C’mon everybody – get writing!

Vanessa Rogers is the author of Working with Young Women, Working with Young Men, Let’s Talk Relationships, 101 Things to Do on the Street amongst others. In this article she gives her writing tips for aspiring authors. And, if you’re feeling inspired feel free to send in your proposals to post@jkp.com

They say that there is a book in all of us, and judging from the number of emails and Tweets I get from people in the youth work and social education field inspired to write their own, it would certainly seem to be true. So this is a collective response to those of you who have asked me for ideas of how to start writing, and to share my personal experiences of writing a book. I hope it is useful – but please remember this is only my way, which I made up as I stumbled along the way.

When I start a new resource book it is because the subject holds a compelling fascination for me. For example, Working with Young Women (Jessica Kingsley Publishers ISBN 9781849050951) came out of lots of girls’ groups that I was facilitating at the time. The young women came to the group because they had been identified as at risk of offending and aggressive behaviour, but the more I got to know them the more I thought that a lot of their behaviour was actually a response to the bad relationships they had with their peers, parents and boy/girlfriends. It seemed to me that their anger and aggression was a coping mechanism that until now had worked for them. So, this made me question how young women can build a sense of self, gain confidence and assertiveness, look at the role models they have and their aspirations for life – in a way that is interesting, non-judgemental and fun. After all, through the group work I was basically asking them to change their existing coping behaviour, (which whilst not necessarily socially acceptable to all, gave them the kudos and ‘respect’ they sought), to take a chance of being vulnerable and exploring things that hurt to find a better way with me. But it seemed that this was the foundation for everything else – e.g. if you value yourself and your body you are more likely to respect it and look after it.

So from here, as for every other book I have written, I devised a series of questions that I wanted to answer. These help me keep focused and distill the essence of what I am trying to do.

After that, I spend about 3 months researching the topic. I do this by reading around the subject and trawling the Internet for ethical and correct data and statistics, but also by speaking with other practitioners and as many young people, or in the example above as many young women, as I can, to ask my questions and test out some of my theories. By now I usually have at least one box file filled with clippings and stuff, as well as my trusty notebook (I always have at least one hardback notebook on the go) filled with points to remember and ideas for games, quizzes or activities.

One thing; all of my session plans have to be tried out with young people before I will include them. For me, this part is one of the rules of my work to keep it ethical and grounded – it has to have been tried and tested and I have to know that young people will learn from it and more importantly enjoy doing so.

As I write constantly this means that I often have ideas stashed on my computer that are developed later when the opportunity presents itself. I try my best to include lots of learning styles in the activities and this might mean that I write the same learning outcomes three times, with three different ideas for delivering them. So, as I try them out with young people I use the one that goes best and dump the rest. I also ask young people to give me feedback as the book comes together, which I value as they don’t hold back if they think it won’t work!

Once this is done, I stick my main points on bits of paper around my desk and tell everyone that I am going to be ‘writing’. To my family this means that I am likely to be distracted, a bit bad tempered and the dinners will be rubbish for a while – but the good news is that I will be in the house for days on end and easily tempted to buy take-aways!! To my friends it means that if I do see them I am probably going to bore them witless by obsessing over my blossoming (or not) book. All training and other work is put on hold. And then – I write it.

I tend to write ‘all over’ my books – meaning that I might write part of the intro, then get a bit stuck so move on to one of the later chapters.  It may look chaotic but it isn’t – more like putting a jigsaw together, because by this stage I know exactly what I want to write and how it will look at the end. I tend to really get into this bit so write day and night, with no adherence to office hours – I actually prefer working through the night so it is pretty usual for me to be writing between 2 and 5 a.m.

Once it is done – which usually takes about 7 days end to end – I put it away for at least 3 days before getting it out and editing / doing the final writing.

Then it is off to Jessica Kingsley Publishers …… and I miss it like mad …… get a bit sad, like at the end of any relationship …… do any edits or re-writes asked of me by the editors and proof readers ….. and leave the printers to get on with it. In my head it is over.

I try and build a break in at this point so that I can have fun with friends and family and shake off the topic that has been all consuming for what might have been up to a year. And then, just when I think that I have had enough of writing, something sparks my interest – and the whole cycle begins again.

I hope this helps – but as I say all writers are different and I am sure you will find your own way of working. My only advice would be, write for you and choose a subject you feel passionate about – if you aren’t at the start, you definitely won’t be at the end! My very best wishes and good luck with it – let me know how you get on.


In Search of Youth Work by JKP author Vanessa Rogers

An interesting and thought provoking article from JKP author, Vanessa Rogers on what it is to be a youth worker today. Vanessa is the author of a number of titles on working with young people including, Working with Young Women, Working with Young Men, Let’s Talk Relationships, 101 Things to Do on the Street, and new from JKP the Little Books on Alcohol, Drugs and Tobacco Set.

What is Youth Work?

Today I realised that I have been a youth worker for over 15 years, yet I still struggle to explain exactly what that means, especially to someone outside of the profession. It is not a simple answer and I have even been known to say, ‘social worker’ in certain social settings just because it is easier.

The irony is not lost on me; that I am prepared to betray my profession, even though I feel so passionately about it, because I can’t be bothered to explain what I do and that it involves more than playing pool and sorting out squabbles about which track to play next on the iPod in the youth club. Explaining detached youth work is even harder, and has even been met with snorts of laughter at the thought of being paid to wander the streets talking to unknown young people. ‘But what is the point?’ is a constant refrain.

It has not always been so. There was a time not that long ago when it would be hard for me not to weigh in with my views. In fact, many of my ex-students could stand testament to the fact that, ‘what is youth work?’ is one of my favourite assignment titles, and the 500 words produced in response are a constant source of interest and heated debate.

Then it dawned on me that perhaps the sinking heart I get whenever someone asks me what I do for a living is not merely personal apathy, but because I have had the conversation one too many times. The sense of justifying what youth work is, why it matters and the unique place it has in supporting young people – not only amongst friends, family and strangers but also with youth workers and other professionals – has become habitual. I realised that I am a bit tired of the struggle and don’t want to spend time any more time analysing the process at a cost of actually doing it less.

It hasn’t always been so difficult, although I am in no way harping back to some mythical golden age of youth work. I am simply pointing out that if you had asked me 15 years ago what I did my answer would have been pretty easy – an area youth worker for the Youth & Community Service responsible for developing girls work, work with young parents and managing a large and busy youth wing on the site of a school in an area described as ‘deprived’. So far, so clear.

The role of a Youth Worker

Fast forward and my role, but not my professional title, has changed so many times that writing a CV can be a daunting thing. Terminology for the young people, or ‘client group’, has changed from young people ‘at risk’ through ‘vulnerable’ to ‘targeted’; youth services have dropped the ‘ & community’ tag and been variously part of the education, leisure, Connexions and social care departments.

Responsibilities have changed to include meeting parents, undertaking social care assessments, creating community profiles and measuring work by the number of accredited outcomes achieved.
What constitutes ‘youth work’ has changed so many times that it can now be tagged on to virtually any service that works with young people.

But is this a good or bad thing? Is the increase in those using traditional youth work skills to engage with young people something to be celebrated or lamented? All I know is that ‘youth work’ is a notoriously difficult term to describe, and it isn’t getting any easier. The task of trying to find a pithy one-liner to sum up the collective aims of so many different clubs, societies and detached projects is almost impossible.

Perhaps it is that so many people now describe themselves as ‘youth workers’, whilst working in areas more traditionally associated with social workers or youth justice? I have even spoken with police officers that say they do ‘youth work’. Really? Are the professional boundaries so completely enmeshed? Please note this isn’t about professional qualifications, or even the lack of them, more a questioning of how the ethos of voluntary participation and the gradual process of building positive relationships and engaging and empowering young people fits within a law and order or social care framework.

The ethos at the heart of Youth Work

Historically, youth work did not develop just to ‘keep people off the streets’ or to provide aimless amusement, it has always offered social and political education in an informal environment. Good youth work may look as if it just ‘happens’ but the success of it actually depends on good planning, clear aims and measurable outcomes. This ethos should be at the heart of all youth work – especially detached projects. Surely an exciting detached project that motivates young people to get involved should result in more, not less, youths on the street? And that should constitute success?

Put simply, providing young people with a ‘good time’ is not enough. Effective youth work should offer young people the opportunity to meet, socialise, develop new skills, explore the world around them and learn to question and challenge what they see effectively. Detached projects should not be about forcing young people off the streets and away from adult eyes, but more about building trust and developing interesting projects that are relevant to their needs, reflecting the things of importance to them. Which is unlikely to be the same as the media focus on demonizing young people as part of a lawless counter-culture.

As I see it the need to build two-way respect between young people and other members of their community is paramount – after all it is hard to encourage young people to take up their responsibilities and become active citizens if they are treated like social outcasts. Why would you want to be part of something that clearly doesn’t want you?

Perhaps the answer is purely financial. In the struggle to chase funding and secure projects we have been forced to chase the pound, rather than offer what young people truly want. Or maybe as numbers dwindle in traditional old-style youth clubs what’s on offer is simply outdated and no longer meets the needs of teenagers. In that case let’s stop hanging on to the solutions of the past and try new ideas.

Listening to Young People

Young people can be innovative and visionary, with energy and enthusiasm to shape and change the world. To do this they need to find ways to get their voices heard and be able to see that their participation in things like youth councils, forums and consultations actually makes a difference. To be honest, as an adult I am happy to give my opinion on things that matter to me but I get disheartened and then disinterested if nothing ever comes of it and I don’t receive any feedback. Too often I think young people are let down because although they are told that their opinions count, when it comes to money and budgets, they don’t. Participation has to be more than a paper exercise or a way to ‘tick boxes’.

Reclaiming Youth Work

So I think it is time for youth workers to stand up and reclaim youth work by celebrating how different it is to other work with young people. It should be seen as a whole, not as a useful pick’n’mix to compliment other services, and defined in our own terms – whether that is through a Youth Work Academy or some other collective process – before someone else does it for us.

In another 15 years time I don’t want to still be ducking the question, ‘what do you do for a living?’ – I want to be able to say (still with pride), ‘I am a youth worker’, and for that to mean something.

VIDEO: Rudy Simone’s 22 Things a Woman with Asperger’s Syndrome Wants Her Partner to Know

Rudy Simone is on a mission to prevent AS/non-spectrum relationships from breaking down because of a lack of information. Check out this video to find out more and for a great overview of her latest JKP book, 22 Things a Woman with Asperger’s Syndrome Wants Her Partner to Know.

In her latest book, Aspergirls author Rudy Simone covers 22 common areas of confusion for someone dating a female with AS and includes advice from her own experience and from other partners in real relationships. She talks with humour and honesty about the quirks and sensitivities that you may come across when getting to know your partner. All the pivotal relationship landmarks are discussed, including the first date, sex, and even having children.

Kay and Haitham Al-Ghani on ‘Learning About Friendship’ – Stories to support social skills training for children with ASD in the classroom

They made quite a splash with their children’s book, The Red Beast.

Now, special educational needs teacher Kay Al-Ghani  has published a new book called Learning About Friendship: Stories to Support Social Skills Training in Children with Asperger Syndrome and High Functioning Autism, featuring beautiful illustrations by her son Haitham Al-Ghani. Here, Kay and Haitham answer some questions about the new book.

Tell us about yourself and your experience with children with ASD.

I have been a teacher for over 37 years; many of them spent working with children with Special Needs. Over these years, I have come to believe that most of the difficulties encountered are a result of a teaching deficit rather than a learning deficit. Working with children who find school life a struggle has been inspirational for me and I have made it my quest to find ways to help them to learn and to grow in confidence. Whilst at times it has been challenging, it is always great fun.

Haitham, my son and the illustrator of this book, is the reason I now specialise in teaching children with ASD. He is 25 years old, but back when he was just starting school it was very unusual to see children with Autism in a mainstream classroom. The difficulties he faced were enormous and resulted in him being expelled from his very first school at the tender age of just 3 years. It would be another three years before we got a diagnosis of Autism but even then it was termed ‘Semantic Pragmatic Disorder’, since the idea of it being a spectrum disorder had not been voiced. Once I knew what the problem was I set about trying to find ‘a cure’. I negotiated with his primary school to withdraw him from some lessons in order to work on his language and social skills. It was not too long before I was asked to work with other children and this is the reason that today I am part of an inclusion team that trains parents and professionals in aspects of Autism and which supports children with ASD in mainstream schools.

Why did you decide to write this book and where did the stories come from?

I am an avid reader of anything to do with Autism and I have noticed that there are very few children’s storybooks written from the perspective of a child with ASD.

As a class teacher in a special school, I always had to invent stories to help me to explain social and behaviour rules to the children. I used circle times to teach social skills like taking turns and personal space. I found that the children just loved a good story and they could often relate the main idea in the story to themselves. Before Haitham began to illustrate my stories, I would use puppets and toys to keep the children’s attention. One small boy in my class was having great trouble going on school outings because he would not wear a seat belt. The bus driver came to tell me that he would not be allowed to go on any more trips. I thought this was rather harsh and so the very next day I told my class a story about Tedrick the teddy who would not wear a seat belt. After hearing the story we talked about how important it was to wear a seat belt. We role-played the parts of the driver, the teachers and the other children on the bus. I emphasised how happy the driver was when all the children wore their seat belts and I asked the boy in question if he would mind taking Tedrick on the next trip. Guess what, that boy was the first one on the bus doing up his own and Tedrick’s seat belt!

That story was the first of many I wrote to teach social or behaviour related skills. However, the first illustrated one was The Red Beast which Haitham did for me many years ago in simple pencil crayon. The children I worked with loved this story and it was definitely the illustrations that brought it to life.

Working with children with ASD I noticed that similar problems with social understanding arose time and time again and so I continued to use the story format. When compiling a selection for the book, Haitham persuaded me that children with ASD would probably enjoy black and white drawings better than colour.

What are the most difficult social skills to teach to children with ASD? How do stories help?

The difficulties with social interaction means these children may not understand about body language and so the idea of personal space is often difficult to teach. Since it affects different people in different ways it is an ideal concept to teach to all children. This way the child with ASD learns what is appropriate but, more importantly, other children learn about how this inability to understand body language may affect the child with ASD in their classroom. Other areas of difficulty can be linked to the inability to understand social expectations, so turn taking, interrupting, making inappropriate comments, winning and losing, etc. are also difficult to teach. Quite often if you try to instruct a child with Autism on what is appropriate, they feel threatened or simply fail to understand. Children with Asperger Syndrome hate criticism and so by depersonalising an issue it is easier to talk about an area of difficulty and to teach, through the story format and by role-play, how to remedy a particular problem.

How do you use these stories in the classroom?

These stories can be use during Personal, Social, Health and Economic (PSHE) education, circle time or in small groups to introduce a particular social skill, for example, winning and losing. Children can learn that whilst they may lose a game of chance, they can always win at the friendship game by being kind and generous in defeat. The teacher may then have an afternoon of board games when all the children are encouraged to play magnanimously and prizes are given for being a good sport. Before reading the story “Golden Hour”, the teacher could begin the session by using role-play to demonstrate an inappropriate response when losing a game. I have had children in fits of laughter by pretending to throw a wobbly after losing a game of ‘Heads or Tails’.

Ultimately the stories are fun and children always learn best when they are having fun!

Anti-Bullying Week takes place this month. How might teachers use these stories in class to address bullying?

Pupils with ASDs are among those at greatest risk of being bullied. The National Autistic Society has calculated that 40% of children with Autism and 60% of children with Asperger Syndrome are bullied at school. It is easy to see how having an ASD may make you a target for bullies. Children with ASD are often solitary at playtimes and have few friends willing to come to their defence. They are seen as gullible, naïve, and easily provoked. They don’t have the ‘cool gene’ and so are unpopular. They often lack tact and diplomacy and they may unquestioningly carry out something a bully has asked them to do because they are unable to figure out motives or predict what might happen next.

Three of the stories in the book hit on the problem of bullying – ‘Timothy Tattletale’, ‘The Barbie Club’ and (more subtly) ‘Ablutions’. If teachers use curriculum time to actively teach about ASD, then they can help to prevent these children from becoming the victims of bullying; be it physical, non-physical (like name calling, taunting, ignoring, etc.), emotional (like spreading rumours, shunning) or the now insidious, cyber bullying.

When children begin to understand about the very much hidden disability that is Autism, the less likely they will be to target children with ASD as victims.

For children with ASD the stories may help them to recognise a bully is not just someone who hits you physically; it may be someone who makes fun of you, spreads rumours about you or uses you.

Schools could use the book as a starting point to train children with high social status to be playground ‘angels’ who could take vulnerable children under their wings to explain things like: rules of playground games, jokes, why they should take turns, etc. Teachers should ensure that they regularly praise children who demonstrate caring behaviour. The stories could be used as a starting point for discussion and for brain storming ideas that will foster a strong sense of justice, provide emotional support for children with ASD and encourage a natural assertiveness in all children, so that they do not feel the need to collude with the bully to protect themselves.

You and Haitham make a great team! What is it like working together?

[Kay:] Haitham makes my work as a writer easy. I am sure every writer of children’s books would love to have an illustrator in the family! If I were honest, my writing without Haitham’s illustrations would probably never get published. He has an excellent eye for detail and needs very little instruction – I simply tell him how many illustrations I would like and he is off. He can work tirelessly on a project until it is finished – and he is a perfectionist. In this book he has produced over one hundred black and white illustrations.

Haitham has become extremely skilful in using Photoshop and as well as our books on Autism with JKP we shall have two children’s picture books coming out next year in the USA.

Writing is a labour of love for me and it is always exciting to see how Haitham will interpret my words in his own inimitable style.

[Haitham:] I really love my mother’s stories, I find them very funny and I can see lots of my old behaviours in the Learning about Friendship book. My mother always lets me choose the names of the characters in the story, so I get a good picture in my head of how I want them to look. I think I am lucky to be able to work at home doing the thing I love most – illustrating. Seeing my work in an actual book is just amazing and I feel quite proud. I hope the stories will help children with Autism, but I think all children will enjoy them.

Copyright © Jessica Kingsley Publishers 2010.