Monday 11 June 2018

We don't need no education... Kelly McCaughrain

Kids hate school, that’s a given. Even the ones who love it, will publicly swear it’s hell on toast. Which makes me wonder why writing workshops for kids are based on a classroom model: A nice middle-aged lady sits at the front, talks a bit, sets an exercise and then judges your work. (It’s probably more friendly and less psychologically scaring than school, but still, that’s the gist usually.)

I’m not saying I have a genius alternative to this, before you get excited, but I work with a teen writing group that I think is brilliant, so this post is about why I think it works and some stuff you could maybe try. It’s a writing group rather than a workshop so obviously it won’t work for every situation, and I’m not saying there’s no value in workshops (I love workshops) but if you feel like setting up a teen writing group, here are my thoughts.

For the last couple of years I’ve been a volunteer mentor for a group called Write Club. This is part of the Fighting Words project.

Write Club differs from writing workshops in several ways which I think are definite advantages:

  • It’s a free, drop-in club for 2 hours a week, so they don’t have to commit to anything, which can be off-putting when you’re as busy as a GCSE-facing 16 year old with a new boyfriend, piano lessons, weekend hockey and a babysitting empire. They tell me that when they’re at home they never write because there are too many distractions. Write Club is space and time devoted purely to writing, and any writer will tell you that is invaluable.
  • They can work on whatever they like. It’s completely self-directed. The kids bring along their own stuff and get on with it, and the mentors are there for when they’d like advice or feedback. I always avoided workshops when I was younger because as soon as I was told to write about a particular thing, my brain went blank. Some people just don’t respond well to prompts. And even if the workshop leader says it’s OK to go off-piste, they’re kids – they’re trained to look around them and go ‘Am I doing this right? Am I doing what everyone else is doing?’
  • It’s not like school. The Write Clubbers told me that their school librarian set up a lunchtime writing club but they didn’t like it. I think this librarian is a star for even trying, but when I asked why they didn’t like it, they said, ‘She makes you do stuff.’ Much as I would have loved a writing group at my school, I can understand why they wouldn’t want to spend their only break during a long school day at something that felt like another class, with someone who felt like another teacher. And make no mistake, they can smell a teacher from 50 yards. Even retired teachers just can’t help themselves, they’re programmed to squeeze some work out of reluctant kids, and the kids bristle instantly.
  • The volunteers at Write Club don’t teach, they write. Or read. We bring our own stuff to work on and we all sit around a big table so that we’re all working together. I think it is hugely important for the kids to have this example of adults who value writing and reading and make time in their lives for it. When you think about it, the only contact they usually have with adult writers is those shiny books on the shelves at Waterstones, and that’s what they’re comparing their own writing to. It can come as a real surprise to them to see an adult writer, maybe even a published writer, sit back at the end of the session and say, ‘Well, I wrote 200 words, and then I deleted 150 of them.’
  • It’s regular. I’ve done writing workshops where no one is willing to read their work aloud. I completely understand not wanting to read your first draft aloud to complete strangers. But at Write Club the kids have become friends and they are so supportive. They’re full of praise, and always desperate to hear the next chapter of a WIP. Teen writing can be very personal and they need that safe space. There are also kids who never read, and that’s OK too, no one is put under any pressure.
  • It’s social. Just like they need their lunch break to dissect the latest ‘Stranger Things’ and plan their weekend, they need that first half hour after school to decompress and exhale all the conversation they’ve been suppressing since 9am. In writing workshops they’re usually pushed for time and don’t even get to speak to each other before work begins (which, again, won’t help when it comes to reading aloud). Write Club is their club, and if they want to spend it talking, they can. They usually spend the first half hour eating snacks and chatting, and there’s intermittent talk all the way through, but we never shush them and actually, it’s surprising how much work they actually do. I think if we tried to keep them quiet they’d do a lot less. In a way, it emulates a real writing life a lot more closely than a workshop – there’s a lot of Facebooking, procrastinating and snacks but the work somehow gets done anyway.

Having said that, it can help to provide some direction for those who want it, making sure they know it’s all optional, so here are some things we do that have worked well:

  • The Little Box of Inspiration – this is a biscuit tin which I filled with tiny envelopes, each containing a writing prompt or exercise. The not-very-strongly-enforced ‘rule’ is that they only take one a week. They don’t have to use the prompt if they don’t like it, but they should take five minutes to think about it before giving up because they’re often surprised with what they come up with. (If there was an option to just go through the envelopes until they find a ‘good one’, they’d do exactly that and miss a lot of great ideas.) They also write their names on the envelopes they’ve opened, so they know they’ve had that one.
  • Bring books they can borrow. I have stacks of YA books at home so I bring them to the club and they borrow them. This is another bonus of it being a regular thing. It’s fantastic to see what enthusiastic readers they are, and they’ve started bringing their own books to lend to me and we discuss them in an informal way, which I enjoy as much as anyone.
  • Have a box of postcards – This was inspired by my friend, Jan Carson’s book Postcard Stories, which were stories she wrote on the back of postcards and sent off to friends every day for a year. We’ve made a thing of it; if anyone writes something short enough to fit, they can take a postcard and write it on the back and put it in the box. This has the added advantage that if someone only manages to write a paragraph or a haiku they still feel they’ve achieved something. We’ve got quite a collection of them now, which we could potentially do something with, such as publish them on the website, or in a pamphlet and have a book launch, which the kids would love. A lot of their writing gets ‘filed’ in the bottom of their school bags and instantly lost so this is a nice way to preserve it.
  • Never tell them to shut up but if things are getting wild you can say, ‘OK let’s do a 20 minute intense writing spurt and then we’ll share what we’ve written.’ It feels like a mini-challenge, which is enough to keep them interested. 20 minutes is about the maximum you’ll get away with, but this does work well. I think often they’re happy to sit quietly and write, it’s just that they’re very distractible so if one person says something, they’ll all stop working and listen, so a group effort at ‘intense writing’ for a short time can be enough to get them settled.
  • Trust them to write in their own way, even if it’s not the way you’d write. You’re used to sitting silently at your desk for hours on end because this is work for you and you’re adulting the hell out of it. I usually assume there’s no way they could be writing with all the noise going on, because I couldn’t, but actually they’re used to working in noisy classrooms and by the end of the session I’m always surprised by how much they’ve produced. In fact, some people NEED a bit of noise or they can't concentrate, and if it's too silent they'll talk because they're uncomfortable. I find some laid back background music is good for this. If someone feels they want quiet, they know each other well enough to say shut it you lot, or go off somewhere quieter to work. Don’t insist that everyone sit together around a table. If there are other seating areas, use them, and designate one a quiet zone. But get everyone together at the start and end so they feel like a group.
  • If the mood is unassailably chatty, then chat, but maybe try to introduce book related topics.
  • Read work aloud at the end and encourage them to give feedback, but don’t force anyone to do anything.
  • In the middle of the session, stop at a random point and have a round of ‘Read the last sentence you wrote’ where everyone just reads the last full sentence they wrote. This is always funny because, out of context, the sentences can sound really mad, and no one feels nervous about reading because everyone’s sounds weird. I’ve found that even the kids who NEVER read aloud always happily participate in this. Which could be a way to give them confidence in reading aloud in the future. I always read the last sentence I wrote too during this game, which is a good way to show you’re working too, though I wouldn’t take up their time with reading longer pieces of my own.
  • Make sure they know that, if they don’t want to read aloud, there is the option of having a mentor read their work and give feedback one to one. Or having the mentor read their work aloud to the group instead of them doing it.

I really believe the kids get a lot out of this but actually, I get just as much. I get to hang out with some absolutely brilliant kids (and when you’re writing about teens, this is so useful, as well as fun!), and I swear, nothing has ever made me want to up my writing game like hanging out with book-loving teenagers!

I know a lot of us make our living out of paid workshops etc but if you ever felt like setting something like this up that would be free and staffed by bookish volunteers, it’s so worth it for everyone involved. Think how much it would have meant to you as a writing teen!

Kelly McCaughrain is the author of the YA novel Flying Tips for Flightless Birds

She blogs about Writing, Gardening and VW Campervanning at 



Rowena House said...

This sounds amazing, Kelly. Well done. I absolutely agree about getting away from a classroom model for teen. Would love to emulate this if I get a chance. You might be hearing from me :-)

Anne Booth said...

That sounds excellent.

Penny Dolan said...

I really like all the ideas and advice in this post, Kelly. Your Write Time sounds a great and positive experience for these teens and for you too! Maybe, in another version, it would work for adults too.

However, did I miss where it takes place? I'm not sure if you're describing a public library setting or school library or a room within one of these or somewhere else entirely?

And how many volunteers are involved with running it each week - or is it just you?
It's an inspiring initiative!

Unknown said...

I hope I get the chance to chat to you about this soon! Sounds really great.

Kelly McCaughrain said...

Hi Penny, it takes place in a community centre in Belfast who kindly let us use their cafe space for free. Fighting Words Belfast have a couple of staff who run everything and the rest are volunteers. There are usually two or three mentors there, and there can be anything from 2 to 12 kids show up, it tends to depend on how busy they are at school with exams.
I think it could be great for adults!

Sue Bursztynski said...

I may be doing something with primary kids soon, as a volunteer. It’s not quite like your Write Club. You do five sessions, then put together their stories or poems into a book. It will be writer in residence. I’ve never done it with primary kids before, but some of your suggestions sound useful - postcards and writing prompts which only need to be used if wanted. Thank you!

I am one of those teachers - retired now - who, according to you, kids can smell! Sorry about that! I do like to think that my experience with kids makes me comfortable with them, and I don’t turn fun into work. And I imagine that librarian offered a lunchtime activity which wasn’t compulsory. As a teacher librarian I used to encourage our young writers to use the library computers at lunchtime if they wanted to. Some of them came to show me their manuscripts and I gave them links to markets for teen writers. One of them won a statewide writing competition for teens. Another won a workshop with Anthony Horowitz. A third won a poetry competition.

One year I was ordered to teach creative writing. I had no idea what to do, so just decided to treat them as young men and women and potential professionals. Some could barely write at all. I gave these the option of writing an autobiography, using questions I gave them. I discovered one was the younger brother of a Bollywood actor. Another used the writing prompt “I remember...” to write a beautiful piece about an incident with a young cousin being injured. There were the fractured fairytales and a round robin, which required them to write solidly on a topic chosen from a list for five minutes, then pass on the sheet. We had a great giggle reading out the various cobbled together stories. And yes, we read and wrote around a table. We read a short story together each week, or a fairy tale, etc. The kids loved it and when the year was over I put their works into a publication which they got and which was put in the library so they saw their names in the catalogue.

Kelly McCaughrain said...

Those are great ideas, Sue, thanks!

Kelly McCaughrain said...

I did reply to this Penny, see below! Technology got me again.

Helen Larder said...

What brilliant ideas! Thanks, Kelly xxxx