#LetsDoThisKids 8 – Here’s to ‘expanding the mind’

air-airship-art-237779At the half-way mark in my mentoring programme at Didcot Girls’ School (where I am Patron of Writing), I want to share some of the young writers’ highlights so far.

Let’s hear it in their own words:

‘From the one-to-one feedback, I get a professional and honest view’

‘I have really liked having suggestions on what to add/ take away from my poem’

‘You’ve taught me to add more details’

‘It’s expanding my mind on poetry’

‘You’ve taught me to have confidence in my writing and my ability.’

I was humbled, encouraged and delighted by their responses.

Thanks so much for following this project – lots more to follow in the next 10 weeks, including showcasing of the writers’ exciting new work.

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Storm surge of words – DGS writers on the mentoring programme

#LetsDoThisKids 7 – Where?

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Over the last couple of weeks in mentoring, we’ve been taking a few walks.

Getting out there.

Having a look around.

And writing it all down, sticking to our mantra: #nofilter.

We absolutely loved listening to Sinead Morrissey reading Frank O’Hara‘s 1960’s poem ‘A Step Away from Them’ (you can read the poem on the Poetry Foundation website, here.) We admired the way he recreates place for us so vividly and candidly (in his case, the place is New York City), along with the way he flits so naturally and conversationally between observations and deeper emotions of attachment and regret.

We followed this up with another poet harking back from the sixties, but in this case the poet hails from Russia. I introduced everyone to the poetry of Yevgeny Yevtushenko (you can check him out here) and we took a trip with him on his ‘Bicycle’, taking in the landscape, and the trauma of past history that ricochets out of his journeying.

(The only problem: so much inspiration, so little time!)

Today we will be continuing on our own journeys, each taking a different path, writing freely into place and experience.

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I’m excited to see what my fabulous mentees produce …

(More of this soon.)

World Book Day – lyrics, composition AND poetry slaying

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As an aside to all the fabulous stuff my Didcot Girls’ writing mentees are doing, as Patron of Writing I was also thrilled to be involved in the FIRST EVER DGS song, lyric and poetry competition, which took place on World Book Day last week.

(Thanks go to the gorgeous author Jo Cotterill, DGS Patron of Reading; Sean Dingley, Head of Music and Leoni Barnes, DGS Librarian, for all their input on this brilliant project, some pics here .)

Read about how it all went on performance day here.

There were some simply stunning performances and I was deeply impressed by the young writer/musicians collaborations, as well as their ability to express the plights and emotions of their chosen characters.

The only slight downside is that I have the unenviable task of selecting some winners! …

 

#LetsDoThisKids 6 – To Be A Mentor

This week, I did some catching up with The (always brilliant) Verb (BBC R3) and came across their ‘How do you choose a mentor?’ discussion (Dec 1, 2017, with the inimitable poet Hollie McNish, listen to it here). It got me thinking. And realising that I am deeply glad to be a mentor to my young writers on our Mentoring programme at Didcot Girls’ School.

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Everyone needs a little helpful direction sometimes.

Every week this process presents me with challenges:

What can I offer them? How will I share it? How will it impact them?

And I guess this week, having reached half term and a short hiatus, was a time to reflect. So.

What’s changed in the last 5 weeks?

  • These writers are continually demonstrating sharper observation.
  • They are increasingly aware of their power as wordsmiths. Power to reflect their world. Power to make a mark on their world. Power to present realities in a fresh way. Power to challenge things.
  • They are speaking out. A few read their own work in front of the entire group this week. That’s a FIRST. But I know it won’t be a LAST.
  • They are probably taking away with them more than I can imagine, as I continue to share openly with them about my thinking about writing: my process, my source of ideas, my treasured and collected fragments garnered from other writers.

And in other news …

Some of the writers are working towards competition deadlines with their work (DEADlines: always a good push to finish things 😊), receiving one-to-one feedback from me as they go.

Most are currently editing a ‘Voice’ piece, and putting into practice new editing skills and insights

Many may be thinking about the quote I shared this week, that writing is in fact ‘80% reading’ (as according to Patience Agbabi) … and picking up a book …

and

Most are getting excited about our plans to publish our own ANTHOLOGY at the end of our 20 week journey (more on this soon!)

BRING IT ON.

 

Writer’s Development Task 5:

Continue to observe ‘your person’ and add observations to your notebook.

Over half term, edit your Voice piece. Use the question prompts.

CUT. ADD, using your notebook ideas. EXPERIMENT. Work on the TITLE.

We’re in this together #LetsDoThisKids 5 White antlers…Inside of brain…Twiggy…Wild hair…Ummm …

What ARE the DGS writers going on about?

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Reindeer moss.

And why?

Quite simply, they were engaging on an observation exercise: I showed them a close-up image of said very small plant and they had to write what they saw.

Remembering the mantra: #Nofilter

What is brilliant about these responses is that they are diverging from superficial exterior observation to new untethered thoughts. With descriptions like ‘inside of brain’ they are venturing into the land of metaphor. Their close observations are opening up pathways of thought and links which, prior to this, were unavailable to them.

On the back of this task, we shared a few minutes of awestruck wonderment, as we read Margaret Atwood’s poem about moss (that would be ‘Reindeer Moss on Granite’, which you can read online here), exploring briefly where her observation takes her in this work, which is an exemplary piece of craft, expression and concision.

A personal highlight for me this week was being a fly on the wall as the young writers began to read their own drafts to each other, in small groups, putting into practice what they are learning about giving constructive feedback.

pexels-photo-211122 (2)A special moment for many – sharing their own writing aloud for the first time. But also getting something back that can actually take them forward, keeping in mind that our work is so much of the time ‘in progress’.

It takes time (and so often, incisive feedback) to craft a strong piece of work!

And finally …

Writer’s Development Task 3:

Continue to use your notebook & write something every day.

Do some people watching & write what you observe. Note mannerisms & listen out for conversation – be subtle!

We’re in this together #LetsDoThisKids – 4

It was a warm ‘welcome back’ to my DGS young writers this week (and welcome back to you too, if you’re following this Blog. I really appreciate it).

It was time to assert the ethos of this mentoring programme: it’s all about WE. Not ME.

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Part of the purpose of meeting together is to include all these individual, talented people in a community of writers. I have been using the word ‘community’ deliberately with the students from day one, as I can’t impress upon them enough the importance of meeting together with other writers.

Writing is inherently an isolated, introverted activity and there will be times when we really need each other – for encouragement, feedback on the work and simply to be able to be ourselves with others who ‘get it.’

So, our table is a ROUND one – I bring notes, tasks, strategies, and so do they. And I’ve already started to build their confidence in sharing their work with the group (some stunningly original free writing was thrown into the mix this week, possibly by those who have never read their work aloud to other writers before!)

I shared some simple tips on HOW to give constructive feedback, modelling it with my own responses to the work they read, and this will pave the way for them to work in smaller groups in the coming weeks, reading their new stuff and providing invaluable peer writer feedback.

We also managed to squeeze in an introduction to free writing…

Here’s what we thought that was all about:

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plus the role of observation in our work: how can we tune-up our observation skills? And this feeds neatly into our –

Writer’s Development Task 2:

In your writer’s notebook, write something every day.

Write what you see. Observe, looking for details, but DON’T EDIT.

If you’re trying these tasks for yourself, or with your own writers group, why not comment on this post and let me know how it’s going?

Until next week …

 

“So, let’s start with your name. And why you are here.” #LetsDoThisKids – 3

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(When learning something new, you have to start somewhere.)

No. This is not an AA meeting. This was how we kicked off the Writers’ Mentoring Programme at Didcot Girls’ School this week – an initiative that has grown out of the poetry workshops I led last term with around 250 year 9 and 10 students.

As it’s a New Year (and all that) please indulge me in a brief glance back at the sessions that happened at the end of last year. I managed to get a snapshot of the student responses and they were downright FAB-U-LOUS:

Over 95% of the students enjoyed the workshop and said that, in that one hour, they had learned something new – about poetry, about writing, about themselves, the list went on …

It’s worth remembering that these students were not ‘hand-picked’, they were not screened or selected by ability, they did not even choose to opt-in to the workshop.

So yes, I was both staggered and delighted by their feedback. Of course, it’s also a reminder that ALL young people can access poetry and creativity and (even more importantly?) that MOST of them can enjoy the experience!

Mentoring Week 1: The writer’s notebook

The workshops were an important gateway to my Writers’ Mentoring Programme and I was genuinely excited to meet the Young Writers this week. They are adventurous, inquisitive and enthusiastic – and not just about the Jaffa Cakes! It was an absolute pleasure to sit with them and start this journey, and we began (after the essential getting-to-know-you silly stuff) by discussing the source of our ideas as writers: how we find and retain these little gems. We shared the variety of tools that we use to help us record, store and organise raw material, and came up with a useful spidergram of shared ideas (It wouldn’t be a session of mine without a spidergram):

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I threw out some of my old notebooks for them to flick through. Some of the complete nonsense recorded in these brought a few giggles, however, these compact, dog-eared notebooks also made the valuable point that, as writers, we need to switch our FILTER to ‘OFF’ initially.

Just note it down. Keep it for later.

I think this is something that is almost counter-intuitive to a lot of students. They are so indoctrinated into having every word/sentence/paragraph scrutinised, that they are in danger of losing the ability to write freely and just for themselves. This is one barrier that I’m aiming to help them break through during the mentoring process.

Each week we’ll have a focus as well as a ‘writer’s development task’ to work on at home, so please do keep an eye on this blog, where I’ll be sharing these – in case you want to try it with your own students/young writers.

Writer’s Development Task 1:

Get a notebook. Write something every day. Bring it next week!

#LetsDoThisKids – 2 (Or: what I’d like to show you after one week of student workshops)

So, what does happen when we give young people a few simple writing tools and FREEDOM ?

I’m excited to be able to share snippets of work that some brilliant 13 and 14 year old writers at Didcot Girls’ School have created this week. (And I should add that these are drafts produced in a very limited space of time. I am entirely unashamed of their crossings out and spelling mistakes.)

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The quality and originality of their writing wasn’t the only thing that blew me away!

Just take a look at some of their brief reflections on the workshop process:

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So this evidence all begs the question: What do we need to do to provide an environment that enables young people’s creativity to flourish?

I think that the most important element is summed up by one student here –

‘I loved how much freedom we were given.’

Reassure these young writers that there are no ‘rules’; that there are no right or wrong answers; that there is no pressure to offer up what they write; that this writing is first and foremost PLAY and EXPERIMENTATION.

Then sit back and wait…

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An emerald forest of a book: A Review of Pascale Petit’s poetry collection, ‘Mama Amazonica’

590f9f5c5b381If you’ve been bewitched by ‘Blue Planet 2’, incredulous at its scale of underwater life, shocked by its prey and predators, then be prepared to be equally transported by the poetry in ‘Mama Amazonica’.

Petit’s collection is an emerald forest of a book.

The power of Petit’s poetry here, I think, lies in her grafting and splicing of worlds. She transplants experience and trauma into the most unexpected of places: rainforests. Her mother, who was mentally ill, is perpetually reincarnated within this tropical world as an array of dangerous and glorious creatures, and in the poems we witness Petit’s struggles as she encounters these, and attempts to make sense of her altered world.

The metaphorical leaps in Petit’s writing are swift and full-bodied. At times, she shows us glimmers of harmony between mother and daughter, but mostly we get an overwhelming sense of alienation and displacement, experienced by Petit:

‘…I wanted warmth/but you are all the colours of drought.’      (from ‘in the Giraffe House’)

Her pain resonates and reaches us.

Cries for preservation of the rich ecosystems of the rainforests also ripple through the poems, reminding us of what we’ve lost, and what we still stand to lose if we continue to decimate these precious parts of our planet.

After reading ‘Mama Amazonica’, I think what Petit leaves for us is a reminder of our essential ties to each other, along with the knowledge that our damage and scars can potentially be transformed into something vital and vibrant.

#Letsdothiskids – Discoveries of a school Patron of Writing

I’m reeling.

I’ve just been reading the creative writing of a bunch of 11 and 12 year olds. Original, compelling, artistically adventurous writing.

Here’s a flavour:

I’m summer, I’m winter,

I’m everything it seems.

Emily W Year 7

She is a record player, playing softly as everyone dances. She smells like warm leather but on the inside: burning.

Natasha S Year 8

He is ocean washing over people, as ocean does, leaving a mark but never staying long enough to be known in full. Deep. Shallow. When he is roused he howls with the wind full force no mercy.

Ellie B-W Year 8

These thoughts, feelings and worlds were captured during a short session in the middle of a school library, just before lunchtime on a Friday (the last day of term in fact, a day when you’d think the kids would be exhausted, depleted and unable to focus on anything except the swiftly advancing school holiday).

The students demonstrated that they can harness imagery and use it to propel themselves forwards; they can reach for the most striking word; they will take risks with poetic lines and whitespace; they are flexing their drafting and editing muscles, with impressive results.

Don’t get me wrong. I know how lucky I am. I’m thrilled to be a part of this. Reading and, even better, hearing THEM read their own work is a huge privilege and an incredible buzz.

In this blog series, I want to capture some of my experiences as a new ‘Patron of Writing’ in a secondary state school. I want to share what’s happening, get it out there, and share what I’m learning about HOW we can make this happen for kids, and WHY it needs to happen – now more than ever.

Since Friday, I’ve been asking myself (in typical writerly egotistical fashion) – What did I do to enable the kids to produce such sublime writing?

The honest answer, I guess, is: it’s all them. It’s not me at all. The fact is, these students are inherently capable of imaginative leaps. They are pretty in touch with their own, and others, emotions. They are eager to learn. They’re unafraid.

That said, in their learning at school they are too often (and I’d argue, increasingly) working under limitations and restrictions. ‘Don’t forget to include X. To get the marks, you must refer to Y. Pens down, this is time to listen.’

(And yes, I am very familiar with how things work, I’m a former secondary English teacher.)

So, in what I see as my role as facilitator (‘Don’t call me ‘Miss’. Call me Elaine’), I started by taking the breaks off. No BUTS or NEVERS. As one of our expectations, as a group, we agreed to ‘ignore the rules’. The kids couldn’t believe their luck. Yes, a bit of a risk, but really worth taking.

So, if I give them a task to describe how they are feeling today, using only colours, they could tell me that they’re feeling ‘green, like the freshest patch of grass’ OR they could tell me in their own imaginative way – to use the language of crisps, maybe they are Pom-Bear. Maybe Space Raiders.

If I move them on to describing a character using a metaphor of place, some might crack on with this immediately. But equally it would be ok for them to be just sitting thinking, staring into space, doodling, writing about the colour of the sky at 3 o-clock yesterday; the way their house smells after it rains; their Mum’s loony driving…

I reassured them that this was ok. It was ALLOWED. In other words, I let them go.

(When were they last ‘let go’ that day? Is that an impossible thing to ask a teacher to do?)

So I’d say that getting kids to write the best that they can (and never put a limit on how staggering that writing can be) doesn’t start with sharing your experience, or with unintimidating pen-to-paper tasks, or with modelling excellent writing (important though these things may be). It starts with giving them permission to think their own way, and then giving them recognition when they start to put those unique thoughts down on paper.

More on this later.

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I’m currently working as Patron of Writing at Didcot Girls’ School, Oxfordshire. For more highlights of my exploits and work-in-progress with young writers, have a look at my Tweets @kitespotter and check out the school Twitter feed @DidcotGirls, along with their website.