Writers in Schools: Part One
This spring, Scottish Book Trust sent me back to school for the first time in twenty years. My mission: to deliver a series of creative writing sessions to S3 pupils at Whitburn Academy, working with writer and mentor Linda Cracknell and teacher Mairi Kennedy as part of the Writers in Schools scheme.
When we met to discuss what the ideal learning outcomes would be, Mairi was clear that we should aim to create enthusiasm for creative writing and build the students’ confidence in their abilities. Then she asked the same question of Linda and me: how did we each hope this experience might feed into our wider practice as writers in education?
As a writer with plenty of experience working in adult education, I had a long list of what I hoped to learn about working with young people. At what level should I pitch activities? Were there special teacherly tricks that would help me hold the attention of a class of fourteen year-olds? As a writer of adult fiction, would I have any credibility with teenagers? How could I hope to connect individually with a far greater number of participants (twenty-seven!) than I was used to? How could I pack as much inspirational activity as possible into sessions of less than an hour?
And so on… I did, in fact, learn (some of) the answers to all these questions. But my most significant learning outcome – the one that’s changed my approach to working with learners of all ages – was something that didn’t appear on my list, and that emerged even before we stepped into the classroom.
My preference – as a learner as well as a tutor – has always been for the writer to act as facilitator, rather than performer; the idea of bringing my own writing into the workshop is an uncomfortable one. After all, it’s not about me: the focus should be on the participants. Linda shared my conviction that the writer’s role is a supporting one, yet from the start of the sessions she encouraged me to use my own work as a teaching tool: from making sure the class had read extracts from our work before we arrived, to introducing ourselves by showing our books and talking about our interests as writers; from using our notebooks to reassure students it’s okay to be free and messy and uncertain, to discussing our stories to illustrate a particular technique.
From initially feeling challenged by this, I came to understand that sharing our work in this way wasn’t selfish, but generous: we weren’t demanding attention; we were offering our processes as a model to help these beginning writers develop their own ideas.
During one session, we asked the class to use ‘what if’ questions to come up with five ideas for developing their stories. Around the writing circle, pens were darting across notebook pages – but one student looked blank: she couldn’t figure out how to apply the technique to her own work. Talking with her about how I’d used the technique to develop one of my stories was a quick way to make it less abstract, and allowed her to see that there was no single route for a story to take. Once she understood that asking ‘what if’ was about opening up possibilities, and not about right and wrong answers, it made sense to her: she was able to join in the activity. And by our final session she’d gained the confidence to read her words out loud, sharing the opening of her story with the rest of the class.
Twenty-seven stories emerged over the three weeks of our residency. Each of them started with a description of a pair of shoes, and each will end up somewhere unique. Next term, the finished, polished pieces will be published in a booklet. I’m looking forward to discovering the route each writer has taken.