Amongst all the National Poetry Day celebrations, I was lucky and honoured to be commended for my work with creative writing at Oxford Spires Academy as a Teacher Trailblazer.
Traditionally, this is an accolade awarded to "teachers that showed exceptional dedication to the teaching of poetry in schools"... Previous winners include senior leaders, heads of departments, and those who have been teaching for longer than I have been alive.
I am not a teacher. I am a librarian (and proud of it), so whilst I did not meet the traditional criteria I offered the Poetry Society my top tips for establishing a culture of poetry in a school (rather than my top tips for teaching poetry). Here, I want to expand upon those with some additional detail, and to emphasise that these tips aren't just about establishing a culture of poetry, but about establishing the library as a centre in your school.
Make the Library space and stock all about the students. I love being on the front line in customer service - talking to and sharing with the customers - and none is more interesting than a teenager. They make me laugh and cringe and despair, but they are inspirational. Often, our chats are not related to poetry or reading or the library, but often they come back to talking about books: they like to ask me about my favourite authors and I love to hear about theirs. I encourage the students to recommend books to me – either those they have already read and want to recommend to others, or books they have heard are good and would like to read. I am lucky that I have a good enough budget to be able to purchase most of the books requested, but I am also thrilled that sometimes students bring me their old books as donations.
But it isn't just about stock – the space should suit their needs, too. The OSA library is located in the old school hall, part of the site that dates back to the 1950s. It has a beautiful wooden floor and heavy shelving built into the walls. Architecturally, it is a brilliant historic space, but it is not ideal as a library: the sound ricochets around the room, and there are plenty of dark corners for hiding in. It is a huge contrast to the rest of the school, where our most recent building was opened just twelve months ago and is full of bright open space and various technologies.
There is not a lot I can do with the main area of the library, but I have tried to give the students the opportunity to make it their own. I have posters of students’ creative writing plastered all over the walls, and we have a selection of art projects from ex-students that I would like to expand. I have also been embarking on decorating empty walls with bunting, so pupils have been making little flags for me, loosely themed around books.
We also have an upstairs balcony, which had been unused and unkempt for some time. Last year, I sought out some student leaders to make some changes. I have two Library Prefects, and they have been leading a group of creative writing students in a Learn to Lead initiative, in the hope to make the space into a comfortable, safe and inspiring environment. They took their proposal to the Principal before the summer, who committed enough funding to purchase some new furniture. The Poetry Hub isn't ready quiet yet, but just today I had a sofa delivered! The students selected the furniture and the colour scheme, and they have loved seeing their suggestions come to fruition.
For our library, I want it to be all about empowerment. When they feel that sense of ownership, they make use of the resources and space available, and this massively improves their confidence and literacy. And subsequently, I can see them accessing different poetry and being inspired in their own writing. There was a period when I worried that there seemed to be a decrease in the number of students using the non-fiction section, until the students told me that it was me they weren’t using as much, because they already knew where to find what they wanted.
Maintain momentum, however difficult that may sometimes feel. Don’t let people forget where you are and what you do. Students and staff get so caught up in the pressure of exams and data that they often don’t take the time to indulge in some old fashioned reading for pleasure.
I like the library to constantly be a subject of conversation through the school. This is achieved by ensuring that something is always going on, including (but not limited to):
- The presence of our writer-in-residence, Kate Clanchy, thanks to First Story, who engages with students in their English lessons and in a voluntary after-school club;
- Trips to museums, writing festivals, etc., again many of which are thanks to First Story;
- Inter-House poetry competitions for every year group;
- Success in wider national competitions, such as the Foyle and Betjeman competitions;
- Author visits, such as for World Book Day and our Performance Poetry Day.
In December, performance poet Bridget Minamore visited us to carry out workshops in the library. She had big boots to fill – last year we welcomed George the Poet, who was charming, intelligent, and awed everyone who met him or saw him perform. It is so important to show the wide scope of the possibilities offered by the library – we are not just about books and shushing, but about engagement with the voices of young people, about creativity and developing public speaking skills, and about having fun.
I am lucky that I have incredible support from senior leadership and our English department, but when poetry becomes part of every department, the library becomes part of every department. I have even managed to convince the maths department of the relevance of poetry, because one of the creative writing students wrote about how her mind drifts away during maths lessons!
Encourage every student to recognise that they have a unique voice and a story to tell. This is where the power of poetry can really be identified.
At Oxford Spires, we have a culturally, ethnically and socially diverse mix of backgrounds, and I love hearing about the students’ lives. Creative writing allows them to explore their unique experiences, to share them with others and to articulate what is important to them.
We celebrate our diversity. If a student speaks another language, they are encouraged to integrate it in their poetry, and there are books on the shelves written from and about other cultures.
When I attend creative writing workshops, we often begin by looking at an existing piece of poetry or prose, and we explore the techniques and themes within it. I am always impressed by how different this is from how I learned about poetry at school, which seemed so constricting and regimented. In the OSA First Story group, we try hard to analyse what the poet is saying, and there is definitely no wrong answer. Then we use a starting point taken from the poem, such as a single line or an idea, and we are led wherever our pen takes us.
In a group of fifteen young writers, you will find fifteen uniquely different voices, stories and poems. Some will run on for pages, whilst others will be shorter than a haiku. Some will be based in reality, others will bounce around in the craziest of imaginations. Some will make you laugh, and others will break your heart.