“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 – 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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Wishing I could have lingered longer

IMG_0590I know better these days than to pack in more than two events in one day at Ledbury Poetry Festival. I need time to bask in this chocolate-box town’s poetic tradition. Time to think. Drink coffee. And ultimately (hopefully): write.

But I was entirely satisfied by my two carefully chosen events (when the brochure arrives, how on earth to choose?) I had opted for a writing workshop with Tony Hoagland and an interview with the ‘Editors’, namely: Neil Astley, Amy Wack and Luke Allan, quizzed on stage by Debbie Taylor.

Led like a child by a poetic Pied Piper, I was enthusiastic to follow Hoagland’s lead and “write wildly” – sitting sipping my coke beside such a charismatic, mature thinker, quite frankly, who wouldn’t be? I came away with some pretty interesting free writing and some useful motivational quotations, including:

“Pleasure is a goal of art making …Get out and play!”

I love a poet who thinks, and works, like this.

I was caught off guard during ‘Meet the Editors’ – I wasn’t expecting Neil Astley (Bloodaxe Books) to make me cry, but his reading of the late Helen Dunmore’s poetry was staggering in its beautiful precision, power and raw loss.

After hearing Luke Allan’s story of how he “got into the business”, I came away with nothing but admiration for these Indie poetry publishers and the sacrifices they make, to support and further the work of poets. It gives me hope. And a certain pride in this poetry community that I consider myself to be a part of.

It goes without saying that the Festival dates are already in my diary for next summer.