Experiences as a Patron
A FEW TIPS and ACTIVITIES FOR PATRONS OF READING
CHILDREN’S POET/NON-FICTION WRITER JAMES CARTER
READ or PERFORM to the children - not just in assemblies, but in the playground/library in breaktimes/lunchtimes– just for a few minutes every now and then to show that words belong everywhere. Everyone loves being read to.
BRING IN BOOKS – on one of your PoR days, invite every child (and teacher/TA) in the school to bring in a favourite book – fiction/non-fiction/poetry/even a comic – and volunteers can tell their class three reasons why everyone should read their book!
FAMILY TWILIGHT SESSION – in an after-school twilight session, get children/parents/carers writing together – nothing too high level – something fun, simple and achievable; if Nursery/Reception/Year One children come along too, get them doing illustrations. Or if you prefer, you could hold a masterclass/workshop for teachers/parents/carers.
VARY THE CLASS WORKSHOPS - try fiction, poetry, mini non-fiction booklets, illustrated booklets – all kinds. Teachers also love it when you can offer workshops that relate to their topics. Try an Ancient Egyptians kenning, a River shape poem, a Rainforest cinquain, an animal haiku, a Pirate rap; write sequels to books they are studying, write letters to fictional characters, or try kennings of fictional characters (Harry Potter, Matilda, the Gruffalo..). Everyone loves a kenning. (They make great riddles too, hint hint..)
HOLD FINALES at the end of some of the days – to showcase children’s writing, and invite different year groups to show / read / talk about their writing. Don’t forget Reception – get them to bring in some of their pictures or do something with you – I often do a call and response poem.
HEADTEACHER TIME! – if a child writes something fantastic in one of your workshops, why not send them to the headteacher (or Deputy) to read it to her/him? Even send a pair of them! Children LOVE doing this, and Heads really appreciate seeing great writing, what’s more, it shows we are doing our job properly and that they are getting their money’s worth!
INSET/BOOK CLUB – not all writers/illustrators will want to offer INSETs, but why not hold a twilight children’s book club in which you host a discussion about great contemporary children’s books/classics? Or even give a talk/masterclass about your own writing/illustrating. It might give teachers all kind of ideas, and teachers are always looking out for ideas! Ask the host school if they want to invite other cluster/neighbouring schools along. With INSETs, I generally find it’s the more the merrier. For me, an INSET with a handful of teachers is never quite as fun /rewarding /productive as an INSET with 20+ teachers!
PUBLISH! – encourage schools to do displays of the work generated in your PoR, even put up children’s poems/stories/pieces on the school website.
PLAY ON! School pianos are fast disappearing, as are teacher/musicians in state schools. This greatly saddens me. Most children sing along to CDRs/iTunes/Spotify/YouTube these days. If you are a musician as well as a writer/illustrator, PLEASE bring in your instrument(s), or sing them a song or two. PLEASE. Poet Brian Moses brings in percussion. Poet Paul Cookson brings in his electric ukulele. Some writers bring in all kinds of weird and wonderful instruments. It’s simply yet another way of engaging contemporary children - and in an age-old tradition that harks way back to the bards and the travelling minstrels. Me, I always bring in my guitar – as well as my melodica (a little plastic keyboard called Steve, obvs). I even play my melodica (with medleys of the Thunderbirds theme, The Pink Panther theme, the Muppets theme, Crazy Frog, Lady Gaga, you name it..) in a conga down the corridors, into the classrooms and out into the playground. It’s a hoot. Put simply, CHILDREN LOVE LIVE MUSIC. If literacy and literature are the heart of the curriculum, then music is the very soul and spirit of the school.
MY EXPERIENCES AS A PATRON OF READING
CHILDREN’S POET/NON-FICTION WRITER JAMES CARTER
I’ve been visiting Primary/Prep schools as a children’s poet now for some 17 years. I must have been to more 1100 schools in that time. And do you know what? I still get a real thrill from walking into a brand new school and meeting all those innovative teachers and creative children. I love my job. I’m very lucky.
I originally trained as an Early Years teacher and worked briefly as a lecturer at Reading University in Creative Writing (having done an MA in Children’s Literature). Whilst there I began writing creative writing books for teachers as well as poetry/non-fiction for children - and now I continue to write as I travel all over the country to schools/libraries/festivals to give very lively performances and conduct writing workshops.
In that 17 years I’ve done 30+ residencies all over the South of England. In recent years these have all been registered as Patron of Reading residencies. I tend to call myself a ‘Writer in Residence’ though as a writer is what I am. I love writing and I want every child if possible to love writing too - or at least derive pleasure from the act of writing, of playing with words, with musical language and meaning - and experience how very rewarding it can be.
Put simply - more than anything else, over the period of time that I will work in that PoR school, I want to bring in a buzz for writing as well as reading. I want to send children to the headteacher for writing something so fantastic that I get moisty-eyed. And the headteacher does too. I want the TA / LSA (Totally Awesome/Low-Salaried Angel) to tell me that Ryan, that previously reluctant-writer at the back of the class has written something he’s so proud of he wants to take it home to show his mum. But this is a big ask. I have no formula, let alone a magic wand. So what do I do?
Most PoR residencies are over five days or so, often over to three terms. In that time I will do a whole range of things. I’ll begin with assemblies - performances for separate Key Stages – say KS2 then KS1 then visit Reception and Nursery in their classrooms. I’ll do a whole range of poems from quiet and reflective to a few upbeat daft ones. And though I deliver them in a quirky way (with humour and lots of guitar and melodica music), I try and keep funnies to a minimum. I want children to think, to reflect and to be curious. Funnies are fine in moderation. But not all poets agree with me on that! Interestingly, children do ask me the question, ‘Are you a poet or a musician or a comedian?’
So - I do performances/assemblies/finales in halls and workshops only ever in classrooms – as they are the ideal and optimum environments for creative work. Halls are not! If there are multiple classes in a year group, I will double up and we’ll squeeze in together in a classroom as I brainstorm a poem on the board, and then we’ll split up from there.
After the assemblies, I’ll do poetry writing workshops with all year groups from Year 6 to Year 1. And most likely I’ll begin a PoR with two whole days of poetry-writing workshops. We’ll have Finales that I MC at the end of most days in the hall, in which the children read their poems. I give bucket loads of praise and encouragement. I’ll try and pop back to at least Year 6 and 5 classes for brief ‘surgeries’ – again praising, suggesting tweaks, showing children how to ‘upgrade’ language simply and effectively – how less is very much more, and to really take risks with their writing. I give teachers a CD of my specially-composed instrumental music to play as the children are writing. Teachers tell me that this really helps to settle and focus the children and moreover it immerses them more fully in their creativities.
Poetry works on many levels. It’s not an irrelevant literary ghetto that some may think it is. The more poetry you write, the better your prose writing will be. This is a fact, not a theory. It keeps your writing succinct, punchy, expressive and to the point. So many teachers nowadays tell me their classes L O V E poetry. Reading, writing and performing it. Crucially, boys like it too...
From there, I may do a Performance Poetry day – going round classes bringing poems to life, breaking the class into small groups, bringing in dynamics, actions, all kinds. Or I might propose a space-themed day in which I do read my non-fiction space picture books and get the children to act out the birth of the moon - and then we’ll write space-orientated poems for the rest of the day. I also offer a non-fiction day in which every child in the school (Reception to Year 6) creates a mini information book; I go round the classrooms all day showing how I write/research/plan my non-fiction books; from there, the children choose a topic of their own and spend two weeks working on these. The headteacher of my fabulous PoR school in Aylesbury, Broughton Juniors was so impressed by his school’s fantastic books, he changed homework policy. I sometimes do story-writing workshops too, but I find that most Primary teachers are great at this area anyway, and are very knowledgeable/experienced too – having had heaps of training from the likes of CLPE or Pie Corbett! If requested, I do sessions with More Able KS2 writers too.
One school, Ardingly College, asked me to do a Forest School morning. With my wellies on, I went into the woods with three Year Three classes and their teachers. I did a mini performance of wildlife poems, and then got the children exploring the woods for ideas. In the afternoon, these 7 and 8 year olds wrote some of the finest haikus I’ve ever heard in any KS2 class. They were brilliant – brimful of rich, dynamic language! The teachers were delighted. Me too.
I often do a twilight INSET based on my teachers’ creative writing books (including Let’s Do Poetry In Primary Schools and Just Imagine) – as well as a twilight Family Fun Session, in which children and their parents/carers write together; I love the idea that children may go home and write something say with their mum or dad – and that creativity extends into the home environment. Creativity does not only belong in the classroom. Nothing pleases me more when I return to a school and a child comes and finds me at break time clutching a poem they wrote the night before. Kerching!
A residency traditionally finishes with a Big Finale, showcasing all the children’s work from the residency – and parents come in and watch. If it’s a big school, we have two separate Key Stage Finales.
I’ve only ever turned down one residency. A school recently emailed me out of the blue, told me which days I would be working, and in a detailed timetable told me exactly what story-writing activities I would be doing in each class. I very politely thanked them and declined as informed them that I’m a poet and non-fiction writer, and informed them they were asking the wrong person! I’m an electrician, not a plumber! I’m sure they found a great fiction writer, as there a lot of them out there!
There are no templates for a residency, they are all slightly different, depending on the length of residency, the budget available and the priorities of the school. But in the main though, they tell me they want me to bring in that buzz, and to get the whole school writing. Most schools ask me what kind of things I offer, and then they select what they want from there.
I’ve got four PoRs on the go (all fairly close to home, ie South Oxfordshire) in different stages at the moment. And they’re all very different schools. A small rural primary in West Berks. A Junior school in urban Aylesbury. A Catholic Primary in West Reading. A Prep school in Hertfordshire. State school PoRs tend to be much easier in the main to organise as they can more easily come off timetable and dedicate the occasional day to writing and performing; prep schools less easily so as they have labyrinthine timetables with sports / music lessons etc. And though I’m a bit of a leftie, it’s essential to me I visit independent schools as those children also need to meet writers and do creative thinking/writing with visitors too!
There’s a school in south Newbury – Falklands Primary School – where I’ve been their writer in residence twice. It’s a wonderful school. I have a close bond with the staff, and it’s great as they trust me to come in and do my stuff. The writing that has resulted there has been something else. But crucially, it’s what the teachers do too – taking my germ of an idea in a workshop and taking it beyond that and letting the children’s ideas grow, and to then actively edit/prune/craft from there. I even wrote a poem for their school library (it’s in my collection The World’s Greatest Space Cadet – Bloomsbury) as that is at the heart of the school. Physically and spiritually. So reading is very high on their agenda. As it should be, obvs!
If any authors (or indeed teachers/librarians/schools) want to get in touch to discuss their PoR experiences, or respond to anything I’ve discussed in this piece, I’d love to hear from them. I do what I do now as I received encouragement and warm support from both Brian Moses and Jacqueline Wilson (not to mention a great many committed and highly creative teachers and librarians) – it’s important we encourage new writers/school work-shoppers into the profession.