Just over a week ago, I got up at 5am to trek north to Leicester for the day to go to the Nawe Writers in Schools Skill Sharing Day. I was hoping for new ideas about content, maybe some tips about how to get more work in schools, and just to network and chat with other writers - always a pleasure.
I was also quite interested to visit Leicester. I did my PGCE there years ago, and taught there for a couple of years: I wondered whether it had changed. As to that, it was a nasty day: old, wet, windy and grey. No town would have looked at its best. I think I'll leave it at that.
The De Montfort campus, new since my day, seemed curiously deserted, even given that it was out of term time. The wind howled round corners, the rain slashed across the squares and terraces, and I wished to goodness I had worn a coat instead of just a cardigan. But soon I found the conference venue and emerged from the lift to find SASsies Helena Pielichaty and Caroline Pitcher - oh joy! And later Paeony Lewis arrived, having valiantly taken on the Leicester Ring Road. (She lost.)
There was an introductory address, four workshop sessions (each with four options - so difficult to choose!), and a closing address. Sue Horner gave the introduction. Sue is 'a leader in education and the arts... the author of Magic Dust That Lasts, a national report on residencies in schools for Arts Council England.' She talked about how valuable it can be for schools to have writers in - but pointed out that only 10% do. She touched on the new curriculum for primary schools, which apparently contains such gems as a requirement to cover the use of the subjunctive in year six. Hm.
She suggested that it's important to get teachers writing, and that it's possible to do other things in schools apart from one-off sessions: 'mentoring, modelling (I think she meant demonstrating how to get children writing, rather then showing off the latest writerly gear - the John Dougherty flowery shirt, the Caroline Lawrence toga/cowboy outfit, the fantabulous Harriet Castor Tudor outfit, for instance.) - and helping to evaluate.'
More controversially, she said she thought that one-day visits aren't that useful, but that residencies are. I would have liked to ask her to expand on this, but there was no time for questions. Since she has written a report about residencies, she will clearly know a lot about them and have gathered a good deal of evidence as to their usefulness: but I would be interested to see the evidence that one day visits are not valuable. More of this later.
The first session I went to was on curriculum and education policy, and was given by Robin Webber Jones, the Director of Learning at New College, Stamford. I'd hoped that this would give some clues about how to link what we offer to the curriculum: this was probably unrealistic - I suspect there's no avoiding trawling through the curriculum for oneself, or talking to a friendly teacher. But it was very interesting: he discussed creative writing in relation to various learning theories, and also explained the reality of what government policy is asking schools to do - and therefore the tension between what they might like to do, and what they are actually able to do. This was a great talk: stimulating and lively.
The next session I chose, led by Kate Sharp from Cheltenham and Panya Banjoko (above) from Nottingham, was about creative writing in museums, using objects. Both speakers had lots of useful and entertaining things to say about how to run workshops using objects: Panja had brought in an African mask, and she passed it round, asking each of us to make one observation about it. it was astonishing how much there was to say, and Panya said that a whole class full of children will each come out with something different. It was easy to see different ways to go forward from there; using the object in a story, linking the observations to make a poem.
The third session was run by poet from Wales Francesca Kay (left), who works with 4-7 year olds. This was hugely entertaining, and she gave us marvellous goodies to take away - frames for writing simple poems, and lots of ideas. Then finally, Michelle 'Mother' Hubbard talked about the work she does with hard-to-reach teenagers: she's a performance poet, story-teller and African drummer working in Nottingham, and clearly does heroically good things.
Paul Munden, the Director of Nawe, summed up and sent us home.
So was it worth that five o'clock start? Yes, definitely. It was very interesting to see the variety of writers who go into schools. There were relatively few published children's writers there: lots of poets, development workers, people who have done creative writing degrees and hope to visit schools as part of a portfolio of activities. There were lots of ideas, lots of enthusiasm.
I found it reassuring in a way. I've often had the feeling that somewhere there are writers who are doing exciting projects, performing pedagogical gymnastics and being generally astonishingly marvellous. Well, there are. But they include us - writers of books for children. We can do the workshops - but we also have the huge advantage that children can relate us to our books: we're 'real live authors'. And that does create a buzz, it does create enthusiasm. I don't know how it would be possible to formally evaluate what hundreds of us are doing off our own bat, outside the structure of an organised project: but just because an effect is difficult to evaluate, that doesn't mean to say it doesn't exist. I volunteer in my local primary, and a few weeks ago I noticed that they were 'doing' the Anglo-Saxons, so I offered to talk to a couple of classes, in the light of my book, Warrior King, about Alfred the Great and the wonderfully villainous Guthrum. Since then, I've had numerous parents and grandparents coming up to tell me how their child/grandchild had rushed home and talked about my visit - similarly with a session I did a couple of years ago, which linked their study of Brunel with my book set on the ss Great Britain, Emily's Surprising Voyage. Lots of them went on to read the book, and they assure me they enjoyed it...
So, I don't agree with Sue Horner that one-off visits are not useful - though I realise that the above is purely anecdotal - but if she has any evidence to the contrary, I'd be interested to know about it - and interested to know how to make what I do as good as I can.
Other thoughts? Well - it's probably a good idea to live in a city if you want to get work on organised projects. And the best bet of all is to move to either Scotland or Wales. I already knew about the Scottish scheme which pays half the fee for an author visit (jealous, me? Nah!) - but Francesca Kay told us that the Welsh Academi is incredibly supportive and helpful, too. Failing that, Writing West Midlands and Writing East Midlands seem to be wonderfully proactive. Perhaps I should move back to Derbyshire, the land of my fathers...
But in the meantime - thank you, Nawe, for reaching out and arranging such an interesting and thought provoking day. It was great!