I don’t know about you, but I can hardly remember the last time that I had a conversation with a child I didn’t already know about their thoughts, hopes, and imagination. That all changed last October, when I found myself back at school for the first time in almost 50 years, wearing a yellow cape and feeling faintly ridiculous in front of a class of S1s. There were four other grown-ups alongside me, also wearing brightly coloured capes. We were, our leader told the class, the Super Power Agency.
Right now, across Edinburgh but as yet nowhere else in Scotland, there are 160 Super Power Agency volunteers. We go into 13 schools, four secondaries and nine feeder primaries. The work we do there makes both more sense and more of a difference than anything else I have done in my life.
Basically, we’re writing mentors. We’re there to help children learn how to express themselves when writing stories, essays or reports. In most classes, there are usually at least three of us, but I’ve been in one where there were as many as ten.
The more of us there are, the better. We can engage with more pupils one-on-one. In my first lesson, when the S1s were working on a project called “When Are You Grown Up?” and many of children in the rest of the class had already started writing, I noticed a boy who hadn’t. He was working out the upsides and the downsides of becoming an adult, but he’d only got as far as drawing a line down the middle of the page, dividing the pluses of adulthood from the minuses. He hadn’t yet worked out what either of them were.
I sat down next to him, asked him what he wanted to be in about ten years, and he told me: to be a boxer, run his own gym and train other boxers. So I asked him about that, and how he’d advertise his gym, and how many people he’d employ, how he’d find them and what he’d pay them. At that moment, something clicked between us. He knew that I was taking him seriously, because I was. Our conversation, perhaps to the surprise of both of us, was genuine and engaging. As we talked, he started working out what it really would be like to be an adult boxing gym boss and began writing. At the end of the lesson, his teacher told me she’d never seen him write anything like as much. The next lesson, I helped a girl write the first poem of her life. And it’s not just about helping to flick the switch of the imagination. We’re there for the nuts and bolts of writing too. Working with a class of S5s, I found myself talking to a boy writing an essay about “weight-cutting”. He explained that MMA fighters (he wanted to be one) often had to lose weight to be allowed to fight in their chosen category, and how some did this so drastically that it effectively killed them.
Again, all I’m talking about here is a simple, ordinary conversation between a child and an adult (granted, in this case it’s the adult who needed educating because I’d never even heard of weight-cutting deaths). He told me all about rapid dieting, and I told him, after reading his essay, that I wasn’t going to go away until he was sure about the difference between “it’s” and “its”, as his essay clearly showed that he hadn’t got a clue about apostrophes. Maybe he hadn’t been in class the day the teacher explained it, maybe he just hadn’t listened: either way, it was something I could help him fix in his mind.
You can tell when a child “gets it”, when something they’ve never been sure about suddenly comes into focus. Sometimes their eyes widen a barely perceptible fraction, and right there, in the next sentence they will write, is the proof that they’ve understood. If I gently suggest to an 11-year-old that it’s going to be a bit of a pain for the reader to find every sentence beginning the same way, I can almost guarantee that the next sentence she writes will be different. If I tell the MMA fighter about apostrophes, I’ll see him starting to use them like an accurate left jab. At moments like that, you can understand why anyone would want to be a teacher. You feel useful. You’ve passed on some small but useful bit of knowledge. You’ve made a tiny but real difference in someone else’s life – and quite often, as when you’re working with children from a completely different background to yours, your horizons have been widened too.
There’s something else we can help the pupils with: confidence. Thanks to the Super Power Agency, the 1,200 pupils we’re working with in Edinburgh collectively write their own books, which we edit and publish (one of them, The Leithers’ Guide to Leith is already in its second edition). Just imagine what a boost that must be to the confidence of pupils – many from disadvantaged backgrounds – to see their work in print, and to realise that people actually pay money to read what they write.
How do we measure our effectiveness? Part of it is down to what the pupils themselves say: 73 per cent of the primary school pupils we’ve worked with felt their writing had improved, and there’s a whole battery of statistics in our evaluation reports about soaring confidence levels. And although we can’t claim all the credit, early indications are that literacy rates in schools we work with are also rising, from being below to above the average for comparable schools.
The Super Power Agency is largely inspired by an educational charity, 826 National (www.826national.org), founded by leading American novelist Dave Eggers and already with an impressive track record in nine US cities. His key idea was radically simple: if our overstretched teachers need help inspiring disadvantaged pupils to write better, and more creatively, why not put together a team of volunteer writing mentors who could do just that?
Once our Edinburgh volunteers have the PVG certification necessary to work with children (the charity pays for all applications), they commit to as many or as few school programmes as they wish to follow through an ultra-flexible online system. They’re a gloriously varied and talented bunch, from writers to semi-retired businessmen, twentysomething students to sixtysomething former journalists, all so different that it’s hard to imagine they have anything in common. Maybe, though, they could all agree with the credo Alan Bennett gives his idealistic teacher Hector in his play The History Boys: “Pass the parcel. That’s sometimes all you can do. Take it, feel it, and pass it on. Not for me, not for you, but for someone, somewhere, one day. Pass it on, boys. That’s the game I want you to learn. Pass it on.”
Donations to the Super Power Agency can be made through its page on Virgin Money Giving, by direct bank transfer to its account (CAF Bank Sort Code: 83-91-46 Account: 10401056) or by cheque. For more information and how to volunteer, see superpoweragency.com