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Handing out words

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September 2016

The Roving Poet Part 2: ‘Miss, I think I’d like my poem, now…’

This week, I completed my first day in school as Poet in Residence. What an experience. My current role is organised so that I am present for two afternoons per week. I run a service called the poetry ‘Takeaway’ during the lunch break (stolen straight from the London Poetry Takeaway Service, who do an amazing job, and whose details can be found here.) and this was my main focus for my first day.

The poetry takeaway is set up in the school library, opposite the open double doors. It consists of two folding tables, two chairs and a sign. I sit at one of the chairs with my notebook and a pen and look earnest. Students are invited to approach the tables and request a poem. The poem can be for themselves, or for someone else. We talk for a little while about what they would like to have in their poem, I take their name and their form group and send them on their way. Frantically, I write their poem and it is then delivered to their form group during the week. That first lunch time, I thought, I’ll only get two or three poem requests, it’ll take a while for the students to get started. I’ll probably get some silly ones for friends, some of them might want poems for themselves or their parents. It’ll take time.

Now, the fact is, it will take time. To establish something as controversial as poetry into the school culture will take time, there is no doubt, but the responses of the students I spoke to that first lunch time astounded me. In ‘Part One’, I mentioned how difficult students found it to engage with poetry that doesn’t belong to them, how the poetry they experience is irrelevant to their lives, and how teachers’ experiences of poetry are also often limited, as a result of their own poor experiences as children. What I learned, during this lunchtime is that, while all that is true, when given the chance to claim poetry as a means of communication for themselves, students are more keen than I originally thought. That first lunch time, I received requests for 8 poems. Bear in mind, that lunch time only lasts for 25 minutes at this school, so this was a significant flow of students throughout the break. Many students approached me at the beginning of the break, clearly intrigued and wanting a poem, but unsure why. Many asked for one, but weren’t sure who for, or what they wanted to say. I told them they could go away and think about it and come back if they had an idea. After a short while, several, meek little voices said in my ear “I think I’d like my poem now…” and what a range!

The first poem request I had was from two year 11 girls. Their friend had left for East London in year 9. At first, they wanted a poem to make fun of her a little, to appeal to her sense of humour. They had numerous stories to tell me about the daft things they’d done together, about ridiculous slippers and faux pas on the underground. I made a note of everything and, just before they left, one of the girls turned to me and added “Miss, make sure you tell her we miss her.” Here was my first experience of students who wanted to say something they were unsure how to say themselves. Their poem was a hand reached out to the friend they barely saw any more, but they were afraid to display their souls completely, because missing someone, needing someone, made them vulnerable. Discussing what they wanted to add in their poem made them smile, made them remember things they had done together and gave them that space to be vulnerable, even if only for a split second. They returned to collect their poem at the end of the day, read it, giggled over it, and left, grinning widely. For that moment, as their poet, I had a glimpse into the memories of two girls whose lives had otherwise been completely separate from mine. It was a chance for them to share memories they clearly treasured, and this was a pattern I noticed with every student I wrote for.

The poems I was asked to write were invariably extremely touching, thoughtful and profound. The students showed a depth of understanding, of empathy, an ability to notice things far beyond themselves. Three students asked me, separately, to write a poem for their mothers, who had been having a tough time recently. All students acknowledged that their mothers took care of their whole family, cooking, cleaning, getting the children to school, and were so busy they had no hobbies of their own. They wanted, not only to thank their mothers, but to reassure them. They spoke quietly, earnestly, were clear that they wanted their mothers to know that they were loved and appreciated. They shared memories with me that were clearly very private, and so will not be recreated here. But this transaction between me and the students became suddenly very interesting. The students offered me their vulnerability and, in return, I formulated it into something resembling strength. Students were accessing a part of themselves that made them open. It showed a distinct level of trust that they might never have given me, had the offer of their poem not been there between us.

Another student said he wanted a poem, went away and thought for a while, and came back. Quietly, he told me that he wanted a poem for his friend, who accepted him despite his particular learning need, and did not care that he was ‘different’. His poem had to explain how lovely it was that he could be himself around this friend, and how important this connection was to him. Yet another wished for a poem for her Dad, someone she clearly loved. She told me, giggling, about his clumsiness, and how wonderful it had been when their whole family drove abroad for the summer. Another student wanted a poem for her friend, whose birthday it was. She smiled and laughed as she told me about her friend, and was keen the poem would be ready in time. The final student looked thoughtful for a moment and said “Miss, I would like a poem about the sky, about how beautiful the sky is.” I’ve no idea what her motivation for this was, but there was something quite lovely in such a request. It was a poem for herself, to put into words something she had noticed. Perhaps she had been serious, perhaps she had simply wanted to see how I might react, but either way, her interaction with poetry became something personal. She wanted, in words, an expression of something she felt fundamental to her experience of the world. Or perhaps she just wanted to see if I could do it, who knows? I’ve no idea how she reacted to her poem!

The fact is, that during this initial lunch time, despite the nervousness, the hesitancy, the quiet voices, the embarrassment, the students were intrigued by the idea of this new way of communication. Suddenly, poetry was something they could control, something personal to them, that they could share with their loved ones. It was a way of saying what they had previously been unwilling or unable to put into words. The conversations they had with me were quiet, gentle, furtive. They were conversations they may never have had with a teacher, but were compelled to have with a poet. No, perhaps that’s wrong. They were compelled to have the conversation with a poem. I was just the translator.

And here is the crux of it: Something that had previously been alien, frightening, puzzling, a formidable labyrinth of words set up to make them fail, was suddenly open. It listened. It was quiet, it did not judge. This something which they had thought volatile, cruel, confrontational, that had revelled in their confusion, was theirs now. It beckoned them gently, kept their secrets, was kind to them. Here, in the space of twenty five minutes, was a concept transformed in the eyes of eight young people. I’ve no idea what they felt when they read their poems, whether they liked them, how their parents and friends might react. I hope they liked them. I cherished each one, I wrote it quietly, quickly but with care, aware of the burden of truth I was transferring through my pen. I wrote each one by hand. Each one was an effort of trust for the student, so I translated that through the effort of writing. They were quiet acts of understanding, each one. I hope the teachers who delivered them respected that. I hope it will not be too much longer before I sit at that folding table and hear those quiet words in my ear: “Miss, I think I’d like my poem now…”

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The Roving Poet Part 1: What does it Mean to be a Teacher of Poetry?

August is nearly over and a new era begins. As of now, I’ll be working as a freelance poet educator in and around the South East of England and have been doing some serious thinking about the ins and outs of teaching as a poet. Most poets who teach tend to do so in university, with students who are paying to study writing and literature, many of these students already consider themselves to be writers and have developed a sophisticated sense of interpretation when it comes to writing challenges. As a result, the tasks set by their tutors can be very open. What’s more, they can rely on a built up bank of personal, social and cultural knowledge to help them unpick tasks. For example, most university students will have a basic idea of what a muse is. These factors are not necessarily transferable to a primary or secondary classroom setting. Despite this, many poets do choose to work in comprehensive classroom settings and are very successful at doing so. But the way in which poetry is used to educate comprehensive school students is very different to the way it is used in university. For one thing, although we are indeed helping to develop comprehensive school students’ writing skills, we are not necessarily training them to be writers. We are using poetry as education, not necessarily educating children in poetry.

So how does a poet, whose whole identity is based around writing and being a writer (like me!) rethink her teaching strategy to make sure her poetics accommodates for thirty young individuals whose agendas with regard to poetry will all be wildly different? Well, that is the question! As a poet in residence, or a visiting poet, I don’t have a specific agenda, such as ensuring students pass their exams, or that Key Stage 3 pupils make three sub levels of progress and are able to tell a metaphor from a simile. I can, to an extent, establish my own agenda in terms of mixing my poetics with my pedagogy. Unfortunately, (or perhaps not) I don’t get it all my own way; whichever schools I am working in will have agendas of their own tied up with the national curriculum, OFSTED, GCSEs and league tables, so there will be motives behind my being invited to work in a school. Of course, I will have to adhere to these agendas, otherwise I will get no work! So I guess the real question is not how can I make my poetics accommodate to different students, but how can I make my poetics accommodate to different students and teaching situations WITHOUT allowing my own principles as a poet to be compromised? That’s a hard question, because the answer to it will be different for every job I do, and depend heavily on the openness of the school and how transferable my own poetics are to a variety of pedagogical situations. So. I guess the first part of answering this question, is to decide what my own poetical principles will be when I walk into school(s). What are my non-negotiable, always applicable truths that I know I need to bring to every classroom, library, workshop or visit?

Well, I know that I love the look on a student’s face when they do something they didn’t realise they could do. I know some of the best workshops or lessons I’ve ever taught have been lessons where I have been open about the students’ interpretations, laughing at the funny poems and appreciating the serious ones, so the tasks I give should not be too specific, but provide the right amount of guidance and be open to diversification. Students ought to be allowed the freedom to express their personality within their poetry. I also feel it’s really important that poetry is not wrong. There is no wrong. Sure, there is appropriate and inappropriate, there is sensitive and insensitive, there is thoughtful and thoughtless, but these things are to do with classroom culture, not with student interpretation. So the culture of the workshop also matters, students have the right to safety within the workshop, to appreciate that words are not powerless, but have been used throughout history to devastating effect. So, freedom of speech, yes, but with that freedom comes a responsibility towards the people around us, and consequences to our sentiments. I guess the main principle this concept applies to is that of respect. Students write with the knowledge that what they have to say is valid, therefore powerful, therefore they are responsible for the things they say, and with this comes great freedom and a need for serious thought. Ok! Out of that, I think it would be fairly simple to draw up a list of poetics I feel I should bring to every classroom. Let’s call them the Five Rights.

  • Poetry is whatever the students need it to be in order to write it, the key thing is the writing. THE RIGHT TO OWNERSHIP.
  • There is no wrong answer to writing a poem, so long as respect is shown. THE RIGHT TO IMAGINATIVE FREEDOM.
  • Whatever students write, they write in safety and without harsh judgement. THE RIGHT TO SAFETY.
  • The task is a gift to the students to write with what they will. THE RIGHT TO OPEN CHOICE.
  • Whatever students have to say, they must know that I will listen. THE RIGHT TO AN AUDIENCE.

 

Now, that was the simple bit. The hard part is determining how these five rights might fit into and around the agendas of the institutions in which they will be put to practice. Schools, to lesser or greater extents, rarely have total control over their own agendas, particularly in the comprehensive sector. The national curriculum has certainly done many good things for education, ensuring it has a level of equality, even if this is only at face value. However, the way in which the national curriculum has been enforced has undoubtedly resulted in much concern for teachers. As a qualified teacher, I have experienced this first-hand most acutely with attitudes to poetry. The National Curriculum is devised and enforced by those outside of the education sector, often by individuals who have actually had no experience of it as students, let alone as teachers. The result is that a method that works for public schools, which take in only students of a certain socio-economic or ‘intelligence’ status, is applied to comprehensive school settings, where students come from a much more diverse set of backgrounds and have more eclectic needs. It is my belief, reinforced by four years in comprehensive teaching, that the vast majority of teachers in the comprehensive sector are there for what can be summed up as a single, vital reason: they really want to see their charges succeed. And by succeed, I do not mean earn loads, buy a nice car, get a mortgage and go to work in a suit. I mean, be happy, whatever happiness looks like for that individual person. To have this drive to be selfless for the success of others in a job that requires insane work hours (my mother is a teacher and frequently works fourteen hour days and through her holidays), a very unforgiving timetable, mounting pressures from authorities, frequent and irregular changes to the curriculum, students that have all manner of social and personal backgrounds and can, therefore, be extremely difficult to educate, and limited time to visit the toilet every day, in my book, deserves a great deal more respect than I believe teachers get. So, when I say that my agendas as a poet do not necessarily fit with the agendas of the schools I work in, I do not mean to suggest my agenda is good and any other is bad. In fact, I believe most teachers would applaud my bringing these five freedoms into their classroom. But no comprehensive school, with its vastly reduced and still reducing budget, extremely tight schedule and looming OFSTED inspection, has the funds or time to invite a poet in simply ‘for fun’, though with endless funds, I’m sure they’d have one in for this reason every other day, because they know the importance of fun to a positive learning environment. So, schools have agendas that are based on outside influences, and must justify the application of their limited funds. In my experience, school agendas include, but are not limited to:

  • Encouraging children to engage with poetry by writing it, so they are more confident with reading it.
  • Using poetry as a means to develop creative entrepreneurial skills.
  • Using poetry to develop inter- and intrapersonal skills, including for the benefit of mental health.
  • Using poetry as a means to enrich a students’ Social, Moral, Spiritual and Political understanding. (SMSC is a big push in education right now!)
  • Improving children’s literacy through reading and writing.
  • Engaging disadvantaged and disengaged students with English.

All the above reasons are valid, important and can certainly work with my five freedoms. The difficulty here is in how specific these agendas become. For example, agenda one could become something far less open, like “Encouraging GCSE students to understand the poem ‘Eden Rock’ from the new anthology through creative engagement’. Now, the likelihood of a school forking out £250+ for the sake of engaging students in a single poem is small, but you get what I mean. If I am limited to the use of one single poem, or a set of poems, or we have to work with poems just on a certain syllabus, then the application of my freedoms becomes cloudy. You see, what I see of the poetry scene at the moment, and what is applied of poetry in schools in widely and wildly different. The poetry scene I see is broad, diverse, open, funny, political, inventive, inclusive, loud, raucous, courageous, angry, uproarious, vibrant and unafraid. In a single night, I can see twelve people from twelve different racial, socio-economic, gender-identity, sexual, ability and mental health backgrounds. Each of these individuals has a different poetic identity and their poetry is as diverse as themselves. But in school, the vast majority of the poets that are taught are white, male and, often, dead. Teachers know this, but often, their own experience with poetry is limited and they may not know where to begin to unravel these stereotypes. Their own university education would often simply have reinforced this, as mine did, and the poetry scene, while growing, is still relatively underground and unknown.

 

So how do we deal with this? Honestly, I don’t know the answer to this question, but the academic year is only beginning, I have thirty-nine weeks of residency, visits, performances, workshops, shows and projects ahead of me. So I guess I’ll get back to you on that one. Wish me luck!

 

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