Spending a week in a school as writer-in-residence and achieving a positive literacy outcome may sound like a daunting task, especially for authors who, like me, have never been teachers. I’ve now had over 15 years’ experience working in schools as an author and I’ve learned that there are two main keys to a successful writer-in-residency.
The first key is good planning. Even if your residency is booked through your agent, the only way to ensure your week works well for you and the school is for you to make prior contact with the teacher who is organising your residency. This is best done by phone a month or two in advance so you can get a feel for what the school wants to achieve through your visit. Insist that all the children with whom you’ll be working have read at least one of your books (either as a class or individually) before you arrive so they can relate to you.
Find out how big the school is, how many grades you’ll be working with and how many classes there are in each grade. Do they want to target specific groups for small writing workshops or will all their students do writing workshops in their class group after your initial introductory sessions?
How many children do they want in each session? Remember you’ll be doing three one-hour sessions on each of the five days: I suggest one before recess, one before lunch and one after lunch, so you have plenty of time in between to chill or talk to students and teachers individually. Remember you have 15 sessions in which to achieve your goal.
In primary schools I suggest spending day one talking to the whole school divided into three large groups: prep to two, three/four, five/six. This is when I share who I am as a wife, mother, pet owner and author, where my ideas have come from for specific books, as well as sharing some show and tell like objects linked to my books, a DVD showing story inspiration, research material, early drafts, dummy roughs, galley proof sheets, etc. I let them know upfront that I’ll leave ten minutes at the end of each session to take Q&A from the students and teachers — and yes I expect the teachers to be there, so they can follow up on what I’ve been sharing with their classes, especially if only selected grades will be able to attend my actual writing workshops.
Days two to five are writing workshop days. My ideal is to have 15 students or fewer in each writing workshop, which in most schools means half classes. In this scenario the librarian or teacher takes half a class in the classroom, while the other half comes to me in a special space, usually in the library, set aside just for the workshops, with tables and chairs for up to 15.
To lead up to the students planning a story of their own, you need to give them a couple of warm-up writing exercises, based on the way you write your books. Ensure they are appropriate for the grades with which you’re working. You’ll soon realise if the tasks you’re setting are too difficult, or too easy, for that particular class. Be flexible and change your plan on the spot if necessary! Learn by doing. What works well with one school won’t necessarily work at another.
As a writing warm-up and to get the students thinking of story ideas, share an embarrassing moment of your own and then get them to write down in one sentence an embarrassing thing that has happened to them. Ask some of them to read out their sentence, then choose one of those that has story potential, write it on the whiteboard and brainstorm the idea, getting the students to contribute their own ideas as to how that one experience could be changed into a really interesting story by using their combined imaginations. As they contribute a variety of scenarios, point out that if they each wrote a story based on that original idea, there would be 15 different versions. There is no right way to write that story. Students need to realise that the same story can be written many different ways and that, even though they have a story plan, they might come up with even better ideas as they write.
Students need to realise that the same story can be written many different ways and that, even though they have a story plan, they might come up with even better ideas as they write.
In writing workshops my aim is to have each student leave with a plan for a story that excites them so they really want to write it. If I have the luxury of focusing on one or two year levels over four days, I have each group come back for a second workshop with the first draft of their story. I set parameters so I have time to read through and comment on each story in the workshop, as a one-on-one, while the others keep re-working their own stories. Usually I ask that they have only two or three main characters (not the whole football team), a setting they know (one less thing for the poorer writers in the group to worry about), no more than two pages/500 words in length, and a story idea from their own life or dreams – no re-writes from television, movies or books.
The second key to a successful writer-in-residency is to be real. Don’t lecture the students from the lofty heights of authorship — instead be a down-to-earth, real-life person who’s lucky enough to be a published author. You’re there to be a model for the students’ writing. In other words share your basic skills, which may seem ordinary to you. If you work out the nuts and bolts of how you actually write your stories and share those writing skills in your workshops, then you will inspire young students to write better stories. Often, because the students with whom you’re working struggle with their reading and writing, especially in younger grades, you will be repeating things their teacher tells them: every story needs a beginning, a middle and an end. It seems obvious, but so many children don’t grasp the concept.
You’re a published author so use your own stories as examples of how the beginning introduces the main characters, the middle throws a problem in their way and the end solves that problem. Keep it real — this is how a real author writes. Even though they do hear this from their teachers on a daily basis, because you’re an author they’ll believe you, embrace the idea and write their best story ever. You’ll be amazed by what you inspire.