Tuesday 2 June 2020

What you do and say speaks loudly. VAVs? by Steve Way

At a time when someone’s car journeys have generated debate about what that action represents for ordinary people trying to support their community and when Twitter have finally had the courage to suggest that some of the President of America’s dirges may not be backed up by robust fact-checking, I’ve been thinking about the various ways ideas and opinions are communicated to us in positive and negative ways.

A few years ago, I worked as a ‘Writer in Residence’ for a group of schools located in disadvantaged estates in south Leeds. In one school I was asked to work with a group of boys. As has long been the case there was concern that boys were lagging behind girls in showing skill and interest in reading and writing, so I directed my workshops towards subjects likely to interest my group of ten-year-old boys and we wrote about orcs, trolls and other gruesome creatures. Everyone in the group engaged with the task and we all laughed and ‘urred’ in roughly equal measure as each one of the boys read out their piece. We all particularly enjoyed the description one lad had written about a wonderfully vile being.

 The boy was beaming when he finished reading as it was clear how much we’d appreciated his work and it was almost certain that he had never before written anything of this length and quality that he had enjoyed producing and then presenting to his friends. By chance, while the frisson of the moment was still in the air, the headteacher of the school flounced importantly through the hall, where we were working. As the lad in question was still practically glowing with pride, I asked the head if she had a moment to let him share his piece with her. We all beamed back at him as the hero of the moment and the head leaned of to listen. I sensed the excitement and collective pride buzzing around the whole group of boys. They were anticipating the praise that they expected to be heaped upon their friend. The boy’s gory description ended and the headteacher jerked upright as though she’d stepped on a live wire. ‘Oh dear!’ she declared. ‘Why can’t you write about something nice?’ She then flounced off faster than before as though trying to distance herself from this insult to civilised ‘nice’ writing as quickly as possible. As I watched her disappear, I felt the group’s new-found enthusiasm deflating faster than a popped balloon. So much for getting boys interested in writing.

A similar thing happened in another school. As often happened while I was doing a workshop with a class of children the teacher and teaching assistants mysteriously slipped away. Totally illegal of course – but what could I do, leave them all completely alone without adult supervision!?! Lucky I’m a qualified teacher.

We were writing about ‘Silly Superheroes’ and amongst my other superheroes of that category that I’d read to the children to stimulate their won writing I’d described the erstwhile ‘Ear Wax Man’. You can probably guess how he caught villains. This piece inspired one of the boys to create a character called ‘Mr Poo’. No guessing there either I should imagine. He had started reading it out to us, to the great delight and amusement of all of us, when one of the teaching assistants returned. Having interrupted him she asked him to start again. He didn’t get much further than the title before the TA practically became hysterical and soundly admonished the boy for writing what she clearly saw as a disgusting and inappropriate piece of work. It was almost as though I wasn’t in the room. Fortunately for the poor boy, I think he was still aware of the appreciation for his piece that the rest of us had shown. And one advantage of having been completely overridden by the oversensitive TA (you would think she had never worked with children before!) was that I was able to give him a very obvious encouraging wink behind her back. I imagine this TA would also have preferred it if he’d written about something ‘nice’.

Whilst I’m still annoyed about these two examples of negative communication, there’s one that occurred at another school that still makes me smile. I was talking to a class and we got to the Q&A stage. One child asked me what I sensed was a rehearsed question, ‘How do you write a new story?’ I replied that it varied but that if I had an idea I would just run with it to see where it went and if I liked what I’d written I would then put together a plan for the story. The children seemed surprised by this answer and instinctively all looked over at the class teacher. “’Oh’, she said. ‘I told them you always made a plan first.’ Clearly, she hadn’t wanted to go to the inconvenience of asking me first!

I’ve written before about teacher’s and other adults behaving in a way which sent a clear message that they didn’t see an author visit as being important (and therefore presumably writing in general) as, for example, in the disappearing act described above. I participated in a day when authors in the area would briefly visit several schools. I had just sat down in front of a class which I was only going to work with for half-an-hour. Standing behind them the teacher chirpily asked, ‘You don’t mind of I do a few jobs while you work with the children do you?’ Well of course tidying up library books and sorting out pencils is far more important than joining the class in engaging with an author - isn’t it?

He certainly did.


Of course most school visits are an absolute joy and I hope that between us we’ll soon be able to do many more. In the meantime, during these challenging times I’ve been wondering about promoting the idea of ‘VAVs’ – standing for ‘Virtual Author Visits’ – whereby we work with the children using platforms such as Skype and Zoom. I would be interested to hear your opinion of my acrostic acronym and more importantly any experiences of engaging with children in a virtual way!

Recent publications; 
The Real Story Series Volume One It turns out Goldie Lock is a reluctant trainee burglar and that ‘The Princess who does PE’ is also a pretty good winger. 
The Real Story Series Volume Three Despite thinking he’s tricked the other goats into believing an ogre lives under the bridge leading to the field full of delicious grass, it turns out that he’s right. How is the Grand Old Duke of York going to fend off The Grand Young Duke of Oldham and The Grand Middle-Aged Duke of Newcastle? His wife suggests teaching his men to knit!


Nick Garlick said...

Fascinating post. I'm convinced the 'something nice' factor is what puts a lot of children off reading in the first place: reading = boring! Nice you were able to encourage the storyteller with a wink.

Lynne Benton said...

Oh, this sounds horribly familiar, Steve! I remember the Headmaster coming in just as a little boy in my class was reading out a story he'd written (okay, you couldn't actually read it because his spelling and writing were appalling, but a) he was only 7 and b) he had really thought about his story and was very proud of it). I was just telling him what a good story it was when the Head glanced at his book and pronounced it "Rubbish!" That was many years ago, but I'd hoped things had improved since then - clearly they haven't!

Steve Way said...

Thank you both for your comments. Isn't it amazing that some adults working with children don't seem to understand children at all! How did that man get to be headteacher? (Or the lady I spoke about!) In particular for them to not be aware of the powerful impact of their response to the children's work is mind boggling! And I agree with you Nick the way reading in some schools is approached seems designed to make it unappealing! Our task continues!