Simply better work experience July 2011

Simply better work experience July 2011

Simon BeltSimon Belt, a web and computer technology consultant, was asked by New Mills School Business and Enterprise College to provide work experience in July 2011 to some Year 10 school students so they could gain practical experience of writing articles for publications. As it is difficult for young people to gain commercial experience of journalism and writing for the web, I was more than happy to help them prepare and write-up some work for the New Mills Web on local businesses and organisations as part of their work experience. If they were good enough, I'd even publish some of their work on the Manchester Salon website.


Here's a timeline summary of what they did and achieved. Wish I'd have got them to work on my own website now...


Week 1 - Monday

Started with trying to work out how much the school students appreciated the importance of the written word and structuring of content by asking them to evaluate three websites I'm responsible for that represent three different stages of technical and content development - the New Mills Web, the New Mills Golf Club and the Manchester Salon. Comments made about the websites were:

New Mills Web: Thought it was smart and business focussed, would appeal to adults but not young people because of the subjects covered. Good navigation and grouping but somewhat light on content in terms of number and variety of articles. The font size is perhaps too small and should be increased. Banner photo as masthead is a eye catching but seems a little stretched and would benefit from being sharper. The poll is a good idea, and would benefit from being updated.

New Mills Golf Club: Although the colour scheme is good and consistent with the banner and earthiness of golf, the brown is a little off-putting. The photos on the masthead give a good view of the clubhouse and course, and although the tagline is very catchy, it needs to be larger text. The internal language that golfers use on the website is quite alienating to non-golfers, and would benefit from being explained - top level menus are very golfy. The hyperlinks should be changed from red to a colour that's easier to see against the green/brown background. There's an absence of images of young people playing golf and overall not very welcoming to non-golfers. The photo section seems to zip off to another site.

Manchester Salon: Although the colour scheme works well, and the site is clean and tidy, it isn't immediately obvious what the public forum is, who it's for, how it works - as there are meetings advertised and review articles, writers and speakers. The About page though explains the Salon very clearly. The old banner picture presents a sophicated image and feel, but is quite alienating for young people and those who don't understand big words. The individual discussion listings are clearly structured and expand on the title and introduction well, with pictures of speakers and links to more about them.


Began some background research for profiling interviews with Julia Hibbert of Chafes Solictors, and Sara Porter of Sara Porter Photography. The girls began taking turns to read Melvin Burgess' new novel 'Kill All Enemies' to review for the Manchester Salon website, and as preparation to interview and profile him.


Week 1 - Tuesday

Scripted a short video to be shot in Blackwell University bookshop after the interview with Melvin Burgess, to then splice in front of the interview as the contextualising preview as to why the interview happened - unsurprisingly for 15 year old girls, the theme is cheesy and playful with various subverting plays on key words. They did very well in getting all the key phrases required for embedded marketing though, just lacked subtlety and weren't keen to think through or improve the outcome, enjoying the process more. Setup interviews with Sara Porter, Julia Hibbert and Philip Kendall of Spring Bank Arts Centre.


Exhausted much of the planning work I had expected due to such focus on process and avoidance of outcome, so hurriedly contacted Tricia Harrison of Tricia Designs to interview her for profiling on the New Mills Web, and maybe extend her website with more info about her and how she does business if they really wanted to see that through. Thankfully, she could fit us in, so off we went to Bowdon and learned that Grace Jones isn't known to all generations. Tricia put the girls at ease so much they didn't even get their notepads or questions out and then played catch up to get control of the interview.


Week 1 - Wednesday

Listened to the recording of the interview with Tricia whilst they started writing it up. The hesitency and trepidation of crafting independent journalism and expressing their take on someone's business came out. The article produced was fine though missed expressing the key insights - and wasn't quite sure if it was lack of worldliness, or with hindsight probably more to do with focus on going through the motions, doing what was expected in a tick box way rather than actually wanting to produce quality outcome for themselves. Went to interview Philip Kendall of Spring Bank Arts Centre and see the work being carried out to renovate what was St James the Lesser on Spring Bank and create an arts centre from it.


At a similar point to last year, the consequence of editing articles the students were producing, to improve and refine them, drew out that the students saw themselves as the authentic voice at the font of all knowledge. With hindsight, I should perhaps have rejected more of the outcomes and gone through the importance of quality control of end product more, but I didn't realise the extent to which process was being elevated over outcome, and hoped that the treat of reviewing an advance copy of Melvin Burgess' new novel Kill All Enemies would help lift the quality. Again, similarly to last year, the desire to work independently and be individually proud of work produced seemed rather alien to the students, so collective profile pieces became far more attractive than the prospect of individual opinion pieces which the students tried to avoid like the plague.


Week 1 - Thursday

Pressure mounts to overcome the hesitency of publishing and I wear a business shirt to emphasise that this is an experience of work and not just an experience of process at work, so the Tricia Designs profile article goes online, followed by the Spring Bank Arts profile and the individually produced pre-interview review of Melvin Burgess' new novel Kill All Enemies. All this clears the decks ready for interviewing Julia Hibbert of Chafes Solicitors, where we were joined by Michelle Simpson. I think this was extremely useful to give the students a glimpse at the serious side of business and business networking, the process of making connections and the delightfully approachable business personalities expressed by Chafes. Returned to the tidying up of the reviews and quite surprised by the way the students are taking the working of a 9-5 hour week so well - especially given it's quite a shock for me! The girls get a little giddy, and a competitive edge appears more as they promote their individual review articles to their Facebook friends.


Week 1 - Friday

Went to interview Melvin Burgess where he writes his novels, and tried to video the interview - my first proper attempt at this. Learned that mobile phones should be switched off when recording sound, and use of a tripod would make for better quality video. Students loved the experience though as Melvin charmed them with chocolate cake, so decided to up the pressure by taking them to the New Mills Golf Club to see if they could cope with a more alien environment and get a story from little, though there was a Charity Day taking place. Returned home to see that Melvin had added his thanks to the students on his website with a link to their reviews of his new novel on his own Kill All Enemies page, and then tweeted a link to their reviews. 


Considering they've only worked with me for a week, I think they've achieved more than many would have thought possible for school students these days, and expressed a relatively fearless approach to dealing with a variety of situations and challenges, though the Golf Club at the end of a long hard week seemed to be a step too far for them. The first part of the video from their interview with Melvyn Burgess can be seen by clicking on this interview with Melvin Burgess link.


Week 2 - Monday

One student down due to being whacked by a virus, and the remaining two look as though the prospect of another hard week like last week would wipe them out, so lighten the pressure and allow them to work on write-ups at a more leisurely pace. Only Chafes Solicitors gets properly written up and prospect of personalised write-ups of their interview with Melvin, and impression review of life at New Mills Golf Club test their concentration levels. Seems like the prospect of working on own writing independently is a little alien to them - perhaps more familiar with cooperative team work at school rather than living or dying on own creativity. Finalise arrangements to film short video in Blackwell University Bookshop contextualising the interview with Melvin Burgess, observe some work experience activity at the Royal Exchange and go to a planning meeting at John Rylands Library for a couple of discussions being organised as part of the Manchester Science Festival.


Week 2 - Tuesday

After a relaxed and gentle day, slowly writing up some notes on Monday, the students go to Manchester for a far more challenging and off-piste experience which started with Hannah and Kathrine acting out a script largely prepared by Yasmin. The script was trying to contextualise how they came to review Melvin Burgess' new novel 'Kill All Enemies', then interview him about it, and also promote the Blackwell University Bookshop (where Melvin will be speaking about his new novel on 6 September), the work experience they were involved in and the Manchester Salon who are organising that discussion. Hanah and Kathrine displayed great stage presence and acumen in delivering a dramatic performance that conveyed these messages with humour - just the way the script intended.


The circumstances of performing with no proper rehersal, fairly loose script, and filming it from a handheld camera left running in a bookcase, whilst shoppers and staff went about their business right next to the sketch, would present a very big challenge for anyone. Yet Hannah and Kathrine conquered any fears gracefully and simply rose to the occassion in a way most people, let alone school students, would not be able to. Hopefully, if they repeat this activity for work in the future, they'll be able to apply better technical and preparatory that I was capable of with my first filming initiative, but the results are an eye opener on the possibilities available to small businesses to market themselves inventively - click on this YouTube Paylist to watch the five takes of unedited 'Kill All Enemies' videos.


Following the filming in the middle of an open bookshop, I take them to the Royal Exchange to have a look at how the Royal Exchange are providing a week's work experience to a group of 20 or so school students and ask Liam McCormick, their education officer responsible for the programme a few questions about how and why they organise what they do. I must say that I thought the calibre of students they had actively involved in deconstructing the images and fonts of the promotional posters was extremely high and would probably have employed some of those without hesitation. Thought it would be good for them to write a broader and comparative impressionistic article on the work experiences being offered to them and their peers.


After a brief trip to Chinatown for some buns from Ho's bakery we went on to the John Rylands Library on Deansgate where I had to discuss how best they and the Manchester Salon could promote a couple of discussions I'm producing as part of the Manchester Science Festival as Battle of Ideas satellite events. The discussion was very informal but professional, with a delightful working atmosphere. However, I think the length of the full working day, some additional work at home researching topics, and the switching from challenging task and format to differing challenging task and format had found its limit with the students who both fell asleep in the car on the way back to New Mills.


Week 2 - Wednesday

With Kathrine leaving late morning to prepare for and go to a drama exam in the afternoon, there was a brief preparation period for Sara Porter's profiling interview on Thursday before Kathrine left. Alas, couldn't arrange for Hannah to use the media lab at school to edit the video footage of the interview with Melvin and sketch in Blackwell so let her finish her write-ups and then helped her set up a WordPress website for herself, so she can publish her own reviews as a portfolio for the future - click on this Hannah's blog link to see how she's getting on. 


Week 2 - Thursday

Back to a full compliment of staff and the dynamics change back to a more competitive one that tests the boundaries. Interview with Sara Porter takes place with the students ability to interact with business people well, and the more critical and independent journalist skills still embryonic. Mr Wells from school joins the tail end of the interview and helps squeeze some more revealing answers from Sara for the students to work with, should they be interested. The three students hurredly start writing up the long overdue articles from the Golf Club, and distracted by thinking through ways to avoid finishing other articles awaiting completion. This follows a similar pattern at the same point on last year's work experience of becoming a little demob happy.


They all go to school to edit the video, but only Hannah is allowed in the media lab as that was what was pre-arranged when I tried to get Hannah in on the Wednesday, but was only possible to get the Thursday. The other students remain at school to work, rather than return to the workplace to complete their work. When they all return after Hannah edits the video footage on her own, a plan to leave just after lunch on Friday surfaces rather by accident, followed by disappointment as they learn that I'm not keen on the idea of them deciding when they leave on Friday afternoon. Less demob happy now.


Hannah does a great job on editing some scenes from a few video clips to make a single version of the sketch from Blackwell University Bookshop, but a problem with the quality of video resolution means it can't be used publicly. Excuses as to why they don't need to write some articles are offered and fall on deaf ears - literally, as I explain how Search Engines and people with hearing impairments won't be able to make sense of what is being said in video only output. That articles not written, and where there is no video available present, presenting a more critical problem altogther for potential readers is unanswered. Essentially though, the desire to avoid practising a different writing style is the worrying signal here.


I am reminded of the invaluable experience for employers of offering meaningful work placements, as it sharpens the focus of attitude, determination, purpose, and understanding that technique and the development of technical skills isn't a technical issue but best flows when there's a desire to acheive excellence. It is an ideal experience for small businesses to learn what will work and what could be problematic, when considering taking on new staff and what personality traits could compliment and enhance their business. Niggled by the situation whereby one student informs me that they all hope to leave just after lunch tomorrow so that one of them can go to an early showing at the cinema, delivered as tell-tale gossip with the air of a fait acompli. I respond by saying they could leave at 4:45pm if they have everything completed to my satisfaction, including the write-ups they say aren't required.


Week 2 - Friday

The niggle I had about one school student thinking they could leave early afternoon to go to the cinema on their last day of work experience still niggling me. Rather than respond to gossip I look to focus their minds on the adult work of work in the way they write their remaining articles. I reject sloppy work that's presented at a lower standard than they started with, exposing flaws in arguments made to present adults as problems and young people as their saviours, reminding them that the better the quality of their articles the less work I will have to do to accept them as finished. This is delivered as a clear message that they won't be going home early at 4:45pm, let alone early afternoon if the work isn't complete.


The quality of the written work and concentration levels soar from those wanting to develop the most. Articles are published online with a delightful frequency, not brilliant or inspired but at least very usable and demonstrate some focus on the task in hand - click on the links to read the impressions of New Mills Golf Club by YasminKathrine and Hannah, and the profile of Sara Porter Photography. The issue of leaving early is nearly and partly raised more times than I've had hot dinners, and it seems that they have to leave early, but no-one knows quite how to raise it, leaving them the space to work out how to raise it rather than get involved in the game of whispers and gossip. I crank up the pressure by saying they can leave a minute earlier than 4:45pm for every spelling error, mistake or improvement they can see in all the articles I've published of theirs, which they excel at.


Finally, at the very last minute the student needing to leave early cracks and phones her mum, who then phones me to explain how the trip to the cinema to see the new Harry Potter film as a treat for doing well on her work experience from her father. Ten minutes before she has to leave! And all because the job of adult talking to adult about changing the circumstances of a work placement was devolved to their child and half delivered as gossip by another! There was clearly no way the work experience could run its natural course after that intervention, and perhaps wrongly I let them all go at the same time so those remaining don't think they're in detention. I feel so sorry for these students who just had a potentially rewarding work placement reduced to an after school club or nursery, whereby their parents take them home early as a treat.


Work experience is clearly an opportunity for a variety of adults, young and older ones to learn how the world of work can be a transformative and rewarding experience for those involved. I for one would like to thank those who gave their time so generously to help develop the new generation of adults entering the world of work. I especially wish to thank the inventive, very hard working and 'smart beyond their age' students Kathrine, Hannah and Yasmin who were a pleasure to work with and put me through my paces right up to the end. I look forward to completing their workbooks, and wish them all the very best success in their exciting future.

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