#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.

A Happy Clearing

pexels-photo-396714There has been some movement in my head. One way to describe this might be to say that, for months, I’ve been a bit like someone trying to take a stroll through a deep jungle, as if it were my local High Street. Which is, of course, impossible and ridiculous.

I’ve been hacking away at tangled ideas, attempting to make some kind of pathway to move myself through. Slow, messy work.

But I’ve had a ‘moment’ – the chaos has suddenly thinned out and I’ve unexpectedly tripped and fallen into a kind of thought clearing.

Let me elucidate. My head has been thick with contradictory ideas about what poetry is. Questions like: What should poetry be about? What should poetry do? What is it for? Pretty basic stuff but also pretty foundational. I’ve been continually interrogating my own writing impulse and its results. Perhaps no bad thing?

And the thought that’s opened up for me is this: I need to feel empowered to write what is true. So many philosophers/scientists/artists/thinkers have wrestled with the notion of ‘truth’, I’m not going to regurgitate any of their arguments in this blog, and I wouldn’t pretend to understand half of them! But in terms of poetry, I’ve come to think of ‘true writing’ as poems that are real, or become real while writing, to me at least. Poems that emerge out of a genuine moment/thought/event. I’m beginning to understand that, if the initial impetus is real, then the work has potential to initiate a change in someone, or something, somewhere, beyond myself.

Emile Zola, nineteenth century French writer and activist, believed that truth was potentially unstoppable:

“If you shut up truth and bury it under the ground, it will but grow, and gather to itself such explosive power that the day it bursts through it will blow up everything in its way.”

Emile Zola, attributed, Dreyfus: His Life and Letters’

I’ve realised that it’s not only right and responsible, but do-able to grapple with meaty social issues in poetry, ideas that ripple out into the world outside myself. (Easier said than done to write like this, of course – this will forever be a work in progress!) However, at the same time I’ve also been welcoming the notion that if it’s true, if it’s real, if it feels like me, then it’s worthy of writing, and it can also have the potential power to change things.

I’d also go so far to say that it’s worthy of editing and publishing.

I’m delighted to have a couple of poems with political edge in the current issue of ‘Dream Catcher’ magazine (ed John Gilham, @literaryartsmag) and they sit alongside other work which doesn’t shy away from contemporary global debates. In issue 35 you’ll find honest, ‘true’ responses to Brexit, to Trump, to life. It’s a great read.

Finally, for my mantra, I’m going to borrow some words from the celebratory and momentous American poet Walt Whitman, quoting from his poem ‘All is Truth’:

“And henceforth I will go celebrate anything I see or am,
And sing and laugh, and deny nothing.”

 

Read more about Walt Whitman here

Read the editor’s overview of the current issue of Dream Catcher here

 

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