Literacy outreach: Matt Finch’s work in schools and libraries
What inspires a British academic to stage a zombie siege in a rural Aussie library or teach teens how to con their way into a million dollars? Community outreach consultant Matt Finch tells Books+Publishing about his work in Australian schools and libraries over the past year.
Back in the day I was an earnest and diligent doctoral student at the University of London, researching the lives of refugees from the Nazis and making money on the side as a freelance writer on arts, travel and science.
Alongside teaching undergraduates, I started doing schools outreach work for the university. This spilled over into a role mentoring asylum-seeking children, and after I got my PhD I retrained as a schoolteacher. I soon found myself questioning the rigid nature of modern education, to the point where I decided to offer my creative services on a freelance basis.
I would describe myself as a community outreach consultant. I create ‘water cooler moments’ for institutions such as libraries, schools, museums, businesses and charities—compelling events that provoke lasting thought, discussion and learning in a community. The aim is to find sustainable ways to inspire, rather than compel, learning—to provoke and enthuse people of all ages to develop their own skills and make the most of their culture.
In Australia a lot of my work has involved bringing literacy to unexpected public spaces—taking learning out of the classroom and into new environments. But even when I run a conventional school or library activity, you should expect the unexpected—from a live action zombie siege of a rural library to a ‘How to Con Your Way into a Million Dollars’ writing workshop.
Zombies vs libraries
One of the highlights of my work has been staging a zombie siege in Tullamore, NSW. Children and teens from the rural town were barricaded in the local library while a dozen zombies attacked. Students had to plan an escape from the town and sneak through the zombie horde to retrieve supplies from a fire engine dispatched to rescue them by the NSW Fire Service.
The event was intended to highlight the relevance of the public library as a place to research even the most outlandish topics; to alert children and young people to the need for disaster preparedness in a town that is regularly cut off by floods; and to provide a dramatic stimulus for follow-up learning in the local school.
Libraries use extensive quantitative metrics to look at the effect of these events on footfall, lending and reader satisfaction—but the impact of these events is also about quality. It’s getting the whole shire talking about libraries, and literacy, and storytelling. It’s getting the name of a tiny Aussie farming town known around the world via social and mainstream media. It’s the look of terror on a child’s face—and the look of pride on the face of their zombie-disguised auntie who put it there!
My next job will be in Auckland, New Zealand, while I’ll be working as a roving adviser to Auckland Libraries—the largest public library system in the southern hemisphere—helping them to make their city the very coolest place to grow up in the Pacific region!
Australia and New Zealand appeal to me as countries that are unafraid to have a go at something new. It’s hard to imagine many places where the authorities are keen to let you summon zombie hordes in the name of education! In particular, I’m always moved by a visit to Melbourne—there’s such an incredible arts and media scene in the city. I think the team at the State Library of Victoria have done an incredible job in reaching out to their community, especially through collaboration with YA authors and publishers via the Centre for Youth Literature. Express Media do great work with teens and young people, too; I love their Voiceworks magazine for new writers.
Although I’m a city boy, nothing moves me like a trip into Australia’s rural regions, where I find myself working with kids who go roo shooting and pig hunting. Farm kids have this amazing wealth of practical skills—one teenage girl told me she knew how to change the engine on a VS Commodore!—but also a great deal of maturity, and an eagerness to learn about the wider world, which I find utterly inspiring.
Australia—especially in its rural regions—has such potential for creativity and innovation. I’d like Australians to recognise that fact and ‘dare to be different’. It’s not just about learning from the Poms and the Yanks, it’s about taking risks and finding new stuff to teach our friends in the northern hemisphere … I want to see Aussies and Kiwis at the top of the podium for literacy and literature; it’s where they belong!