walked with me, sang, blew bubbles, whispered in my ear, rang bells and blessed me on my way to new journeys.

It is hard to describe just how enriching school residencies can be.

It was a fitting and meaningful conclusion to my residency on the Shetland Isles, where I was privileged to carry out double visits to numerous primary schools.

The common goal was to make literacy accessible. We wanted to enhance and encourage the development and love of literacy skills among students and staff alike: telling, reading, writing and making.

Pupils telling stories at one of the primary schools

Each ‘mini residency’ was completely different, of course, reflecting the individual needs and character of the schools involved. Hence, a Shetlandic version of Da Tre Yows and da Trow was born; sea stories were explored and beautiful boats crafted; life stories expressed through the creation of personal geography maps; and many funky folk stories, songs and laughter filled the air.

A set from the Tam O'Shanter shadow play, with creepy looking houses
Other residencies have yielded six-week page to stage productions of much beloved Scots tales. Of particular delight was Tam O’Shanter, a shadow play for which a small group of teens with learning difficulties received certificates from the SQA. Another was The Gruffalo in Scots, which a P4 class of 24 students toured around several local venues much to the delight of elderly residents.

It is hard to describe just how enriching school residencies can be. It’s a huge joy to see grandads, dads and kids in an after-school club reading and playing together, or witness young storytellers finding and using their own voices in gatherings large and small, as is often the case at the Wigtown Book Festival.

However, it is my journey through the labyrinth at Nesting which most reflects what is at the core of a good residency. It is a journey you make together, where everyone shares their gifts and skills. It encourages the best in everyone involved and a willingness to grow. Pieces of work are created. Projects are achieved. Ultimately, however, it is the process of working together on a residency that has the power to impact not just a student’s literacy skills, but a person’s life.

Here are six insights to a successful residency in your school.

Renita Boyla at Skerries Primary with a pupil
Be purposeful

You will, of course, be working toward a project or piece of work. However, the primary purpose of a residency is to create a rewarding and enriching experience.

Residencies exist to inspire a love for literacy and literature; to enhance skills and generate enthusiasm about learning. Successful residencies are collaborative and will engage everyone involved in a more in depth exploration of a topic or project than would normally be possible in a single visit by an author or storyteller.

Residents are creative people who can offer a wealth of personal and practical insight into your project. You will want to think carefully about the kinds of skills, expertise and personal qualities you will need your resident to have. Remember that your staff, as well as your students, will benefit from the experience that your resident brings with them. You will want to choose a resident who enjoys working with young people and has experience of working with them.

 

Be prepared

Though everything may not go to plan, planning is everything. Planning will help you create a balanced and realistic programme.

If you’re creating new work or working with a limited number of sessions, aim for quality over quantity.

Begin communicating with your resident as early as possible. Uncover your options, set your priorities and discuss the methods you will use throughout the project. Flesh out the What? Where? When? Who? Why? And How?

It’s important to agree on what you want to achieve together in the time frame that you have. How will you divide the sessions? What support will participants be given by teachers between sessions? How many students will participate in each session? Remember to build in the project’s legacy. How will you sustain and broaden the impact of the residency when the resident is gone?

If you’re creating new work or working with a limited number of sessions, aim for quality over quantity. Discuss your expectations of one another and ensure that the students and staff are involved in the planning process and remain involved.

Build in time to relax and to talk to teachers and students during your planning process.

Ensure that everyone participating in the residency knows who the resident is before they arrive, and has some understanding of their work and interests. Equally, make sure that the resident has an opportunity to get to know the students. Name tags help immensely.

 

Pupils at Ollaberry Primary School with Renita Boyle
Be practical

It can really help to think about possible difficulties before they arise and you might want to thrash out the details, such as:  What space will be used? How will it be set up for maximum inspiration? What are the travel and hospitality needs of the resident? Are there pupils with additional support needs within the group? Noise or light sensitivities? What level of skill do the children possess in reading, writing and speaking? What will you need to do to make the residency a success for every person involved?

 

Dads and kids pose for a photo together
Remember to enjoy it

It is easy to become consumed by deadlines and targets when you’ve committed to a project outline. However, residencies offer a rare and wonderful opportunity to take some space and time to think, feel, imagine, create and reflect purely for the joy of it. Make your participants the priority and make the most of the residency.

 

Learn from the experience

Ensure that your teachers and staff remain involved during the sessions themselves; what happens within the residency enhances what is happening in the classroom.

Residencies provide natural development opportunities for your staff to refine their understanding and develop new classroom strategies. Build in opportunities for your staff to reflect on the experience; offer further training and support so that what has been gained can be incorporated in the long term environment of your school. 

 

Be proud

Successful residencies are rewarding and enriching experiences for all concerned. This is true also for the resident. Be proud of all that you have created and achieved together and celebrate your success!

 


 

Renita Boyle

Renita Boyle is a tale-telling, tongue-twisting troubadour, author and poet. She recently served as a Reader in Residence with Dumfries and Galloway Libraries for Scottish Book Trust and is an ambassador for the Wigtown Book Festival.