Preparing for a Visit or a Residency: Siobhan Parkinson

Siobhan Parkinson shares hints and tips on preparing for a visit or a residency. 

First off, it's useful to have a think about what you hope to achieve during the residency and how. You may have to adapt your ideas and maybe you will be happy to go with the flow, but it is worth thinking about your own priorities, as you may need to defend them.

It's well worth the time and effort to go and meet the teacher or librarian who has invited you into the school in advance, in the school and preferably in the venue where you will be working.

The teacher is on home territory and may take it for granted that you know things you don't actually know. For example, are you going to be working with a class (which may be quite large and may include kids who are not interested -- are you happy with that?) or a group of children drawn from different classes who have elected to be in the group (quite different). Where are you going to be working? Who is going to be with you? (If this is someone other than the person you are talking to now, you are at the wrong meeting.)

The teacher's focus at this meeting may be very different from yours: they may be fretting about how this will fit in with timetables and other people using the library and so on. It's important that these things are settled, because you don't want disruption (presumably) once you start, but don't let logistical details take over the meeting. 

Make sure you get a sense of what the teacher's expectations are, and make sure you get across what your expectations are. If there is a conflict of expectations, now is the time to get that sorted out. For example, is the teacher fixated on producing a book of some sort or having an event at the end to celebrate the work? (They usually are, and this may not be problematic at all, as long as it is not allowed to dominate the process.) Or is the teacher expecting way too much? Or the opposite -- are they constantly apologising about the kids or the facilities or something? If so, their focus is on impressing you instead of on making this the best experience for everyone. There may not be much you can do about that, but you need to be aware of it.

There may be all kinds of hidden agendas regarding ownership of the project that are not really anything to do with you, but it's best to be aware if the principal has some secret plan for world domination involving your work (eg using it as an example of what a great school it is, which may be quite innocent -- or may not).

It's very important to establish from the outset what your expectations are with regard to the teacher's role in the project. The most basic thing is that they have to be in the room with you at all times. But do you want them to keep a low profile and just be there for you if there is a problem? Or would you prefer if they participate actively? If so, in what way? Are they to be a kind of assistant to you? Or are they going to actually write themselves? They may not have thought about these things, so do raise these questions. Interesting results could ensue. 

Make sure you ask if there are any children with special needs. Teachers often forget to tell you that because they are used to it and forget that you haven't a clue about the kids. 

Also be sure to ask if there is any child in the group who is particularly sensitive about any topic. Especially at second level you can't avoid all mention of the kinds of issues kids may have in their own lives, but it is good to be aware at least if some child is likely to dissolve in tears (or worse) if you mention, say, suicide or prison or divorce.  

Finally, try to pin the teacher down now about the dates and times and get them put into a diary. If not, you may find you're squeezed into awkward time slots later in the project to suit the schools' priorities. And be clear about the number of hours you are expected to give. If you are being paid for eight hours, for example, you should not end up doing twelve. You may have to throw in the pre-residency meeting or the post-residency celebration as an extra, but you should not find yourself doing a lot of extra hours because the residency was too short in the first place. 

Siobhan Parkinson is former Laureate na nÓg, has written dozens of books for children and teenagers and she has undertaken many Writers-in-Schools residencies over the years. Her particular interest is working with young people on collaborative writing.