‘those so-called/ exams’

This blog is a platform for sharing many things, one of the most vital of these things being: excellent writing created by some of the talented students I work with in my role as Patron of Writing at Didcot Girls’ School.

And here’s a poem by one of those talented students, Seth Gay (Year 9). Here they use their work to reflect, in a personal manner, on the extent to which schools have become ‘exam factories’ and pressure cookers, as a result of the Key Stage 3 and 4 curriculum changes in recent years:

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Poem copyright Seth Gay 2018 ©

Thanks Seth for allowing me to publish this startling poem. And get those poems to me, students at Didcot Girls!

#LetsDoThisKids 11: Proof

I can’t believe I’m nearly at the end of my 20 week mentoring journey with the wonderful young writers at Didcot Girls’ School!

But it ain’t over till it’s over, and today’s session may be one of our best …why?

…because today the writers will hold in their hands and feast their eyes on their published anthology, for the first time.

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Holding your crafted words in physical form, in hard copy, in ink on paper, is a moment of almost indescribable emotion for any writer. It can often become a landmark moment that changes the course of the future for that one writer. And that is the reason why I wanted to publish these talented writers’ work, at the end of this mentoring programme.

And the proof, as they say, is in the pudding, so here’s a taster:

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(Please note, poems are copyright of Halle Kennedy, 2018 ©)

There are moments in reading this when the world stands still.

We are all justifiably proud of this anthology. It offers up powerful and compelling voices throughout, captured in provocative and original form.

As well as being their publishing debut, it’s my debut as Editor, and it’s been an absolute pleasure to work one-to-one with the writers in editing. When it came to putting all the work together I was a bit like that kid in the sweet-shop. The work is strong and holds its own on every page but it was exciting to see new threads emerge as I started to put poems side-to-side and back-to-back.

Excitement is mounting for our anthology launch event, taking place next week, on June 13th. I know that the experience of reading their work aloud, in front of people closest to them, who most likely have never heard ANY of their writing before, is a huge challenge.

Another emotional leap. Another first.

So in today’s session we start our launch preparation with some of my top tips for performing your poetry. Much of this has been gleaned from my 25+ years’ experience of performance, so I think it will come in handy for our young poets, many of whom will be first-time performers.

Here are my ‘top tips’ for performance. I hope they are useful for you, too.

Take away Task/ Elaine’s Top Tips for Performance

 Prepare:

At home, rehearse out loud. Use the copy you’ll read from on the day. Do this once a day every day before the event. Know those lines.

Before you read:

Bring a water bottle

Go to the toilet (!)

Breathe

When it’s your turn to read:

Accept your nerves. They are there to help your body perform to its best.

When you get to the front, take a moment. This is your time. Establish your presence. Feel the earth under you.

Breathe

Throw your voice. Aim to hit the back wall.

Always introduce yourself by saying your name before you read.

Read slowly. You can’t read poetry too slowly.

Respect your line breaks & stanza breaks. Give them pause.

Look up at the audience frequently, by skimming the tops of their heads with your eyes. You don’t have to look them in the eye. This will help them to connect with you and your words.

Read from the heart, feeling your words. Then the audience will feel them too.

Enjoy it. This is YOUR MOMENT and you’ve earned it.

 

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#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

“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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#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.