This post is about the nitty gritty of running a group and the little details that can make all the difference. You’ll know best what will work for your group, this is just how we run ours:
We have 2 hours, broken up roughly as follows –
- 20 minutes to chat and get settled
- 1 hour of quiet writing time
- 30 minutes to read aloud and give feedback
One of the things we stress is that it’s their club. When we started, we drew up a ‘group contract’, giving the kids the opportunity to say what they wanted from the group, including things like ‘you can sit where you like’ and ‘shoes need not be worn’. (They could also come up with their own group name.) Changes and issues are run past the group and agreed by them.
Over time the contract has boiled down to one rule, which is ‘It’s up to you what you write and whether you write, but you can’t disturb anyone else’s writing time’. Generally that’s the only rule we’ve needed. If someone doesn’t feel like writing that’s fine, we all have days like that. They can read, draw, do emergency homework. But they can’t disturb anyone else.
The rules apply to the adults too. We don’t use their meeting time to have a chat because that would distract the kids and I feel it’s also a bit disrespectful. We’re at their club, not in our classroom.
We have the use of a café after closing. The mentors sit at a large central table and some of the kids sit with us, some spread out and use the sofas. If they want the mentors to look at anything, they can ask for feedback. If things get noisy I’ll sit with them and ask how they’re getting on, and if that doesn’t work I’ll gently remind them of the ‘not disturbing others’ rule. We do get everyone together at the start and end so they feel like a group.
This was an interesting one for me. To begin with, the group always worked in silence. It never occurred to me not to because I personally prefer silence. There was occasional chatter, which was fine because they always managed to produce creative work anyway. But then we got a new member who was incredibly chatty. Lovely kid but it was difficult to keep everyone focused because they never stopped talking.
And then one day the new kid wrote a story. A romantic story about a romantic date. At the end, the couple come home, settle on the sofa, there’s hot chocolate, there’s candlelight, they’re about to kiss and then…
…they turn on the TV for some background noise.
What! Where did that come from? Who wants reality TV in the background of the most romantic date ever!
And then I got it. This kid just hates silence. Finds it massively uncomfortable. And if there’s a silence, they will talk just to break that silence.
So I tried an experiment. I put on a very laidback playlist quietly in the background while we worked.
Problem solved. The chat stopped, the writer settled really easily and produced long, beautifully written stories every week. It was practically miraculous.
And a definite lesson for me to trust people to write in their own way, even if it’s not the way I’d write.
So now we always play quiet background music while we write.
Phones can be a PITA in a classroom environment but they’re here to stay and we need to get on board with that.
My first time at our club I was dismayed to find that some of the kids spent the whole time on their phones. After 2 hours though, I was stunned to discover they had written whole chapters of stories. ON THEIR PHONES! This was another revelation to me. I will go to great lengths to avoid typing anything on my phone. Not so, your average teenager. They’re quite comfortable writing with their thumbs, which is quite a skill when you think about it. They also use them to listen to music through headphones.
So I’ve never banned phones. I’m sure there’s a bit of Instagramming too but as someone who checks Facebook every other paragraph when I’m writing, I can’t really complain about that and I don’t think it’s a big deal. It’s up to them if they write anything, after all, and while we try to minimise distractions, if they’re not in the mood, then there’s no point forcing it.
One of the lovely things about the group is that the kids have become good friends. So good that recently one of them had the bright idea of setting up a Whatsapp group.
Oh God, says me. Now there are two ways for them to distract each other. Sure enough, the next hour consisted of tapping and explosions of inexplicable giggling. I let them get the novelty out of their system and then said it was lovely they’d set up a group, but maybe we shouldn’t use it during our meetings as we might distract people.
They were fine with that, but inevitably there was still some messaging going on. I worried that this might become something I’d have to put my foot down over, which I’m reluctant to do.
But the next week they came and told me that they had, off their own bat, started writing a story via Whatsapp! They’d each created a character and each writer contributed a paragraph then passed it to the next person. I was so glad I hadn’t gone all bossy over the Whatsapp group! I’d been worrying about them writing less, but the outcome is, they’re now writing more. At home, on the bus, watching TV, probably in classes (sorry!). What an amazing result!
So all I’m saying is, don’t make assumptions about what will inspire or distract them. Phones and the internet are not the death of creativity, they can in fact be new conduits for it and it’s worth letting them explore that.
The mentors at our group don’t teach, they write. Or read. I think it’s hugely important for kids to meet adults who value writing and reading and make time in their lives for it. When you think about it, the only contact they usually have with adult writers is those shiny books on the shelves at Waterstones, and that’s what they’re comparing their own writing to. It can come as a surprise to them to see an adult writer sit back at the end of the session and say, ‘Well, I wrote 200 words, and then I deleted 150 of them.’ And maybe they never see adults read at home either.
So maybe, don’t use their writing time to mark homework or answer emails or chat to other members of staff. Write a story. Read a novel. Read a YA novel and they’ll love you forever!