"Are you dead?" a celebrated children's writer was once asked on a school visit.
"Not the last time I checked."
"Oh," replied her interlocutor. "I just thought all authors were dead."
It is partly to enlighten children such as these that the Writing Together initiative, that began in primary schools, has now been extended to cover secondary schools. Earlier this year, a series of conferences for English teachers was held throughout the country to promote writing residencies in schools and to provide inspiration and practical advice.
Writing Together is a breath of fresh air. The Qualifications and Curriculum Authority and the National Literacy Strategy have got together with Booktrust, the Arts Council, the Poetry Society and the National Association of Writers in Education (NAWE) to get writers into schools and working with children to promote creativity. Although there is an official denial that creativity has ever been missing from the secondary English curriculum, Writing Together now wants to give it a central focus. "Writing Together places creativity at the heart of English teaching," says Sue Horner of the QCA. "It is what the national curriculum intends."
This is good to hear and it's also good to learn that there has been funding for a variety of writers' residencies with Year 8 pupils in eight schools across five regions of England (London, Newcastle, Birmingham, Manchester and Wiltshire). A part-time English teacher and a children's author, I don't need convincing that writers need to work part of their time in schools. It gives them valuable contact with their readers and it has a powerful impact on the students, who realise that writers are real and ordinary; moreover, if they can write, so can anyone.
The conference facilitators stressed that having a writer in the classroom promotes creativity. A writer can provide the stimulus to generate first-class poetry, provide exciting, off-the-wall ideas to refresh non-literary writing, and can share their tips and techniques. All undeniably true, yet I heard a rebellious murmur from my English-teaching self along the lines of, "I do these things anyway".
The vast majority of English teachers enjoy the creative part of their jobs most of all, and are rarely short of good ideas to stimulate writing. So why go to the expense and trouble of getting in a writer? Because, according to Paul Munden of NAWE, a writer can offer "a blast of something completely different". It's good for pupils to work with people other than teachers, especially those who "earn their living by working adventurously with words".
Simon Armitage, a key patron of Writing Together, agrees that students benefit from seeing that literature is produced by a real person. He suggests that meeting a poet can help banish "poetry phobia" - the idea that a poem is a trap set by an examiner, waiting to get you. Secondary school students benefit from seeing firsthand that poetry is just a blend of the poet's experiences and his or her interest in language. Anyone can write poetry.
Poet Mandy Coe led a three-day pilot residency with Year 8 pupils at Walkden High School in Salford. Fifteen children spent a day with her at Manchester City Art Gallery, where she used paintings to inspire them to produce their own poetry. I asked Rob Chisnall, the organising English teacher, what benefits there had been from the project: "The students' work has improved," he said. "They edit more effectively, they're more confident creatively, they feel they have a voice that deserves to be heard. Best of all, they have learned to evaluate their own writing more effectively, rather than just checking with the teacher." His students loved the experience and his Year 7 students are asking for their turn.
There can be no doubt that having a writer in school generates enthusiasm, an interest in literature as a living thing, and a positive attitude among students and teachers alike. It's a shame that only pupils up to key stage 3 currently benefit from Writing Together. At KS4, when students are besieged by the demands of GCSE, a writer visit can be really invigorating.
The Writing Together initiative is brave, unique and is to be applauded, but it must move onwards and upwards.
* Working with KS4
Kick-start your GCSE coursework with a visit by a writer. Students are receptive to advice from "a professional" and appreciate having their coursework taken so seriously that their teacher arranges a "real" writer to speak to them.
I share my writing techniques with the students. I generally encourage pieces based on students' own experiences, as these pieces turn out to be the most honest, convincing and vivid. It's also a way of showing teenagers that their thoughts and feeling matter enough to be committed to paper.
Tips for students' coursework
* Write about what you know.
* Show, don't tell - make your reader do some of the work.
* Choose your words carefully - the more words on your palette, the better.
* Use all your senses when describing.
* Find a reader and get a response to your work.
* Be prepared to edit your writing and rewrite some of it. Real writers do this all the time.
* Booktrust's resources for teachers are based on the Writing Together residencies and conferences and are available on its website www.booktrust.org.uk
* For details of future programmes or a free information pack for schools Tel: 020 8516 2976 Email: email@example.com
Sherry Ashworth's novels for teenagers include Blinded by the Light and the forthcoming Something Wicked, published by Collins Children's Books.
She teaches English at Bury Girls Grammar School
ORGANISING A VISIT
l Visit the NAWE website www.nawe.co.uk The Poetry Society www.poetrysociety.org.uk
The Arts Council www.artscouncil.org.uk
or any local organisation that provides writer visits.
* Remember well-established authors get booked up well in advance.
* The Arts Council recommends a minimum daily fee of pound;250. Funding help is available from regional arts boards. There is also gifted and talented funding, and key stage 3 booster money.
* Discuss the nature of the day in advance with your writer. He or she may well have ideas, but you can specify what you would like to happen.
* Let the whole school know the date and arrangements - generate a buzz of excitement.
* Check your author's dietary requirements, travel arrangements and exchange mobile numbers.
* Get someone to meet your writer on arrival.
* Review the session afterwards so that the department incorporates tips and new approaches.
* Publish an anthology of students' work generated by the visit.