December 13, 2006

Don't You Know Who I Am?

Don’t you know who I am? - 07 Dec 2006

Article from Sec Ed Magazine, Thursday 6 Dec 2006.

(Posted on my staffroom wall all week but I don't think anyone's noticed! Case proven, I think.)

Fifty is a dangerous age. Just as dangerous is 25 years’ teaching experience. Last November, with both measures clicking creakily and noisily into place, I decided to meet the challenge head on. I’d suffered for my art. Now it was the nation’s turn.

I planned a book, and a national tour promoting it. The book is called Exile In His Own Country and includes a prominent school section called Marked for Life. The tour would take in theatres, arts festivals and schools and in the latter include poetry workshops for pupils and staff. The final tour date – a home fixture just outside the old Smithdon Hundred close to my school catchment area – brought the project to a close last month. It has been a life-affirming, and life-changing year.

It has also had its funny moments. Writers in schools often complain that their presence and purpose has not been made clear (to pupils – or even staff) in advance of their visit. Never mind a cogent introduction, staff sometimes don’t even know who you are – or what you’re doing in their assembly, or even their classroom. They’re grateful, but puzzled.

You have to explain your function to them there and then, with the pupils listening in. After decades of working in schools myself, none of this surprises or fazes me. The person who has set up the visit is sometimes away that day or double-booked starting an exam somewhere or in a vital, or at least compulsory, briefing, or managing a pupil no-one else can deal with, or maybe even talking to the press about your visit.

They have forms to register (or fill in) and no-one to cover them. It’s no-one’s fault. Schools have remorseless routines with staff rushing from pillar to pigeonhole all day long – bells driving at them as if they were Pavlov’s dogs – and any variation in the day requires a major effort to facilitate or even to remember.

Staff are also very protective of their classes. They know what these pupils have to learn by the end of term, what exams they’re taking, what coursework hasn’t yet been done. They know their names and their needs – special and ordinary.

However, once you’re in the room and working with pupils, a kind of liberation comes over the teacher concerned and they tend to be the greatest assistants on God’s earth, grasping what the writer is trying to do immediately and doing everything in their power to help make it happen. They are sometimes like translators – “It’s like the refrains in the war poetry we’ve been doing Craig” – and they are invariably your right hand man or woman with anything you need to make the most of your time with the pupils.

Even the function of the teacher in the room with you as simply a supportive presence is a vital part of the writer-in-school experience. Schools pay good money to get the writer in and the role of the teacher is never mentioned or prepared, but it can double the value and make the time go an awful long way.

The writer meanwhile is usually trying to adapt the hours of creative tuition he has planned to the clock-oppressed slot he has been allotted with each group. The teacher who’s booked you wants the best for all his or her pupils, naturally, and so sometimes sets up well meaning but unworkable arrangements.

One school hilariously asked me to perform my complete 90-minute show non-stop to each entire year group in succession all day. When I do the show in the professional theatre, I get an interval at half time, an adult, theatre-literate audience, all sorts of technical protection, lights, music etc, and it still almost kills me. And that’s just doing it once.

In the desert heat of last summer, in different schools, I performed the show to year 9s. My own idea and not a good one. I have learned my lesson (it wasn’t funny at the time when my use of a mild swear word at the end of a poem about my Uncle Dai was greeted with the heckle “language!” from a mock-indignant year 9 boy, though I treasure the experience now).

Apart from the physical impossibility, such non-stop “performance” is not a good use of time. Teachers themselves can often help you improve what you are offering for their pupils with feedback, though of course this usually comes afterwards – hence the value of a return visit.

A writer works best with smaller groups over an extended time, with the emphasis gradually moving from his own models to the pupil’s responses. The ideal would be one – or at most two – groups worked with intensively all day, from warm ups to a finished piece of writing. It’s an ideal and, as a teacher myself, the realities of budgets and of the greatest benefit to the greatest number obviously come in to play, but it’s worth bearing in mind. The experience can and should be priceless. Don’t spread the writer too thin. The experience has much more value in the long run if it’s focused towards more time with less people than the reverse.

It’s also unsatisfactory if the writing has to be left as a follow up for homework. The writing requires the professional’s response at that stage as much as – if not more – than any other, and there’s always the chance that, with curricula being as crammed and hectic as they are, the follow up won’t get done. Some work is so good, too, the writer might be able to recommend possible publication outlets or competitions.

I came home on National Poetry Day in October – a wet miserable Thursday – after a day’s workshop in a seaside town school in Norfolk and felt exhausted and elated at the same time.

This was not because my photo and news of my tour were on the front page of this publication (though that was nice), but because I had got some year 11 boys drumming the desks and chanting call-and-response football poetry, then writing their own war chants with absorbed and conscientious grasp of structure, rhythm and all the devices. It was real work. And, at 50, you don’t want to be doing anything less.

Gareth Calway is head of English at Smithdon High School in Norfolk. Exile In His Own Country is available via or To talk to Gareth about poetry workshops on football, schooldays or other themes, call 01485 571828.

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