How to Run a Great Children’s Writing Camp

For the first time in over two years, I ran a children’s creative writing camp. After such a long gap, the prospect of this camp was quite a challenge. Especially since I had changed the format of the camp. Previously, I had run the camp in five two-hour sessions. But this year, I decided to run a three-day camp, with each session lasting 3.5 hours. Feedback from parents told me that this would be much more convenient for working parents.

The thought of holding children’s attention for that long, and indeed keeping up my own energy levels, was quite daunting. What’s more, the children who enrolled were a mix of ages and abilities. Three of them were boys, and my experience with them was more limited, as it’s usually girls who show more interest in the writing camps I run.

Here are three things I did to help me overcome these challenges.

Prepared Well

I spent a lot of time thinking about ways to hold the children’s attention. As well as my usual writing activities, I thought of word games and picture based activities that would offer a bit of variety and hold their attention. I also had to think about what we would do during the break, rain or shine. In the end, I didn’t need the extra activities. Since the length of time for the camp was more or less the same as in my previous camps, I had enough material with my main writing activities to last for the entire camp. And the children’s concentration never flagged.

Asserted Authority

This is the most challenging aspect of running children’s camps for me. You’re not the children’s teacher or parent, so you can’t discipline them. But you’re also not their friend. Creating a warm, trusting relationship and giving clear instructions for activities wards off a lot of issues. But when issues did arise during this camp, I made it clear what I didn’t like and how I wanted the children to behave, I also took any actions which I felt would be in the best interests of the group. As a result, I felt more in control, and the children didn’t step outside the boundaries.

Set Concrete Tasks

This group of children responded better to activities that had a clear outcome at the end. The more whimsical activities went down less well because they couldn’t see the purpose of them. The boys in particular were more likely to switch on if there was a clear end in sight. As a result, when it came to writing a full-length story on the last day, they were very focused, and you could see their skills starting to come together, they began to see why we had been doing all these activities, and took pride in the end result.

Children's Summer Writing Camp 2017
Children at writing camp hard at work creating stories.

 

Outcome of Camp

Dare I say it, this was my most successful children’s creative writing camp. Much of the credit for this goes to the ten lovely children who came to the camp. They were open, creative, kind and respectful to each other. The children not only wrote their own original stories, but read them in front of an audience of their parents. They may have forgotten about it all by now, but I can only hope a little seed of creativity was planted, which will bear fruit in later life.

If you run a children’s activity, what do you do to make it fun and fulfilling for them? If you’re a parent, what benefits do you hope your children will gain from attending a camp?

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A Tale of Two Creative Writing Students

When you give creative writing classes, you develop a real bond with your students. The process of writing means you automatically go beyond the surface layer that people present to the world, and you have the privilege of glimpsing what lies underneath. Then when the class is over, these people disappear from your life, and it’s a wrench. Apart from missing them personally, I often find myself wondering how their stories ended, in life and in books.

Though I’m not known for my discretion, I try not to talk about the individual students who come to my workshops. What happens in class is often too precious to broadcast. But last week, I heard the stories of two students, so I’ve decided to make an exception and share those stories.

Publishing Success

Every so often, a student will come into your class who has an extra bit of spark, a quirky way of looking at the world which they’re able to put into words. Joannie Browne was such a student. Her writing was incredibly droll. When I asked the class to deliberately write a piece that they thought was crap, she satirised the idea wonderfully and had us all in stitches.

Now Joanie has channelled that humour into poetry and contacted me to tell me she has published a book of humorous verse called Views to Amuse. It’s a self-published book, published by a printer that specialises in self-published authors, and it’s available in bookshops in Cashel and Clonmel, Co. Tipperary. It’s a handsome little production and she is quite rightly delighted with her success.

 

views-to-amuse
Joanie Browne’s creative writing success.

Discovering Creativity

The second story is more bittersweet. I was contacted by the husband of a woman I had taught. I remembered her as a person whose formal exterior hid a wicked sense of humour and a penchant for dark, gothic writing. She hadn’t written in decades when she came to my class, but the text from her husband told me she had written 10 short stories since then. He also told me the reason why I was hearing from him instead of her was because she had died. While I was saddened, I was comforted by the thought that she had reconnected with her creativity, and I hope her husband is too.

Have you ever heard from a former workshop student? Or have you as a student ever contacted your tutor when you’ve had a publishing triumph or tribulation? We do appreciate hearing from you!

Writing Workshop To Awaken the Senses

I’m glad to say that he writing workshop express is still chugging along, but it’ll be going at a gentler pace this week. I’ll be taking older people on a journey through the senses this Wednesday at Ardkeen Library in Waterford City. It’s a two-hour workshop being run as part of Positive Ageing Week. During the workshop, we’ll do activities to tap into the senses, which can open the door to powerful memories. People will discover that these memories can be turned into powerful stories, which act as a record of their lives.

Telling Life Stories

First, we’ll awaken the sense of touch. People will tell the life stories of unusual objects, some beautiful, some quirky. They’ll pick up the object, examine it, and let their minds wander, as they think of how it came into being, and what adventures it had before it came to this library. Participants will then feast their eyes on some beautiful pictures of places around the world and use those to trigger memories of wonderful holidays or days out that they’ve had.

A Feast for the Senses

I’ve written before on this blog that the orange is a demanding fruit. They work all of your senses, so they form a great foundation for writing activities. People will eat an orange and describe the experience, how it looked, felt, tasted, smelt and sounded. Then they will share a food related memory, which could centre on oranges themselves, or on a meal that was memorable for the right or wrong reasons.

Oranges
Oranges tap into all five of your senses – great for writing.

The Power of Sound

Sound can be an overlooked sense, so as we come to the end of the workshop, we’ll tune into the things that make up the soundtrack of our lives. Participants will write down their five favourite sounds, and one that grates on them. I’ll then play a piece of music and people will come up with five words to describe it. They’ll then describe a memory based on a favourite piece of music.

What do you do to awaken your senses in your writing? If you teach creative writing, do you do any exercises with your workshop groups based on the senses?

1916 Writings

A few weeks ago, I wrote about the 1916 project I’m going to be involved with, which will use creative writing and arts and crafts to tell the stories of ordinary women in 1916. In recent weeks, the project has undergone a few challenges. We held information sessions, which we promoted as widely as possible, to encourage women to get involved. The attendance was very low, and I have to confess, all looked lost.

Fortunately, the good people at St Brigid’s Family and Community Centre in Waterford, who I’m working with, found another solution. They were in touch with the local library service and we’re now going to run the project as part of the Bealtaine Festival for older people in Waterford Central Library. Word about that festival gets out to hundreds of people and the events are very popular, so we’re hoping to feel the benefit of that popularity, and of people’s interest in exploring the past.

We’ll be running three workshops during the month of May to gather materials for an exhibit, which will be part of the overall Bealtaine exhibit. Participants in the craft workshops will create 1916-inspired artworks and crafts. Then in the creative writing workshops I’ll be running, we’ll be creating diary entries capturing a day in the life of a woman in Waterford in 1916.

Women and the Rising
Telling the stories of ordinary women during the 1916 Rising

These diary entries aim to give a sense of what it was like to be a woman in 1916 and to capture the spirit of the times. We’ll be doing very exercises to help us compile the diary entries. Here’s a sample of some the exercises we’ll be doing to get into the 1916 mood.

Character Sketch

This is one of my staple exercises, where people look at a picture and use it as the basis to create a character. They fill out a profile of that character under various headings. In this case, the picture will be of a woman who could have been alive in 1916, dressed in the clothes of the period. Clothes at the time often indicated the class a woman came from, so the characters will either be hatted and gloved, or dressed in rags.

100-Word Diary

The participants will get a feel for writing a diary entry by first writing about a day in their own life. Sticking to 100 words will be a challenge for them. But if they find it difficult to cut down to 100 words, it will demonstrate to them that they’ll have no problem writing a 250-word entry for the exhibit. It will also be useful to compare their lives to those of their counterparts 100 years ago.

The Shopping List

We’ll also be doing activities to immerse ourselves in the atmosphere of the time and I’m going to use an exercise I’ve come across before, but haven’t yet used. I will ask people to produce their receipts from their supermarket shop, and then we will compare it to a grocery shop in 1916. They will then write a shopping list that a woman in 1916 might have compiled.

If you like to write historical books, what tricks do you use to immerse yourself in the times?

Writing History: Stories of Waterford Women in 1916

It’s hard to escape the 1916 Rising in Ireland at the moment. It’s being commemorated in all sorts of ways. And I’ve decided to play my own small part, with a project that tells the stories of ordinary women in Waterford City during the Rising. The idea planted itself in my head when I went to a meeting in Waterford City Library announcing a funding programme for projects commemorating 1916. It occurred to me that creative writing can be used to give a fresh perspective on history. It gives you the freedom to imagine what it was like to live in another time, and it fills in the gaps that facts miss.

I felt that in particular, the voices of ordinary working women were absent from history and that the women who fought in the Rising did not necessarily represent the majority of women. I came up with an idea for an exhibit that would use various creative techniques to tell their stories. For various bureaucratic reasons, it made more sense to do the project under the umbrella of a community group.

Women and the Rising
Telling the stories of ordinary women during the 1916 Rising

Pic from Ireland.ie

1916 Creative Exhibit

I knew that there were women’s groups at St Brigid’s Family and Community Centre in the heart of Waterford city. I approached them and they were receptive to the project. We worked together to fill in the application form, to define the project, outline a budget and give a timeline for completion. The project would be an exhibit about Waterford women in 1916, comprising diary entries, crafts, photographs and other artefacts. The participants would be woman of all ages and backgrounds in Waterford City.  

In December, we were delighted to discover that we had received funding from Waterford Council for our exhibit. The diary entries will form the centrepiece of the exhibit, and the other exhibit items will be decided upon by the women. I’m hoping the exhibit will play to their strengths. They may be interested in crafts or art, in which case they might like to create art or craft items inspired by the Rising. Or they may enjoy research, so they may want to collect artefacts from the time, or bring in items that belonged to their ancestors.

Writing Diary Entries

I will be responsible for helping the women create the diary entries, and we will do this through six 90-minute workshops. During the workshops, the women will create characters, ordinary women like themselves, who may have different perspectives on the Rising from the traditional historical one. They were the ones who stayed at home and kept the show going while the men fought, in the Rising itself or in World War One. They may have wished to fight themselves, but not be allowed. The participants may choose to write about their own ancestors and imagine what their lives were like. The women will also time travel to 1916, getting a sense of the atmosphere of the times and what was important to people who lived at that time.

After the participants have done all this, we will have a session devoted to the creation of diary entries. Aside from the chance to look at history in a new way, the participants will experience the sense of achievement that comes from creating their own piece of original writing. And they will learn a new skill, the skill of storytelling. The beauty of this project is that the participants won’t need an extensive knowledge of the 1916 Rising to take part. They just need to be able to imagine what it was like to live through it.

Do you think that using fictional and creative techniques offers a fresh perspective on history? Or do you prefer historical accounts based on solid fact?

School of Writing

I’ve never skydived, but I imagine that in that moment before skydivers launch themselves from the plane, their stomachs give a little lurch, as they stare at the vast nothingness below them. That’s the way I felt when I stood in front of 25 lively children, about to deliver a creative writing workshops.

I’ve been running creative writing camps for children aged 8-12 for the past four years, but this was my first venture into a primary school. In a creative writing camp, you hope that children at least want to be there, that they love literature enough to write during their school holidays. In a school, you’re dealing with a bigger crowd, and some of those children will be about as interested in writing as they would be in pricking their eyeballs with matchsticks. But I had developed a structure and I had to trust that it would be my parachute, bringing me through the workshop without a scratch.

Relationship Building

The first 10 minutes of a children’s writing workshop are crucial. During that time, you need to build a rapport, so that, to be frank, they’ll be more likely to do what you ask. So I donned a silly hat, my most reliable prop. I wore it at ridiculous angles, because if you want to get children on your side, it really helps to look ridiculous.

The children got a chance to try on the hat, and they came up with words to describe it. Mouldy, hideous and wizard were top of the list. I just love the way children don’t hold back. They  then told a chain story about the life and times of the hat, with each child contributing a sentence.

Magical Storytelling Hat
My magical storytelling hat, picture taken by moi.

We also played a game called Animal Names, where each child said their name and the name of an animal whose name had the same first letter as their names, for example, Jake the Jaguar. I used the occasion to display my range of animal noises, which went down pretty well.

Ingredients of Story

After some more games to break down inhibitions, it was time to start putting the story together. Another good way to get children on side is to play to their interests. That way, even if they’re not much into writing, they’ll at least they’ll be interested in what they’re writing about. In a group of boys and girls, as this was, music is a good common denominator. So I structured a story called The Land of Music, about a land where the people are all gifted at music. Disaster strikes when a valuable instrument is stolen, and it must be returned so the people can continue playing their music.

We did three activities to help the children come up with a character, setting and plot for their story. They involved:

  • Creating a character profile of a seemingly geeky superhero, whose job it is to return the instrument
  • Drawing a map of the mythical musical land, the world the superhero lives in.
  • Some uncomfortable questioning of the Mayor of the capital city to establish how such a horror could have happened.

Everyone Can Write

Now the ingredients had been gathered, it was time to write the story. The children did a story spine to complete the story I explained to the children that your spine holds your body together, and this story spine would hold their story together. A story spine is a set of sentences with blanks that you fill in to complete a story. The children used the information from the three earlier activities to fill in the blanks, and all the pieces slotted into place.

In a primary school, the group you work with will have mixed abilities and some children will have low literacy levels, as was the case with this group. The beauty of a story spine is that you only have to write one or two words in each sentence, so everyone gets to come away with a completed story, regardless of their ability or inclination.

The children’s stories were funny, inventive, imaginative and sometimes quite dark. The more literary-oriented ones changed a lot of the details in the story spine and started exploring their own ideas. But the outstanding achievement I witnessed came from the child with low literacy. With the help of the teacher, she came up with ideas and filled in the blanks. Then she read the story to the class. It wasn’t easy for her, but she persevered. Nine months earlier, she had come to the school unable to read. Now she was the author of her own story.

Three Paid Writing Workshop Opportunities

You’ve had some success with your writing. You’ve been published, by a publisher or through your own efforts. You’ve decided you want to help others discover the joy can writing can bring through creative writing classes. You may even have hired a room and advertised your own classes. That’s a great place to start, but how can you expand your portfolio of creative writing workshops.

You can deliver creative writing classes in any organisation.
You can deliver creative writing classes in any organisation.

The best way to build your reputation as a creative writing tutor is to link with bigger organisations. They’ll promote your workshops to their databases of service users or customers, so you’ll have access to more students, and they’ll provide you with a venue and other facilities. You’ll be more likely to receive a fixed payment for your workshops, so you won’t be dependent on the number of people who enrol for remuneration. In general, you’ll be taken more seriously as a creative writing tutor if you can prove your track record working with other organisations.

So where are these elusive opportunities to be found? What’s the best way to approach these organisations and which are right for you?

Libraries

Libraries are very receptive to creative writing workshops, though their budget can be limited, as they’re funded by public money. They run them as part of larger themed events in their libraries, such as festivals that promote literacy or celebrate the positive aspects of ageing. Their staff are extremely proactive and will do everything they can to make sure they have what you need to run a successful workshop – even provide refreshments. They also have a wide pool of members, so getting the numbers for your workshops shouldn’t be a problem, especially since they’re usually free to participants.

Education Providers

If you’ve already started running evening creative writing workshops, the next natural step is to approach an organisation in your area which runs night classes. This may be a private college or a college run by a State organisation charged with delivering education to adults, such as the new Education and Training Boards in Ireland. You will be included in their brochure, but be sure to supplement that with your own promotion, so you won’t be buried in the brochure. Creative writing is a popular subject and may already be offered by that college, but you can find ways around it by offering classes in a particular genre of writing, such as crime fiction.

Festivals

Festivals in your local area are always looking for new ideas to fill their programmes, and some of them have budgets to pay for workshops. Arts festivals are the most natural fit, but you could approach organisers of other festivals whose theme fits with your writing, such as a heritage festival for writers of historical novels. You need to approach festival organisers start planning their events at least six months in advance, so bear that in mind. Also, you may be expected to take sole responsibility for your event: finding your venue, setting your own fees. But you’ll still be under their banner, so it’ll still boost your profile.

These observations are drawn from my own experience of running creative writing workshops for organisations. What have your own experiences been as a creative writing tutor working with organisations?