Writers In The Schools

Writers In The Schools: How to make a Difference

 

Why visit?

So you’ve been invited to speak to high school students. Or maybe you’re sending around your calling card offering to give workshops or readings in schools. As an author, I have visited high school classes, and, as a teacher, I regularly host writers in my senior level English and creative writing classes. Last year, I had ten visitors, including a freelance journalist, a children’s author, a poet, a screen writer, a memoirist, and several literary fiction writers. Though I am convinced that interaction with writers enriches students’ learning, some visits go better than others. By this I mean that some visits are more comfortable and enjoyable for the writer and/or more engaging and useful for the students.

Before I tease out what differentiates great visits from mediocre ones, it’s worth considering what writers gain from these visits. In previous years, we teachers had to hunt for writers willing to speak to teens. In the last few years, however, my school has been receiving pamphlets, emails, and phone calls from both writers’ organizations and individual writers offering workshops, Q & A sessions, and readings. I’m not sure why this is — perhaps it’s one of the results of the intense pressure on writers to market their own work. Some writers come hoping to make new fans. But a typical high school classroom is not rife with avid readers, especially not book-buying readers. Unless you’re the author

of The Hunger Games, or whatever has replaced it as the current mania, the students are unlikely to purchase books during a visit, and some schools even have policies that bar visitors from selling in the classroom. Honorariums may beckon some authors, but payments from schools, if there are any, tend to be modest, rarely generous enough to be the sole reason for appearing in front of a crowd of teenagers who haven’t read one’s book and

probably have no intention of doing so. Some writers might visit for the sheer pleasure of the interaction with a high school class. I think many authors find their discussions with young people invigorating; however, my observations and experience suggest it’s still strenuous, draining work for a visitor to keep a group of teens engaged for the 60-to-80-minute class period.

In summary, the writer gains neither fame nor fortune from visiting a school. He or she is not even guaranteed a good time. Visiting a school is an act of generosity. Writers do it because it’s good for all of us to promote the acts of reading and writing to the next generation. They do it out of respect, courtesy, and big-heartedness for the students and teachers in their community. They do it because their role as writer gives them a significant platform from which they can foster a lifelong love of reading

in the students. And they do it because there’s quite likely to be at least one student in each audience who is a lot like they were at that age — someone with good instincts and an unstoppable imagination, someone ravenous for interaction with experienced writers.

This type of generosity is not for everybody. One can find a way to give back to one’s community that doesn’t involve interacting with teens. But for the writers who plan to step boldly into high schools, I offer some suggestions about how to make the most of the time with the students.

 

Preparing for the Visit

As with so many activities, preparation is the foundation for a good outcome. Planning the visit allows the writer to find out essential information such as what the teacher’s and students’ expectations are for the visit, how long the visit will last, whether students have read the writer’s work, and at what level the students are working. In addition to that basic information, writers may also want to know whether their visit is part of a particular unit of study (Canadian authors? contemporary poets? creative writing?). What does the teacher want the class to gain or to learn from the visit? Is the writer giving a reading, leading a Q & A, facilitating a writing workshop? A phone call or email exchange with the teacher or administrator who set up the visit will yield this information, and will also provide an opportunity for the writer to say what he or she is (and isn’t) willing to offer during the class period. Writers should feel free to state their preferences and to say no to a set up with which they’re uncomfortable or for which the preparation is too time- consuming.

If possible, the writer should talk directly with the classroom teacher to get information and make arrangements. Especially if the visit has been set up by someone else — such as a festival or an organization — writers can’t assume that the classroom teacher has been fully informed about the visit, or that he or she has done anything to prepare the students. As a teacher, I have occasionally had writers thrust into my classes. My principal or department head has caught me on my way in to school and said, “We have ________ visiting today — can she come to your grade 12 English class this morning?” This is an unsatisfactory situation for both the writer and the students. The teacher, whether he or she welcomes the break in teaching or resents the interruption that the visit causes, is not the writer’s ally. The students will have no sense of anticipation, nor much sense of responsibility to learn during the period. The writer will feel a limited sense of purpose, and may even feel unwelcome. Even a writer who is also an experienced and talented teacher may not be able to rescue this situation. In my opinion, writers aren’t paid enough for these visits to go through that kind of stress. For this reason, it’s worth the time and effort it takes to glean some information from the teacher in advance and to clarify the purpose of the visit.

A writer can also ask the teacher to prepare the class for the visit. While one can’t expect teachers to buy a class set of one’s complete works, a writer can request that teachers familiarize the students with his or her work before the visit. Along with making it a condition of the visit that the school library purchases the visiting writer’s book, the writer can ask that students view a YouTube video that features the writer reading his or her work. Or students could look at the writer’s website and read the excerpt of his or her latest book. Or they could be asked to do a little background research on the main subject of the writer’s work. For example, one of Douglas Burnet Smith’s recent collections of poems, Sister Prometheus, focuses on Marie Curie. When I spoke to him before his visit to my creative writing class, he said, “Make sure they all know who Marie Curie is before I come.” Easy. The ten minutes of research piqued curiosity, as students wondered why a poet wanted them to familiarize themselves with the life and work of a scientist. Before James FitzGerald came to my class, he gave me the link to his Toronto Life article that sparked his memoir What Disturbs Our Blood. The students and I read the article together, and then students generated a list of questions for James. This groundwork meant that when James paused after his reading and asked if anyone had a question, hands shot up in the room.

By insisting that students are in some way prepared for the visit, the writer not only avoids awkward silences but sets things up for engaging and productive dialogue with the students.

 

Enjoying the Visit

I’ve observed that the writer’s enjoyment of a classroom visit is usually proportional to his or her perception of the students’ engagement. If the audience seems receptive, writers relax and enjoy themselves; if the students seem bored or miserable, the writer experiences the class period as an endurance test.

I asked my students what advice they had for visiting writers, advice that would help the classes go well. One of them said, “I like it when writers talk to us and not at us,” and there were nods and murmurs of agreement all over the room.

Although they’re a captive audience, teenagers in the classroom don’t have any longer an attention

span than the average audience sipping second-rate wine at a poetry launch. Therefore, the best practices for literary events at bookstores, bars, and festivals pertain to the classroom too. It helps if the writer is enthusiastic and confident. If the visit involves a reading, the writer should choose the passage beforehand and rehearse how he or she will set it up. The introduction should be short and snappy. The reading should be short and snappy. It works best to pick sections of the work that don’t require enormous amounts of explanation or exposition. In my readings for teens, I usually pick a few short passages rather than a long excerpt or full story.

Some writers are skilled at interacting with the class. Seemingly comfortable from the get-go, they ask the students what they’ve been reading, what genres they like to write, what their post-high- school plans are, what writing they think they’ll do as adults. But other writers lack dexterity with this open-ended small talk.

A less outgoing writer may be more comfortable getting students to interact with his or her writing than with himself/herself. A fiction writer can give students the opening line of one of his or her stories and have the students write the rest of the paragraph. A poet can hand out copies of one of his or her poems with the title missing. He or she can instruct students to read the poem in groups, decide on a possible title, and defend it. At the end of the exercise, the poet can defend his or her own choice of title. (A brave poet could hand out a new poem without a title, and tell students that he or she will choose the best one they come up with.) A poet who visited my class several years ago brought in a rough draft and a final copy of a page of his work. He asked students to comment about what they noticed and why they thought he made the changes he did. Soon the class was deep in conversation with the poet about the poem. Another sort of interactive visit involves a short writing activity followed by sharing the writing that was produced. This doesn’t need to be a sophisticated or complex activity; in fact, the activity will probably work better if there is an element of fun to it. Including a writing activity benefits the whole class, as the writer leaves each student with a new idea and a (albeit very rough) draft of a new piece.

It would be the topic of another article to cover the best practices for responding to student work. It dismays me that few writers these days seem willing to read student work at all. To some extent, I understand the reluctance: the writers are inexperienced, and even if their writing shows promise, it lacks polish. I read it because the authors are my students and I come to care about them during the course of the year, not to mention that I get paid to read their work. Nonetheless, I’d like to make one suggestion for all writers who visit a classroom: if the interaction with the class doesn’t involve reading or listening to any student work, perhaps the writer can ask the teacher whether there is a student whose work the writer should see for a few minutes after class. So often in a class there is a student who stands out because of his or her ambition and talent for writing. Maybe it’s idealistic of me to hope that visiting writers will take the time to glance at a student’s work and provide some brief encouragement to the student writer. But which of us writers has not benefitted from another writer taking interest in us and our writing? We all need mentors. When a published author says kind and encouraging words to a student writer, it can be life-changing.

I will end by repeating that visiting classrooms is an act of generosity. Hopefully there is an honorarium, hopefully the writer will gain a few fans who come to the next reading or buy the writer’s next book. Hopefully the experience is enjoyable and even energizing for the writer. One can’t count on these outcomes. What the visiting writers can be sure of is that they are making a significant contribution even more significant if they ensure they and the students are prepared for the visit, and that the visit is interactive and engaging.