Wednesday 13 November 2019

Getting to Try Sheena Wilkinson

Last Friday I was honoured to give a keynote address at the Literary Association of Ireland’s conference in Dublin. The theme of the conference was ‘Engaging Literacy Learners in Diverse Settings’ and the delegates were teachers, children’s literature specialists, educationalists and others. 

As someone who had been a very keen child writer, then an English teacher, and more recently a professional writer much of whose income is earned through teaching creative writing in diverse settings, I was keen to address this topic. I had planned something light-hearted, a bit of a romp through my own development as a writer. It’s a familiar enough story – bright kid, not-so-bright council estate, encouraging parents and teachers and – crucially – a great local library.  It’s a happy story, mostly. Sure, I lost confidence in my late teens and twenties, and only got back to writing in my thirties, but I don’t regret that. By the time I was ready for publication in terms of craft, I had plenty to write about. 

But my talk made me sad. Not for me – I came out of it fine. Not for the children fortunate enough to be taught by the conference delegates, who were prepared to give up a precious weekend to consider their subject with depth and creativity. But for many others. For the kids who don’t have access to a local library or even a school library. For the teachers so burdened by admin and assessment and the need to tick the right boxes that they don’t feel able to prioritise creativity in the classroom, despite creativity – using the imagination, asking ‘what if?’, dreaming -- being the bedrock of so much learning.

Some years ago, when I was a secondary school English teacher myself, I surveyed colleagues in a variety of secondary schools for an article in NAWE’s journal Writing in Education.  The vast majority admitted to feeling underconfident when it came to teaching creative writing. Most had not themselves written creatively since GCSE days, having studied English Literature only for A level and at university. Every year I give a short creative writing workshop to PGCE English students: two hours out of a year-long course. (It used to be three.) The students seem to enjoy the chance to write, but it’s a hard sell to make them see it as important. They think it’s a bit of a jolly, not to be confused with real work. And they are always more concerned about how they can use the skills and insights in the classroom than recognising their intrinsic value for them. 

 For nine years I ran a cross-community inter-schools creative writing network in Belfast. I loved it. I worked with some great young writers, and was delighted when a partnership with Arvon allowed me to take them on six wonderful Arvon residentials as well as our monthly workshops. We produced anthologies most years. It was the sort of opportunity I would have adored as a teenage writer. But this year I gave up the network, with a little regret but quite a lot of relief. It was getting harder and harder to reach young writers. I had a few great teacher allies who did wonderful work in encouraging pupils to come along, and those who did come loved it, but every year the numbers dwindled as older pupils left school and were not replaced. 

Why? I think – it came to me as I was preparing my talk for the conference – that secondary school children are getting less and less encouragement to write creatively at school. By the time I left teaching six years ago, creative writing was something to be ‘done’ as a module and then ticked off. I remember being told to ask pupils to write about their own experience rather than letting them make up stories ‘because they’re so bad at it.’ Well, of course they are, if that’s our attitude!  Was I that wonderful inspirational teacher who broke the mould? I’d like to say I was but I know that my own creativity and courage was eroded by years of this. 

It’s not all doom and gloom of course. I do writing residencies in schools which recognise the value of creative writing, often funded by Poetry Ireland’s Writers in Schools scheme. I meet with committed, creative teachers. But increasingly these initiatives are in primary schools, not secondaries 'because we don't have time for that',  and usually when I am delivering the workshop the class teacher is marking, or on the computer. Understandable given their workload, but it reinforces the idea that creative writing isn’t really important, or something you would do as part of normal life, or continue to do as an adult. 

There will always be young people who love to write, but people can’t develop their talents in a system which doesn’t let them breathe and learn and make mistakes and experiment. When I was in second year at grammar school we wrote creatively every week or so. We had a list of twenty or so titles at the back of our English exercise books and could choose any we liked. One of the titles was ‘A Chapter of a Novel’. I wrote a new first chapter every time. Lovely Mrs Leathart, our gentle, cultured teacher, read and commented on every one. (Only now do I appreciate how much marking she must have had!) She never asked why I never went on to Chapter 2. She must have noticed that my chapters were heavily influenced by what I was reading – K.M. Peyton, Maeve Binchy, even a short-lived flirtation with science fiction (though, in retrospect that was mostly about David Bowie) – but she took everything at face value and encouraged me to keep writing. Not all the class liked writing as much as I did, of course, but the point was that they got to try. I’m not sure how much their sons and daughters are getting to try.

1 comment:

Penny Dolan said...

Very sad, Sheena.

I was once part of an excellent scheme, where Yr 6 primary children could be put forward by their school for 3 day residential courses. meeting and working with "real writers" over weekends or school holidays.

Many of the young writers got such a lot from their course, from the writers as well as the buzz of being with others with a similar enthusiasm.

What was notable, at that stage, was that many of the children were put forward by schools where the Head valued all their young writers (and all forms of creativity) throughout the curriculum. Both support FOR and belief IN the act of writing are vital.