Starting a Reading and Writing Group in a Sixth form College
Why do it in the first place?
- · Part of a well-planned literacy strategy based on research and well known educational values?
- · Response to requests from students for such a club in keeping with the college’s policy on promoting extra curricular societies?
- · Just for fun?
I do ask myself the same question.
The notion of a well-planned literacy strategy is a slight exaggeration. I have plans, but putting them into practice has not always turned out as I might have wished. I must declare my self-interest. It isn't worth getting into something which is not mandatory unless you are going to enjoy it. I am super lucky; propagating my obsession is actually part of my job. It is why I am a librarian. Running a book group actually gives me the right to talk about the amazing books I get in for others to enjoy. Once I made it clear that I could get books in on request, some students became my best friends. I helped them by providing the next big YA thing or manga, or whatever, and they helped me to build up an exciting and varied collection of relevant fiction to appeal to a wide range of young people.
There was another stream, the writers. The original idea for a creative writing group came about for a few reasons. I was once approached by a shy student who told me she had finished writing a book and didn't know what to do with it. At the time I pointed her in the direction of the writers and artists handbook of which we had a very out of date copy, but felt my response had been inadequate. I know from experience how difficult it must have been for her to ask me, as if writing a book is confessing to a crime. Then I asked students in a library user’s survey, to suggest activities that they would like to see in the library. The responses included a number of requests for both a reading and a creative writing group. I also discovered a battered copy of a home produced anthology produced by a creative writing group a few years previously, it had been done before..
It was clear to me that students with a desire to pursue creative writing would benefit from having a space where they could come and share their passion without fear of ridicule and discouragement. I was unsure as to how it would work out and whether we would have one group for readers and one for writers and even if we would have enough interest to sustain either or both.
I launched the idea with trepidation and not much hope, as my attempt to set up something the year before had completely flopped. I advertised a lunchtime meeting in the cupboard-come meeting room tucked away behind the issue desk and settled myself in to wait for someone, or no one to turn up.
To my amazement, they did. We had to move the meeting into the main library and I took 18 names at the initial meeting, with several others sending apologies but expressing interest. I had 23 students interested in either a book group, or creative writing group or both. I was amazed and scared. How would I choose what we did? I didn't want it to turn into an extra lesson; I had envisioned a small lunchtime club with its content and direction dictated by its members.
I managed to get the use of a classroom close to the LRC which had a screen and computer if I wanted to show any youtube clips or film trailers. We started as a joint reading and writing group but after a while it was obvious that the groups had very distinct aims and we split into two, the writing group meeting every Friday and the reading group meeting on alternate Tuesdays (to give a chance to finish the chosen books)
The first issue was book selection. It was important that this come from the students. I had some vague ideas about shadowing major literary prizes such as Man Booker, or even the Carnegie, but in the end I left it open to the group. I asked them to write down the books that they would like to see in the book group, either books they had read which they would happily recommend to others or books they would like to read. I went through the list and identified the books mentioned more than once. The first list was as follows:
· The Hobbit -Tolkien
· The Book Thief - Marcus Zukas
· The Fault in Our Stars - John Green
· Dancing Jax - Robin Jarvis
· Divergent - Veronica Roth
We met every two weeks, the numbers did decline but that was expected. I had made it clear from the outset that I did not want the program to become a burden and they were welcome to dip in and out as their coursework allowed. It has settled to a comfortable, variable half dozen and we are now embarking on the second selection again selected by the group members:
- · The Secret Life of Bees – Sue Monk Kidd
- · Long Lankin – Lindsey Barraclough
- · Never Let Me Go - Kazuo Ishiguro
- · The Woman in Black- Susan Hill
- · Stardust – Neil Gaiman
- · The Perks of Being a Wallflower - Stephen Chbosky
I am in the process of setting up a forum on Moodle to allow the group members another way of discussing the books. I am asking them to give each book a rating (1-5). Where 1 is rubbish and 5 is brilliant so that at the end of the year we can announce the college book club winner.
I am delighted with the success of this small group but with some reservations.
I have provided a friendly, non-threatening lunchtime club for committed bibliophiles, but am very much aware that this could be seen as a relatively exclusive, even privileged group.
It does not constitute a literacy policy. I am not reaching reluctant readers. I am aware of this and am aiming to expand to develop a more positive outreach, using schemes such as the six book challenge. I already have contact with a couple of manga fans who are helping me develop a small collection. Quite apart from my book club members, my policy of getting books in on demand has led to me buying in a lot of popular dark romances, and middle range fantasies aimed at boys such as the Young Samurai series by Chris Bradford and the One Piece Manga series by Eiichiro Oda. This has certainly won me some friends even if the choices may not seem too intellectually demanding. My policy is always primarily to encourage reading for pleasure.
The Creative Writing Group
This was the most challenging project from my point of view and I have relied heavily on suggestions from the students themselves. Two of the group had already been members of a creative writing group at their previous school. Some of them have also tried nanowrimo and one is a member of a creative writing group at a local public library which has provided useful contacts. It has been a steep learning curve. All I had to guide me has been my enthusiasm, writing workshops from the UEA creative writing course and materials from the web. We meet weekly, up to half a dozen members with some overlap with the book group.
We do short workshops and each week there is an opportunity for a member to share something, but this is not compulsory and my aim is to help the members build their confidence to the point they feel able to do so. I see it as a kind of writer’s self-help group.
I did start with the hope that we might produce an anthology, but currently I am happy if the participants are enjoying the group, having the opportunity to discuss different approaches to creative writing and experimenting with the workshop activities. Each member is encouraged to bring a notebook and regard the workshop activities as a way of building up a reference of starting points which they could build on at home if they felt they wanted to.
Again, we have a small friendly lunchtime club. Whether it is benefiting their future literary aspirations I have no idea. I hope it is at least helping them to build their confidence in their art.
Both groups are experimental. I am hoping to build on them to create a more student centered community in the LRC. Two members are now doing a small amount of work experience in the library and we are planning on some events for book week in March.
Hopefully I will be able to report on more reading and writing activities over the next few months. Please comment, or post suggestions.