>Interview: Young People’s Writing Squads

>Today Books and Adventures features the Young People’s Writing Squads, an exciting scheme run by Academi, the Welsh National Literature Promotion Agency and Society for Authors.

The squads give gifted young writers in both English and Welsh the opportunity to work with professional writers to develop their talents.

“The idea of the Young People’s Writing Squads is inspired by county sports squads, where talented young footballers or rugby players are pooled together to give them the opportunity for specialised training,” says Elena Schmitz, Academi’s Schemes and Data Manager.

“Similar to these sports squads, the Writing Squads are intended for children who show particular ability and promise for creative writing. This does not mean that they have to get good grades in school, be particularly good at English or be able to spell exceptionally well – but they do need to be able to demonstrate an above average ability for being able to write creatively – they need to be good at inventing characters, stories or using language in an unusual way, for instance.

“The Squads are not only for the gifted and talented performers in school, but for those with an unusual talent and passion for creative writing. “

The scheme has been running since 1996. Today, over 40 squads operate across Wales. Squads of around 15-20 schoolchildren meet four to six times a year for special training sessions. Squad members are encouraged to remain a member of a Writing Squad for the length of their school career.

Together, each squad gets the opportunity to experience and develop different styles, genres and techniques with a variety of writers.

“The children usually come together for a half day and work with one or two professional writers on a specific topic,” Elena explains. “This can include short story writing, science fiction, script writing or poetry. Some Squads tackle more unusual themes, such as writing for magazines, graphic novels or journalism. Often, the children are asked to prepare a piece of writing in advance which they can develop and improve during the session.”

Many squads have a ‘usual’ local venue where they meet. This is often a library, arts centre or council-owned venue. Occasionally, Squads meet in a school, although this is the exception. Academi is keen for Squad activities to take place outside schools and outside school hours, to ensure participation is voluntary and not seen as a school activity.

“In some cases, Squad sessions take place in unusual locations,” says Elena. “They can involve trips to a gallery, train journeys (poetry on a train), museum visits or even residential excursions to an island (the Cardiff Squad regularly visits Flat Holm Island in the autumn). The children are then usually asked to react to their environment and write about the art they have seen in a gallery, for instance.”

Examples of work from a trip to Cardiff National Museum by the Bridgend Writing Squad can be found here.

Academi was awarded a Beacon Company Award by the Arts Council of Wales in October 2008. This allowed Academi to develop the Writing Squad movement, establishing new Squads where no provision had previously existed, as well as creating a new website and running a number of conferences, workshops and special events all over Wales. Funding from the award came to an end in March of this year. Elena expresses disappointment that the additional funding will not be continued beyond 2010:

“A lot of the additional Squad activities which took place over the last 18 months will not be possible due to the lack of funding. We have pointed out to the Arts Council of Wales that timing for stopping the extra funding could not be worse: just when additional Squads have been established after a lot of hard work, money runs out to maintain them. And this at a time of the worst recession in decades, when local authorities – who share the costs for running Squad workshops with Academi – are faced with budget cuts on an unprecedented level.

“Nonetheless, Academi is committed to the Squads movement and we will try to do as much as we can to support them. We will continue to invite Squad members to special events, such as the National Eisteddfod or Hay Festival and provide funding for Squad workshops on an ongoing basis from our Writers on Tour funding scheme.”

The Writing Squad scheme remains ambitious for the future, despite these challenges. Plans to establish new Writing Squads in languages other than Welsh and English proved more difficult than first anticipated, so Academi has focussed on increasing provision, events and opportunities for these communities.

“We hope that by providing more events in languages other than Welsh and English and by engaging more closely with the Urdu and Somali communities in particular, we will be able to create more interest in creative writing amongst parents and will in future be able to establish new Writing Squads in Somali and Urdu, for instance,” says Elena.

One example of this community engagement is the joint Urdu-Welsh poetry reading organized by Academi and Swansea University at this year’s National Eisteddfod in Ebbw Vale.

Academi continues to welcome new Squads, particularly in areas where no Squads have yet been established, such as Anglesey or Rhondda Cynon Taf, as well as those areas where only limited provision exists.

“If teachers are interested, we’d recommend they contact the existing Squad Organiser in their area to start with, to see how their school can get involved,” says Elena. Details for the Squad Organisers in each area can be found at www.writingsquads.org/new-squads/, and if no Squad currently exists in your area, local teachers and librarians can contact Academi at http://www.writingsquads.org/contact/ to see how a new Squad can be established.

Our thanks to Elena Schmitz at Academi for speaking to Books and Adventures about this exciting scheme. You can check out the Squads’ site at http://www.writingsquads.org/

Next on Books and Adventures: carnivals, South America….and another visit Down Under!

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