Jonny Zucker published this interesting article in the Guardian this week.
In these troubled times, there is a danger that paying for an author visit to promote children’s writing will increasingly rank low on a school’s list of priorities. And yet … if an author visit goes well, some pupils will get more of a writing confidence-boost in one day than they normally would in a whole term; some will crack how to plot a story and will go off to compose their first magnum opus; and some will discover that writing can actually be fun.
This is not because teachers are bad at teaching writing; it’s because the structured writing units of the national curriculum deal in the mechanics of writing while allowing very little space for creativity. Units such as these have been in place since the early 1990s, yet a staggering 36% of 11-year-old boys failed to meet the expected writing level in 2010 (the figure for girls was 21%).
An author dances and shadow boxes with the many aspects of writing on a daily basis, and if a school allows them freedom – at least for a few hours – then many a bold writing adventure can be had.
If you do manage to get an author in to promote pupils’ writing, here is a hands-on guide to making the most of their visit.
1 Be familiar wth the author’s work
It sounds pretty basic, but I’ve seen some eye-popping mismatches. A writer of edge-of-your-seat action novels may have a problem connecting with reception-age children who are used to stories about pancake-making goats. It’s also important for your pupils to be familiar with at least some of the author’s output. If the author is plagued all day by comments of “Who are you?” or “Are you the new dinner lady?” (yes, I’ve had that one), things might get rocky. There may already be copies of the author’s books in the school library or local library. If none can be tracked down, grab a couple off the web.
2 Find out if they will “connect” with your pupils
It’s crucial to discover a bit about how the author interacts with pupils. Lots of children’s authors have been teachers themselves (JK Rowling, Philip Pullman, Michael Morpurgo) and they tend to be comfortable in the classroom or hall. Other authors have glowing teacher references on their websites. Alternatively, you can talk to someone at another school who has previously hosted the author.
3 Sort out practicalities before the visit
Make sure one person is in charge of the visit and ensure they talk to the author to go over all of the practical aspects of the visit (arrival time/car parking/does the author need use of an interactive whiteboard/do they want a school lunch). Discuss where the author will work. When I visit schools I like pupils to have plenty of room to move about, so I ask to use the hall or another fairly big space. Some of the best writing I’ve ever seen has been produced by pupils lying down, or standing up after running a couple of circuits. Vis-a-vis cost, the Society of Authors recommends a day fee for visiting authors of £350. Some authors charge far less than this, some a good deal more. Certain authors will include a few of their books in the price; others won’t.
4 Avoid spreading the author too thinly
Many schools want every pupil to meet/interact with the guest, but this can be taken to extremes. I recently heard of a visit during which an author rushed around school, completing 14 20-minute sessions – one with every class. If the author’s happy to do a whole-school assembly at some point, this is a great way for the entire school to meet them.
5 Have a very clear focus for the day
In my experience, author visits are most successful when schools have a very specific learning objective and a pupil group in mind. At one two-form-entry school I visit, for each day I attend, they target one year group and one writing theme, for example, year 5 and developing characters. I begin the day with an introduction to all 60 year-5 pupils and then do a workshop with each class in the morning – with extension tasks for them to complete during the day. In the afternoon, I do another workshop with each class and we finish the day with a whole-year group session. By the end of the day, children have often created whole galleries of in-depth characters, such as aliens with a fetish for feta; cheating, football-playing ghosts and foul-tempered computer games consoles. Teachers often say some children’s work on such days is far better than their average output. This is not because I’m some literary alchemist, it’s for the simple reason that I’m allowed to work with the same pupils on the same area of writing for an entire day.
6 Use the local environment
If the weather permits, the author could work with pupils in the local park, or the woods, or on a disused railway line. When you take pupils out of the classroom, they may initially muck around a bit, but in unfamiliar territory, they are often willing to take more risks with their work. One of the best projects I’ve done was based in an old water mill near Hatfield. Pupils got to bake bread, see how a real flour mill works, write spooky stories using genuine artefacts and learn to plot a story in three stages. The school had to pay for a coach and for use of the mill, but I know that all involved thought this was a very decent use of resources and much of the kids’ writing was superb.
7 Ensure the staff get plenty of tips
If possible, ask the author to give teachers loads of extra activities that motivate/promote writing. Some authors do a one-page summary of the work they’re doing that day with suggested follow-ups. Others will suggest suitable reading lists for different age groups or games/competitions.
8 Promote particularly aspirational pupil writers
If there are any especially motivated writers, allow them some time in a small group with the author to ask more detailed questions. This doesn’t have to be just the ones who’ve completed novels the length of Middlemarch; some young graphic novelists with only basic writing skills are astonishingly talented, as are some who have brilliant story and character ideas, but can’t yet get much down on paper.
9 Be practical
Most children will enjoy hearing an author read from their work. But it’s also important for the author to talk about the “production” of their books, from selecting artwork, via layout, to the physical creation of the finished product. When children hear that this process is relatively straightforward, they’ll be more likely to have a go at “making” books themselves.
10 Bag your author for a week
I know this represents a huge chunk of cash. But hear me out. In a single week, an author could cover the following ground in some detail: characters, story arc, plotting, openings, chapter structure, dialogue, cliff-hangers, pace, twists, resolution. The author, teachers and pupils would all be exhausted by Friday, but you’d have set in motion a small army of up-and-coming novelists. Now that would make your weekend, wouldn’t it?