Prepare to turn that spark into a blaze

1st October 2004 at 01:00
Poet and former teacher Jean Sprackland has survived countless writing residencies. She explains how to get the best out of yours

A bit of magic sparked by a good visit or residency by a writer can stay with young people forever. But what is the secret to inspiring writing?

Is it enough for all parties to cross their fingers and hope they can get by on instinct, inspiration and luck? I am a poet, and I have been both a teacher and a literature development worker, so I have seen the world of writers in schools from many angles.

I am working with fellow poet Mandy Coe on a book that will help teachers and writers create successful partnerships. In the course of our research we talked to many teachers and writers. Often it is one enthusiastic and committed teacher who takes the initiative to invite a writer into school.

This teacher deserves recognition: he or she may have had to work hard to convince colleagues. Where there is support from the head and staff, the project is at a huge advantage. There is a crackle of excitement in the air when you arrive.

Help on where to look for the right writer comes from organisations such as the National Association of Writers in Education and the Poetry Society or literature development agencies. They will advise schools on writers who work well with particular age-groups or in specific circumstances.

Once you have identified a writer who sounds right for your project, introduce some of their work to pupils. Time spent on preparation engages youngsters and gets the project off to a flying start.

For teachers slogging away at the chalkface, it must be hard to find time to sit down with a writer before their visit and talk. But joint planning is an investment that will make the project run smoothly and yield great results. The writer will need to be offered a fee to attend planning meetings. With a few notable exceptions, writers have low incomes and cannot afford to work for nothing. But this time spent sharing ideas is good value for money: it encourages a real buzz of excitement.

It is now that you can ensure you have a clear idea of what you want to achieve, which will make it possible to evaluate success later. It is also a chance for both parties to get to know each other.

It is worth thinking about what you might need to help you follow up the work. Enlist the writer's help with this: many will be happy to provide copies of exercises and have their brains picked for other resources such as books, websites and competitions.

If a writer is in the school, take advantage of their expertise and get them working with teachers. An element of professional development makes a dramatic difference to the impact of any project.

Until recently I was the project manager of poetryclass, the Poetry Society's training programme led by poets. I knew it was a great idea, but even I was startled by the rapturous reception our training got from teachers, who often said it was the best in-service they had had for years.

It was a simple but brilliant formula: as well as offering practical methods for the classroom, our training days gave teachers the opportunity to write, to be creative. Frequently, it is the teacher's own love of writing that sparks enthusiasm among students.

I hold no grudge against the teacher who said: "Do you mind if I clear out my stock cupboard while you're doing this?" during one of my earliest forays into school as a poet. She was probably unsure what her role could or should be.

The teacher's involvement during sessions is one of the things that can make or break a project. I am full of admiration for those who write alongside the pupils. Their courage demonstrates to young people that writing is valued, that it is something everyone can enjoy doing, and that it is equally challenging for all.

I remember a class of lively 14-year-olds who fell silent as "Miss" read her poem. After a short pause, the biggest and noisiest boy in the class said, in tones of astonishment and respect: "That was really good, for a teacher."

Our Thoughts Are Bees: Writers and Schools, by Mandy Coe and Jean Sprackland, will be published in spring 2005, pound;10.

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