I’ve just had a request from a postgraduate student in Creative Writing to answer questions for some research she is doing on writers in schools. Here are her questions, and my answers.
1. What can a visiting writer provide that a teacher (even an excellent one) can’t?
It depends on the writer, the teacher, and what you mean by ‘excellent’. Every writer is different, and some teachers are writers themselves, for instance, so what they get out of it will be different. A writer can always bring something new into the classroom (though not all writers are happy in that situation). I was an English teacher first, then I started writing, and that changed how I taught. I was able to teach writing from the inside – I knew what the students needed because I was also writing. (I’ve written about this, and about my philosophy of teaching poetry, in Jumpstart Poetry in the Secondary School.) I think writers have a crucial role in schools, and all students should have the experience of visiting writers. Writing changes lives. Also, imagine teaching a young Keats, or Shakespeare – what would benefit them? You can’t risk not giving young people the experience of working with writers. Writers know things about writing that people who don’t write don’t – it’s obvious – all kinds of things that writers take for granted. It’s about setting up exercises to emulate as closely as possible how writers actually write, and it’s also about responding to what students do at every stage. The whole attitude towards re-writing, and how to go about it, for example, is crucial. It also depends on what you (the writer or the teacher) have read – there’s a whole poetic, conscious nor not, which informs your understanding of the process of writing – and this impacts on the students you teach and their experience of writing; a visiting writer brings a new poetic. The results of the Writing Together: Writers in Schools Research Programme, in which I have been involved, will soon be available. It’s an exciting time.
2. What would you say a writer should be able to offer a) the pupils
There are many possible answers to this – insight, access to craft, a writer’s attitude to language/writing, ‘inspiration’… Your ‘should’ is interesting – not every writer will offer this, and writers can offer different things. For me, the important thing is providing the experience of writing like a writer. Also demonstrating to young people, (should they not have realised this already), that writing is fun, and that there are people who are passionate about writing – writing not just a compulsory part of a curriculum.
b) the school?
As above. Teachers writing alongside their students in workshops with visiting writers can change everything – teaching is never the same again, in my experience.
3. What advice would you give to writers interested in working in this field?
You have to like young people and working with them, and you need to see things from their point of view. It’s not an easy option so don’t do it just to make a living as a writer. You have to really want to do it. For me it’s a vocation – I’m a teacher and I’m a writer. Also, I recommend working alongside an experienced writer in schools, if possible. There are mentoring schemes available. It won’t be long before universities are offering courses in this – some already offer courses for teachers on how to run workshops. NAWE is an excellent organisation to check out. Good luck.