Wordplay Press: Our words are bees:

Our thoughts are bees:
Writers Working with Schools

Paperback, £10

"The honest, comprehensive resource we have all been waiting for."

Sophie Moxon, Live Literature Scotland.

"Packed with the information - and imagination - that teachers need to do amazing work with writers in schools."

Chris Meade, Booktrust.

"This book is exactly what it should be: useful, practical and detailed but also inspiring, enlightening and far reaching. Writers as well as teachers will find it invaluable. I recommend it whole-heartedly."

Andrew Motion, Poet Laureate

Writers-in-schools projects take place every week across Britain. The authors, Mandy Coe and Jean Sprackland, had both worked extensively as writers in education, and when they were first approached to deliver training and consultancy on the subject they searched for a book that covered the issues they encountered. Eventually they realised they would have to write it themselves!

Whether you are thinking of getting involved for the first time, or already running a range of activities, you will find detailed information on making all your projects successful. All the important issues are covered, including:

The book is based not only on the authors' own experience, but also on research and consultation among some of the most respected professionals in this field. Hundreds of questionnaires were distributed to co-ordinators, teachers, writers and pupils, and many of their responses appear in the book.

Our thoughts are bees: was supported by Arts Council England and four partner organisations: the National Association of Writers in Education (NAWE), The Poetry Society, the National Association for Literature Development (NALD) and Writing Together.

Below you can read the full contents or read reviews from the writer's view, the teacher's view or the project co-ordinator's view.

Our thoughts are bees:

From Writing in Education issue no 37

1: the writer's view

I found the 'Before a visit' section very useful. Reading about teachers' concerns when selecting writers put me in a better position to 'sell' myself as a writer.

This book has good credentials: it's by established poets experienced in working with schools, and it derives from a year's research funded by Arts Council England and supported by NAWE, NALD, The Poetry Society and Writing Together. As expected, it's clearly written, readable and informative, organising author's visits… even down to offering them cups of tea. One of the book's charms is its focus both on technical issues such as writers' fees and timetabling as well as plain old good manners such as how to escort writers out of the building so they don't get lost by the bins.

Aimed at writers or teacher planning visits for the first time as well as co-ordinators familiar with organising writers' activities with schools, the book focuses on what to do before, during and after a project. I've reviewed this book from a writer's point of view, evaluating how useful it might be, especially for writers panning visits to schools for the first time. From this perspective, the book seems confusing in its switch of focus from writers to teachers and back again. But this is actually as strong point as it clarifies that there are at least two perspectives – writer's and teachers' – helping you to see where these views converge and diverge in organising a visit.

I found the 'Before a visit' section very useful. Reading about teachers' concerns when selecting writers, put me in a better position to 'sell' myself as a writer. I also like the emphasis that everything should be discussed as a 'conference between equal partners'. 'Negotiating the Basics' covers questions to be discussed in planning a visit: what is the day about? Will there be workshops or performance? Is it part of a book week or is there a specific curriculum focus? What about fees? The authors list the going rates as £250 - £300 as day. They explain that this amount is much less when you figure in that writers must set aside "8% of their earnings (over the personal allowance) to pay their tax and National Insurance as self-employed people must provide for their own pension.

This section has excellent points concerning planning – first of all to recognise and allow for plenty of planning time – and also to involve all parties, especially the writer, in the planning process. The authors give sound timescale advice: at least one and preferably two terms for a day visit with longer projects planned for a year in advance if possible. There is also good advice on making funding applications, including developing a consortium of local schools to improve your chances – again, though aimed at teachers, it was useful for me as a writer to see their concerns. To this end I found the discussion of national initiatives for boosting creativity in schools interesting as it helps writers place their own skills within this wider area of national concerns aimed at schools, e.g. Artsmark, Creative partnerships, Excellence in the Cities Schemes, English 21 and writing across the curriculum. This information is also beneficial in formulating a common language between writers and teachers.

The Book's second section 'During a Visit' begins with statements from three writers that give glimpses into their working methods. Logistics are set out for workshops, including what happens and why as well as discussions of variables to allow for different age groups and group sizes. While this seems obvious to writers used to working in education, I found it refreshing to see from the teachers' perspectives, especially insofar as it sets out how little might be known about workshops. For example Coe and Sprackland remind us that 'for some teachers this word conjures up images of sawdust and nails.'

There is strong advice about redrafting. The authors suggest that initial exercises should be developed including an argument on why it is beneficial taking account of students' views of redrafting as unwelcome work: Coe and Sprackland argue how writers bring a more positive view, helping students to appreciate that revision in a continuation of the creative process. They even give a handy list of points to explore that writers can definitely incorporate into their patter for redrafting. Similarly useful is the discussion in the group and individual work, with Coe and Sprackland arguing that both methods should be used in each workshop.

They also remind writers not to assume the role of educator, so their identities as writers become almost incidental. This is an important point that often gets neglected in discussions of writers working in educational context. Rather, Coe and Sprackland give extensive advice on how writers should keep their passion for writing up front, through, for example, a question and answer session. The list of questions students have asked in the past in interesting preparation for questions writers might answer in their first school s visits, e.g. How long does it take tot write a novel? A poem? Why is reading integral to the process of writing? What is your workspace like? How many times do you redraft and when do you know a piece is finished?

The authors give especially helpful advice on negotiating classroom roles, setting out for example how writers are not supply teachers and that the law requires that a teacher is present at all times. They discuss the three possible roles a teacher an play during a workshop – observer, assistant, and participant – and they convincingly argue why it's best to develop a participant's role for the teachers. Coe and Sprackland's arguments are useful for writers to adapt in making their own cases. There is also advice on good practice, child protection, disclosure, insurance, and checklists that summarise point, e.g. Looking After Your Writer, Equal Opportunities, Special Needs (the way these are set off from the main text makes these easier to find in rereading!) The authors bring up everything you should know if you plan work as a writer in school.

The last section focuses on the end of a visit, including ways of celebrating a successful project through performances readings, displays and publications. There's also a discussion entitles, 'Writers: keeping the balance,' which explores ways of managing financial and other practical implications, such as how does teaching in schools affect your own writing? Most useful here is the focus on time, reminding writers once more that they won't earn £250 - £300 a day:

One day's work in a school equals at least two days when you factor in the planning and preparation, and the time spent developing your infrastructure (reading, research, creating new workshop exercises, taking part in training and professional development). And that's before you even start to consider the time you need for your own writing.

Unlike accountants and solicitors, most writers can't charge for these additions though it's accepted practice to claim reimbursements for travel and accommodation.

Coe and Sprackland wisely advise that writers need to keep writing as priority, and they discuss training and professional development opportunities, including a central resource: www.literaturetraining.com The book's main strengths are 1) it is a short and accessible introduction for writers working (or wanting to work) in schools, addressing issues from the perspectives of writers, teachers and co-ordinator and 2) there is ample reference to further more specialised resources throughout the book as well as a comprehensive bibliography, list of partners, useful organisations, and websites at the end. Written by poets, the book's examples are mainly to do with poetry, but other types of writers (such as me, a novelist) can easily adapt this advice to their own area of speciality.

Heather Beck, writer

2: the organiser's view

Mandy Coe and Jean Sprackland have written a fine book, with inspiration for writers as well as teachers and children. There is also a horde of contact details at the end. No school should be without a copy.

Our thoughts are bees: Writers Working with Schools. Look at the punctuation. The lower case main title is a quote from a child's poem, the capital lettered words in the sub-title are what the book's about. Nice! Makes you want to read it. This is a practical 'how-to' book written by poets in plain language, with a treasury of anecdotes from other writers – an excellent manual for the national creative partnerships project. Chunked into a triptych of sections – Before, During and After – it offers guidance for everyone involved at every stage of the process of getting writers into schools: teachers, writers and fundraisers.

I was asked to review this from an event producer's perspective – as of course a writer collaborating with children in a schools is an 'event'. Logistically, if any of the book's steps aren't followed – from how to find your writer, timetabling the day, to booking a parking place in the school car park – it can easily go quince-shaped. Sometimes the authors do state the obvious, but it's the obvious like 'do the lovely welcoming handshake, don't ruin a good beginning in a 'fluster of bags, coats and mumbling' that can be overlooked and spoil the occasion. And (so important this), make sure you've read your writer's work'. It is an assumption that writers will be invited in through a teacher's personal as well as professional enthusiasm, but one writer anecdotes: 'the worst this is when you're walking down a corridor and your host teachers asks 'what's your name?' – a deflating start for someone due to perform. This is not a particularly PC book but 'please', they urge, 'don't stereotype the writer'. Don't assume that black writers will do rap, for example.

The 'how to' clarity subverts much of the dull and ridiculous chore of bureaucracy that teachers must endure in education today. They deal well with the words that send a slug of boredom to the heart – evaluation. Good section this. Slips down nicely, it'll help with those funding applications, and they make it sound fun and logical.

Our thoughts are bees: reminds us that the richest resource is the pupil's imagination, where the unconscious is tapped through automatic writing or 'inkworking'. How to dot his varies, but you're working with time limits in necessarily artificial situations. Ted Hughes (Poetry in the Making) is quoted: 'these artificial limits creates a crisis, which rouses the brain's resources; the compulsion towards haste overthrows the ordinary precautions, flings everything into top gear, and many things that are usually hidden find themselves rushed into he open…" (p 36)

This delicious bit of psychology fits adults too. Deadlines come to mind.

A vital part of the book is the chapter on inclusion, with a passionate 'annexe' on 'Exclusion' offered by Andy Croft. (Close to my heart, this, as I'm working on a writing project with kids excluded from school.) The margins are interesting places! Michael Rosen believes that children's talk should be reflected in their writing and Andy Croft reminds us that 'most are fluent speakers of at least one register, which they can employ with subtlety and vivid power' and that children writing poetry have 'squatter's rights over language'. Squatter's rights! Fantastic.

The etymology of inspiration is to 'breathe in'. For most writers, it's not just about getting the words down but 'being' – receptive to detail, looking into things, feeling and finding words for feeling. And so for children…. Our thoughts are bees: is about how to elicit this; that it takes courage to feel you are right when there's no wrong answer.

Mandy Coe and Jean Sprackland have written a fine book, with inspiration for writers as well as teachers and children. There is also a horde of contact details at the end. No school should be without a copy.

Jan Woolf, co-ordinator

3: the teacher's view

What was particularly impressive about the text was the voice. The authors skilfully manage to address both teachers and writers without diminishing the role of either.

As a teacher of English who has had some experience of inviting writers into schools, with, I must admit, mixed success, I was more than interested to read this book. As the well chosen contributions from teacher and writers alike included in this volume attest, the very nature of the writer-teacher relationship can be problematic. What this book sets out to do is to show how the process of bringing a writer into schools can be made what at its best it should be: an inspiring, creative and importantly, professional, experience for al concerned.

For any teacher of English who believes in creativity in the classroom the forward by Michael Morpurgo is an instant hook, but yet more so is the poem by a year 5 pupil from which the title of the text is taken. This, combines with a liberal sprinkling of illuminating real life experiences from teachers and writers throughout, makes this a very enjoyable and accessible read. The book is also beautifully presented, possible a testament to the authors'' belief in the importance of the end product.

What was particularly impressive about the text was the voice. The authors skilfully manage to address both teachers and writers without diminishing the role of either. No mean feat considering the potential conflicts of interest so sympathetically portrayed here.

Another great strength of the book is the amount of detail included regarding the demands on the teacher working in an institution bound by curriculum constraints. It is rare to read any publication that puts this so clearly. Although some of the anecdotes regarding teacher behaviour (not having read the writer's work, not knowing the writer's name, clearing out the stock cupboard during a workshop) would seem to put us to shame, they are contextualised with such a practical level of understanding as to leave this teacher with a wry smile of recognition.

Our thoughts are bees: is also a very powerful reference book for all involved in Writing in Education. A clear and comprehensive glossary and an extremely useful list of contact organisation complement the main body of the text well. The book is also very easy to negotiate, sensibly taking the reader through the whole process of inviting a writer into school from planning to evaluation.

What is most encouraging from a teacher's point of view is the explicit acknowledgement of the creativity of teaching. This, coupled with the sheer sense of delight in the pupils' potential experience of a real writer, is what makes this text an invaluable resource. It is not only an immensely practical text, but ultimately celebrates the two professions of writer and teacher as just that, professions. A welcome acknowledgement of the professionals working for the same purpose: the creation of moments that can be life enhancing, life-changing even – "can help a child become a reader for life, and maybe a writer too." (Michael Morpurgo)

Jane Bluett, teacher