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Saturday, May 04, 2019

In Which I Do A School Visit...

This was a hectic week for me, as I was finishing off my A to Z - and attending a school writers’ festival in Melbourne’s western suburbs with Ford Street Publishing. It’s actually the nicer part of the western suburbs, near the beach, but not a private school by any means. In fact, one of the two campuses we visited was a bit old, not unlike my own school, though it did have a nice new hall. The other campus looked brand new. As I looked around, I hoped the rebuilt school on the site where I worked for so many years was going to look like that campus once it was up. They haven’t built much yet - I get photos in emails from my school’s alumni newsletter and the architect drawings did look nice. I think this school was sort of hoping the kids would get ideas to help with their NAPLAN tests in a couple of weeks. 

We were asked to give writers’ workshops to the kids. I had classes from Year7 to 9. I prepared something on the theme of plotting. With only 55 minutes to an hour, there was a limited amount you could do, though some of the more experienced folk, who have done school visits many times, were able to get quite a lot into that time. I didn’t quite know what to expect, so I kept it simple. Simple can work also. And you do have to impress the teachers too, as there will be at least one, possibly two in the room with you, as is required, even if the presenter is a qualified teacher, as I am, and has a Working With Children card AND a police check, as I have. Legalities, and fair enough, too. If you don’t know the kids, you really don’t want to run the risk of being held responsible for anything that might go wrong. 

I found the kids enthusiastic enough once they realised that it was quite okay to come up with silly ideas, in fact the sillier the better. Instead of starting with an exciting first sentence, I began with asking them to write down one thing they enjoyed during the term holidays or the weekend. “Can we lie?” someone asked in one class. “Absolutely!” I agreed, though I added that I didn’t care if their holidays were spent sleeping in and playing video games - the more boring the better, as we were going to come up with something more exciting to follow. For example, if you were sleeping, what happened when you woke up? A world turned orange, perhaps? Mind you, one girl told me about her ride in a shopping trolley, and I admitted that this was going to make an exciting start as it was.

 My only requirement was that nobody made jokes about a classmate or a teacher. One kid sort of did make an in joke about a classmate who liked the Beatles, but I worked that into what turned out to be quite an exciting story in which the classmate discovered that she had a liquid which would bring drawings to life, including a drawing of the Beatles. There was some discussion as to what might happen next, as two Beatles are still alive - who would be the real Paul or Ringo? How would they feel about their copies? So we decided it might be simplest to find a way they would go back to the picture, by being rained on. 

We discussed the things that every story needs to be interesting. One was for something to go wrong, another was to have a villain. We discussed their favourite villains, including Thanos from the Avengers movies, a villain who thought he was a good guy. That gave me the chance to quote that line about everyone being the hero of their own story and nobody waking up in the morning thinking they were evil and proud of it. 

To give the kids some idea of what a story might be like if nothing went wrong and there was no villain, I told them the story of Harry Potter, who found out he was a wizard, went to Hogwarts, made friends and got on the Quidditch team. After a fabulous year at school and a nice teacher called Snape, he goes home, the end. They picked up quickly what was wrong with this story - with nothing going wrong, it was a boring story nobody would read. 

Then we did a story outline on the board, choosing one of the holiday activities the kids had written, and that was when we made up a silly story together(in one case, there was a football team playing when a T Rex turned up and stomped on the umpire, in another the footy team were menaced by a unicorn and  rescued by the girl team member, who took it home for a pet.). I rather liked the one about the hero waking from his holiday snooze to find the house surrounded by ocean, and the suggestions ranged from using furniture to float to the nearest island to walking on the rainbow to the next island and finding gold...

I do hope they enjoyed themselves! The teachers seemed pleased, but that’s not the same, is it?  

The two days included two launches of the new Ford Street Book, Mindcull, by K. H Canobi. Katherine, the K.H of the book, was there for the morning launches and asked people if she could watch their workshops, including mine. She was grinning and scribbling notes. 

I should add that I’ve now got a copy of the book, which is still not in the shops, and am enjoying it. I’ve offered Katherine an interview on this blog when I’ve finished reading it. As Ford Street is a small press, one which had a bad experience with an overseas distributor, the print version probably won’t be available outside Australia, but the Baen website does sell a lot of our ebooks. 

There were some top people at the event: bestseller Sean McMullen, whom I’ve known since before he made his first sale, Emily Gale, Justin D’Ath, Michael Hyde and several others ... they all seemed to be having a good time. The staff were pleasant to us and the school supplied morning tea and lunch. 

This is my first paid gig of this kind. I’ve done others unpaid - a Book Week talk at my volunteer school, a talk AND workshop at a primary school near my own school(with 80 kids sitting in the floor of the library and a tiny whiteboard), a Writer in Residence... all volunteer. I did visit a school in Bendigo with Ford a Street once, but I just sat with a small, group of kids and talked about my writing. Not quite the same. 

I hope it’s only the first of many. 


Stuart Nager said...

Hi Sue. Welcome to the world of the Teaching Artist.

My workshops usually are Improvisation, creating stories (almost like you did, but I love the way you did it), and acting them out. I do some creative writing ones, and Storytelling (orally).

The teachers and the kids don't always align with what we do. Their expectations sometimes get in the way of realizing the kids are doing some things very important: they are engaged; they are getting the chance run wild with creative, and critical, thinking; following directions; listening and communication skills; and the word 'NO' is eliminated, giving them freedom of creating. Well, yeah, you had a couple of rules, but they were important ones.

If you enjoyed it as much as it sounds, check out your area's Arts Council (if there is one), large theater groups, and organizations that are designed to send TAs into schools for short and long term residencies. It's money in the pocket, and if you can engage classrooms like this one, it'll also be extremely fulfilling.

Sue Bursztynski said...

Hi Stuart! Thanks for the suggestions! At this stage, I’m with Ford Street Publishing’d speaker agency, though this event was unconnected with that, and nobody has asked for me so far. Your workshops sound delightful and I’m sure if you were living here quite a few of our local schools would be happy to have you visit.

Yes, as a teacher I am all too aware of what can happen when kids decide it’s funny to be rude about a fellow student or a teacher, maybe not the one in the room, but still. It spoils the fun and doesn’t help in the quality of the session. It may be that these kids wouldn’t have done that, but best to set the few ground rules in advance.

They had a good time anyway.

Brian Joseph said...

It sounds as if these workshops are a very beneficial and positive thing for the children. I do not know that much about education, but it seems that programs like this are a great way to enhance a traditional learning environment. It also sounds like it was a fulfilling event for yourself.

Hilary Melton-Butcher said...

Hi Sue - excellent to read ... and obviously it all worked out, and you learnt through the experience. Good luck with more opportunities like this ... take care - cheers Hilary

AJ Blythe said...

Sue, it sounds like it was a wonderful time. I imagine you would have done it for nothing but being paid is like the icing on the cake.

Sue Bursztynski said...

Brian, thanks! And good that you recognise that this was about enhancing education, not replacing it. I’ve read some very smug posts by authors who thought they were the bee’s knees because those poor kids they visited only had their regular, boring classes when Smug Author was not there. I politely pointed out to one of them that it was all very well for them to take their $$$ payment and go home, but the teachers had to look after those kids daily. I didn’t bother to go back for a response. (In fact, these teachers, who were in the room with me, were very helpful in a fun way, and I enjoyed including them)

Thanks, Hilary! I did learn from the experience and if I ever get another gig I will use it to improve my session.

AJ, in fact I HAVE done it for nothing! Several times. But being recognised as a professional by being paid was a very nice icing! 🙂