Preparing for a Visit or Residency: Sheena Wilkinson

Sheena Wilkinson's tips and advice to writers on preparing for a visit or a residency. 

Remember classrooms are complex spaces with ever-changing dynamics. The class teacher will be there and in theory, yes, it’s up to her to discipline, but in practice it’s your session: own it. If the pupils are meant to be listening, don’t let a murmur or a whisper build; deal with it at the outset and it’s unlikely to develop. Ignore it and it definitely will.

Don’t be precious – schools are busy places. Occasionally your visit will be a big deal for the school, especially a small rural one, but often it’s only one of countless other things happening. Including the not-insignificant one of the school day continuing around you. I’ve heard writers complain about bells ringing. Get over it; it’s a school.

Some pupils will be thrilled and excited to meet you; many won’t. I always make it clear that I don’t expect them to have heard of me or read my books – so it’s a bonus to all of us if they have. I try not to make it too ‘Me, me, me’ – perhaps mainly because I hate this approach when I go to talks myself. Of course I do talk about me to some extent, but it’s always focussed on the process of writing, on what makes a good story, etc. Not, Well here’s the plot of my first book, and now here’s the plot of my second book…

It’s always worth linking it to their own experience of creative writing. Even if you’re not familiar with the syllabus, it’s fair to assume that all pupils will be expected to write creatively at some stage. When I do workshops I always mention my own practice. For example, when it comes to editing I will show them pages from a manuscript which has been much scribbled over. They always appreciate knowing that what you’re asking them to do is exactly what ‘real’ writers do.

Be organised. Kids love knowing what is expected from them and what to expect from you and the session. It may seem paradoxical, but in my experience of both teaching and writing, structure nurtures creativity. But be flexible too – the exercise that worked brilliantly with third class last week just mightn’t work with second year this week. I always prepare more than I need, just in case

Don’t be scared of teenagers. They won’t give you the wide-eyed attention of nine year olds, and many of them would rather tear out their hearts than answer a question in front of their mates, but it doesn’t mean they aren’t listening and it doesn’t mean they don’t care.

Keep a very close eye on time. Schools have timetables. If they have to go on to maths when the bell rings, they have to go to maths, and they’ll be doing something important in maths too, and the maths teacher will be expecting them, and the English teacher will have another class coming.

Enjoy it! And the pupils will too.

Sheena Wilkinson is a writer of fiction for young adults, and has many years’ experience working as a post-primary teacher. Her books include Taking Flight (Little Island, 2010), Grounded (Little Island, 2012) and Too Many Ponies (Little Island, 2013).