Welcome to The Blank Page Blog! Novels are all very well but I do love a good blog. They’re useful, bite-sized and create communities of likeminded people. Plus you get to use memes, and who doesn’t love a meme?
So I have set up The Blank Page for all things Fellowship, and I thought I would start with a post on being appointed as Seamus Heaney Children’s Writing Fellow for Northern Ireland and my plans for this year, because that’s probably the best way to introduce myself.
What is a Children’s Writing Fellowship, I hear you cry. Well, funnily enough, I asked Damian Smyth from the Arts Council the same question. And the answer was, ‘whatever you make it’. It’s essentially two years of time and space for me to write and work on projects that I’m passionate about.
So you can think of this first blog post as a statement of the things I’m passionate about and would like to contribute to through this wonderful opportunity, and my plans for working with schools this year.
A mini-festo, if you will!
Firstly, to say I feel honoured about the post would be an understatement. And I think any role that promotes children’s literature is fantastic news. Michael Morpurgo and Ted Hughes set up the first UK Children’s Laureateship because they felt it was unfair that children’s literature receives less recognition than adult literature. I completely agree.
Childhood reading is such a formative thing. We know that children who read become more empathetic adults with greater ability to express themselves, more emotional resilience and a host of other benefits, yet children’s books get less media coverage, fewer reviews, less shelf space, less money and less respect. (I find it hugely ironic that childhood reading predicts higher earning-power as an adult – unless you want to be a writer. Especially a children’s writer.)
It annoys me greatly when people dismiss children’s literature as being trivial or less important than adult literature. It’s more important because we encounter it at a time in our lives when we’re at our most impressionable. It shapes individuals, and individuals shape society. I’m thrilled to see this being recognised in Northern Ireland and I applaud the Seamus Heaney Centre and the Arts Council Northern Ireland for creating this fellowship.
It’s incredible the wealth of experience you can pour into a child’s head through stories. In a year of reading they can live hundreds of different lives in hundreds of different places and experience hundreds of different relationships and they’re essentially learning how to be human in hundreds of different ways.
That’s absolutely priceless and it would take you the rest of your life to gain a fraction of that knowledge, experience and emotional intelligence. I have no doubt that books not only taught me what I know, but made me who I am. I wish kids were given more dedicated reading time in schools, free of assessment of any kind. Just give them some books! Give them some time! Give them a library!
Opportunities to be creative are especially valuable as children grow older and their school environment becomes increasingly exam-focused. Writing was the only thing I was particularly good at in school, and it would have meant the world to me to see creativity as something that was valued as much as exam results.
I think it’s a little crazy that there’s only room in the curriculum for things that can be marked and measured, with the result that creativity either gets squeezed into a narrow, measurable format or it’s left out of the curriculum altogether. I’m not a teacher but I’ve had many conversations with teachers and parents who feel the same. This seems to be a trend in education that’s only getting worse, and we’re seeing a decline in the uptake of Arts subjects in secondary education as a result .
I don’t think creativity should be graded or corrected or used as a vehicle to teach spelling. Creativity is a personal thing. It comes from who you are, not what you know. Grading that work essentially tells kids that who they are can be ‘wrong’ or ‘bad’, or not as good as the person sitting next to them. That’s not only unhelpful, I think it’s harmful.
Short of marching on Westminster and chucking novels at politicians, I can’t do much about the curriculum, but I do think it’s important that teenagers get the chance to be creative in school and I’d like to focus this fellowship on contributing to that.
Well, since you ask… During author visits in schools I always ask the kids if they like to write and there are always some who say yes. But when I ask if they have a writing group or any outlet for their writing, it’s often no.
I want to use my time as Children’s Writing Fellow to promote giving kids time and space to be creative in school. Specifically, I’d love to encourage and help secondary schools to set up or run creative writing clubs for their students and that’s what The Blank Page blog is for.
I work with teenage writers as a writing mentor with Fighting Words Belfast, running their Write Club group. The group has gone from strength to strength and I believe it’s because we have a format that the kids really respond well to and I’d love to spread that format around.
I completely understand why anyone might be a little daunted by the idea of starting a writing club. When I took on Write Club I felt incredibly nervous. How could I come up with enough writing exercises and writing advice and lesson plans and writerly wisdom to sustain this week after week? It sounded exhausting. And I’m a writer! If you’re not a writer yourself, it might be even more daunting. And repeating the same exercises year after year can get boring and sometimes groups just dwindle away for lack of enthusiasm.
But what my young writers have taught me is that it’s really not hard at all, and actually sometimes the less you do the better. In fact, what seems to work for them, and what they don’t get enough of in academic settings, is freedom.
Freedom to write the wrong words. Freedom to write the weird words. Freedom to write their own words. Essentially, what I do with my teen writers is let them be completely self-directed. They write whatever they want, it’s completely up to them. No writing exercises, no lesson plans, no prepared readings, no analytical responses, no dramatic readings in assembly. Easy right? I know you’re waiting for the catch but there isn’t one. This is actually a huge advantage of working with teens that you don’t get with younger kids, who may need much more input from you.
The focus is on giving teens time and space to write without any academic pressure or formal teaching. I’ve heard a lot of teachers say that they’re concerned because kids get less and less time to do anything creative, so I think writing groups could be really important for them.
Of course, I also have some tricks up my sleeve for the days when a young writer just isn’t in the mood or wants a gentle push. But these aren’t complicated things and I’ll be sharing them with you through this blog.
I think the hardest part of all this is convincing ourselves, as adults, to sit back and not interfere. To stop feeling like we haven’t done our jobs properly if we haven’t produced an end product in the form of a published pamphlet or a One-Act Play or at the very least some tickable Learning Objectives. I’ll be talking about all that too.
I’ll be talking more about how writing groups work and why, plus posting helpful resources and links, and my hope is that some librarians and teachers out there might be interested in setting up a group in their school library (if they actually have a library – don’t get me started) and that the blog might be a support for them. Existing groups might find it useful too. I’m also happy to chat via email or comments if you have specific questions or problems, and I’d love to post examples of your students’ work if they’d like to share it.
I’m also offering to come out and visit some writing groups (existing or new) in NI to meet the kids and encourage them with their writing. This would be after Christmas so if you’re up and running by then and would like a visit do let me know (these visits will be free, thanks to the Arts Council NI and Seamus Heaney Centre Fellowship, and I will bring along some fun resources for your group, also funded by the Arts Council NI!)
But I want to stress that visits and resources aren’t necessary requirements and that any school can read The Blank Page Blog and use it to set up a group of their own. The blog is a place for me to geek out about my favourite thing – encouraging young creatives – as well as giving group leaders some tips, resources and general support with working with your own creative young people. And the blog will continue to exist after my time as Children’s Writing Fellow has ended so if this year isn’t good for you, maybe you can use it later on.
In the next few posts I’ll get down to the nitty gritty of running the group but for now just let me say that running a writing club has been one of the most rewarding things I’ve ever done. I honestly feel privileged to be entrusted with their stories and it’s heart-warming to see how supportive they are of each other and what a confidence boost it gives them. To know that the group’s feedback and encouragement may have sent them home with a warm glow after a day that maybe wasn’t so full of warm glows is truly wonderful.
So that’s me! Thank you for taking the time to read this (future posts will be shorter, I promise!) Please do spread the word to any librarians, teachers or parents you think might be interested in encouraging creativity in their young people. You can click the Subscribe button on the sidebar (on the right) to get an email alert when new posts go up, or follow me on Twitter.
I really hope you’ll consider reading on and maybe setting up a group in your school!