Show Me The Awesome: Part 2

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So where were we? Please refer to the previous post for details on the Show Me The Awesome project and the introduction to my own project.

We’ve had the idea, put a poster up and did a lot of waiting around until someone showed some interest. Then we set a date. What’s next?

The Build-Up

When setting up these things, you run at the very high risk of having your own strong ideas of how things are going to run and therefore creating something which doesn’t allow for the wants and needs of those attending. I’ve mentioned before that I’m a bit of a control freak, so I ran at an even higher risk than anyone else. I had to make a big point of telling myself (and everyone else) “this is about the teenagers. It’s what they want.”

This meant there were a few pre-meeting complications. What do I say when people ask for more details? It all got very vague, and I began to worry that no one would show up because they wouldn’t know what they were coming to. I, for one, find it incredibly difficult to just show up for something when I’m not exactly sure what it is about.

Because I was so afraid of nobody showing up, we left the age range open to simply “teenagers”. We had a lot of interest from 12 year olds who wanted to take part and we didn’t want to shoot ourselves in the foot by saying no and then having not enough attendees to continue the group.

So apart from panicking on a daily basis, I prepared by opening my mind to all the different possibilities that could come from actually talking to the attendees. There were a lot of questions that needed to be answered and there was nothing I could do about them until the time. For the read group part, my colleague collected books and also kept an open mind about the format of the meetings. Like me, she had some very definite ideas of what she wanted.

I wonder if you can tell how stressful this part was for me from the way I’m writing?

The Answers to my Questions

Seven people arrived for our first meeting. Which, trust me, was a pretty incredible result. I was exstatic! The age range was 12 to 16. They were also absolutely lovely. The one thing that did not surprise me was that they were all girls. Obviously, this was indicated in who got in touch originally. During the “approaching folk” stage, boys had been much more reluctant to put their names down. I’m not going to analyse why this is – I couldn’t begin to fathom!

I don’t know why I expected them to be the horrible stereotypical teenagers that we hear about so frequently on the news. I had set the group up for people like me, so it is strange that I was so surprised that they actually were like me!

First, we played a game. That one where you go round the group clockwise, and they have to tell a story as a group, but each person is only allowed to say two words at a time. This led to a lot of “and pink…” “and green…” “and yellow…” It was very fun and definitely opened them up and gave them confidence.

Next, the questions:

When would they like to meet?

Saturday afternoon was a good time. Both those who attended school and those who didn’t could make it.

How often?

Fortnightly for the creative writing class, monthly for the reading group.

Would they like to bring pre-written pieces of writing, or write during the meeting (a flash fiction type thing)?

Most voted for writing during the meetings, so we decided to go with that, but to leave it open so that if people wanted to bring something then they could. This was the hardest question for me. In all my experience, I’ve brought something pre-written and we’ve discussed it. To me, it’s difficult to critique something that you haven’t had a chance to think about or edit. But this is for them – it’s about what they want. Deep breath.

Did they want tasks/ challenges or just to free write?

The idea of tasks was popular. I was glad about this because it meant I could give them some direction.

This was followed by a mini-meeting: ten minutes to write something, ten minutes to read what each had written and ten minutes to talk about it. With it being the first meeting and everyone being quite shy, there was not much depth to the discussion. I had predicted that they would be a little reluctant to put forward negative comments to people they barely knew and this put a lot of pressure on me to fill the spaces in the conversation. I’m a babbler anyway, especially when I’m nervous.

I left while my colleague supervised her part of the group. It was the same girls who attended both – no one new, no one left. She had wrangled in a younger member of staff because she felt that she needed someone closer to their age to engage them. She later admitted that this had not been necessary because they were so open to the concept of the meetings that who was running it didn’t matter.

I’m afraid I can’t comment on the process behind running the reading groups beyond that my colleague chose a selection of books and the group chose from that selection. Hopefully one of these days we will have enough staff on a Saturday for me to justify taking the extra hour off counter to attend one of her meetings.

The Follow-Up

We have now been running for nearly just over two months, and the creative writing group have met 5 times. We have had a maximum attendence of eleven, and a minimum attendence of 5. The latter was during school holidays so still rather impressive! We have one volunteer – a University student who directly approached me about helping out with the groups. She is a life-saver sometimes as she has lots of ideas and can usually fill in with a comment if I can’t think of anything to say. Due to demand, we are also starting a second reading group for those who are interested in a younger level of reading.

My role is…

– To devise tasks for each meetings which challenge the attendees writing skills, teach them new things and really get them to think about writing. You can view our previous ones on the website (some went down better than others).

– To develop their critical and discursive skills through example. I find it important to find one good thing and one bad thing about each piece of work so they can learn the language of constructive criticism.

– To maintain and enforce the structure of each meeting.

– To listen to what our attendees want and change things accordingly.

– To advertise and maintain communication about our events within and outside the library, via e-mail, the website and in person.

– To manage my colleagues and my volunteer and use my own enthusiasm as an example to them.

– To keep my superiors abreast of all developments within the groups.

– To (hopefully) find some authors and/or publishers who will come and speak to them.

Some important challenges

– The age range. I think one of the main reasons why a group hadn’t been formulated before is because there can be massive differences between a 12 year old and a 16 year old, even though they are ‘only’ four years apart. Education, maturity, life experience are so variable that it is incredibly difficult to provide a service which caters for them all in a way that will keep them interested. I am still not sure if we have achieved this, but every week we meet is a trial and error – some weeks we get to right, some weeks we get it wrong, but each time we learn how we can do better.

– Overcoming my stress levels in order to provide a coherent and enjoyable service. This still gets me sometimes, but honestly, seeing the smiles on their faces as they leave helps a good deal. I feel like I’m making a difference, even if it’s minimal.

– Developing the website within the confines of library and council policy. I’m the kind of person who just swans along and forgets that I might not actually be able to do things like set up a website with associations to the library and county council. Fortunately, because of the support behind me, we were able to overcome these issues while still allowing me to achieve what I wanted. You might notice that our website has very few markers which like it to either party and even our e-mail address had to be change to disassociate us. But that’s ok! It’s better than not being able to do it at all.

– Getting boys to come. We still haven’t solved this one!

– One of the big things for me personally is finding someone to take over when I leave. Eventually, I will have to move on to other projects or another job. The end game was always for the groups to become independent and run themselves without the need for staff, but this is a goal without a time frame. They could never be ready. Should it be required, I would want someone as enthusiastic as myself to take over, who would push them to achieve and not just sit in a corner supervising them. The chances of finding someone who fits my specifications is extremely low because my wishlist is so high but it is very important to me that whoever takes over my role can fill my shoes. That sounds massively egotistical, but it’s true.

– And finally, one word: parents. When dealing with this age range, parents still have the majority say about what their children can experience. Especially when dealing with home schooled children – a lot of the time they are home schooled for a reason. We have several discussions about how appropriate the books we had chosen were because of religious beliefs, and others who simply felt that their child was not old enough to be reading at that level. This is another reason why we felt there was a need for a second group – to cater to those who were at a lower level of reading.

Some More Things I’ve Learnt

– One’s reading level is not equivalent to ones writing level. Some of our youngest attendees write with an intense maturity of language and tone that I have never been able to achieve myself, and yet they are reading the same books as the rest of their age group. Others who have matured in terms of their reading, are actually much further behind in terms of their writing skills. It is very interesting to watch.

– I can be massively patronising. It’s not intentional and I am working very, very hard to fix it.

– The TeenLibrarian posted a link recently to the YALSA guidelines for Teen Space. Among these guidelines it was suggested that you let the teenagers define the name and content of their space. We succeeded on the latter, but “Oi! You!” had just become what we and our other colleagues referred to the groups before the meetings and it stuck. Apparently, this was found to be patronising. As was the Chris Riddell image which I used on the poster. We had thought it was hilarious in it’s irony as we knew we were seeking the opposite of those stereotypes, but irony isn’t always obvious. There may be a brand change in the future, but we will see how the group progresses. I wish I had done more research into guidelines like these before I undertook the project.

– You can’t assume anything or take anything for granted. From stereotyping teenagers to thinking that their education would be the same as the one I had, I’ve been guilty of both. I am only 23 but the things that I was taught at school are not necessarily still applicable (I have had to teach some basic formatting skills to the group, for instance).

– I have learnt a lot about what I’m capable of. That I can successfully manage a team of people and market an idea in a coherent way. Unsure if the same can be said for this blog!

– And finally, I’ve come to realise that everything is a learning curve. You can’t get everything right straight away, but with the right attitude and flexility you can overcome most issues to achieve your idea just the way you wanted it. I can’t go back and do more research or undo the patronising poster, but I can take these lessons forward into the future.

So that’s my awesome. It’s incomplete, imperfect and I’ve probably missed so much out but I honestly feel that this is an incredible thing I’m doing – even if it’s only reaching a maximum of eleven people. The list of things I’m learning from this project increases everyday. I am so glad to be a part of an organisation that will support my ideas and I am incredibly grateful to my colleagues and group members who make the whole thing possible.

Thank you for listening.

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