Sunday, 25 January 2015

Ownership is Everything

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.

Engaging Students in Poetry in the School LibraryWhen the students feel like the library is theirs – a safe environment in which they can share and create – the poetry produced is awe-inspiring. The library is at the centre of creative writing, and creative writing is the centre of Oxford Spires Academy. 

Monday, 5 January 2015

Shadowing the T. S. Eliot Prize

Creative reading is the cornerstone of creative writing. Our group of young poets and novelists meet once a week, and as their Librarian, I bombard them with words and reading. So I was thrilled by the structured resources available through the T S Eliot Shadowing Scheme.

The group, consisting of six A-level students, had been asked to read the poems in advance, each to varying levels of detail. Some had read every poem I had given them or had even sought out the full published collections, whilst others had dipped in and out of one and two.

The discussion began with me asking a few of them about their favourites. Chad read out ‘The Wandered’ by Ruth Padel, which he engaged with because of the reflective tone – he loved the image of the mother’s pies, with a ceramic bird “whose yellow beak cracked the crust”.

Thus, we moved on to Gluck’s ‘The Past’, and compared the style. It was noted that ‘The Past’ reminded us of Emily Dickinson, with wavering lines, some seemingly unfinished, the flow creating an almost visible movement to match the words.

I proposed Kevin Powers as my favourite. Sophie highlighted the way he seems to say one thing and mean another, and the prominence the effect of war has had on his writing. We had recently looked at writing in the second person, and Powers demonstrates the impact of writing in this way with the present tense: lines like “Think of missing so often it becomes absurd” seemed to have a different meaning to each of us.

We talked about the importance of length on our engagement with poetry, as many of the students confessed to being unable to maintain focus with the longer of the selection. In an attempt to disprove this theory, I read Hugo Williams’ ‘I Knew the Bride’, which I had shared with some teaching colleagues and they had loved. Williams uses similar techniques to Powers, including the second person narrative voice. But when we came to discuss the poem, most of our group confessed to having switched off, around the point Williams talks about “practising our jiving / for the Feather’s Club Ball at the Lyceum”. We discussed that the opening lines and final stanza were painfully and beautifully emotive, and when we looked in more detail at the poem, individuals confessed to being touched by certain lines in the mid-section: “You fought a five-year war / with that foul thing” was the cause of much speculation – what was “that foul thing”?

Finally, the quietest of our group suggested we discuss ‘Icefield’ by David Harsent. It was the imagery in this poetry that stood out, the darkness of the sounds that run through each line, and the contradictory enlightenment that the reader experiences. We discussed the overriding darkness that seemed to run throughout the whole selection, and the students reflected that their best poetry of late had been similarly melancholy.

One student asked if our favourites conformed to what we think should or will win? We discussed the difference between popular culture and high culture more widely. But the consensus seemed to be that David Harsent’s words – with the cemented description paving the way to powerful imagery – were what stayed with us most strongly. Thus, the Oxford Spires Academy creative writing club concluded this to be our winner.

But we are very much looking forward to the official winner being announced on 12th January.

Wednesday, 17 December 2014

Memorisation and Recitation

Last year, one of Oxford Spires' star students won the Oxfordshire final of Poetry by Heart and was invited to London for the national finals. (Read about it here.)

This week, following on from the success of Performance Poetry Day with Bridget Minamore, we have successfully maintained a flow of creative momentum in the library.

Poetry by Heart is a recitation competition open to students aged 15-18. It is a celebration of poetry, in which students select a poem from the archive, learn it by heart, and deliver it to an engaged audience of poetry lovers.

At Oxford Spires, we wanted to get some of the younger students excited about recitation, as well as seek a champion to represent the school at the regional finals in January. As such, we set up two competitions - one for the potential OSA representative, and one to get the lower school excited about poetry and their possible future success in this competition.

Last Friday, the English department selected up to ten students from years 7, 8 and 9 to come to the library for a mad flash training session. We had a mix of boys and girls, some fairly confident and some pretty quiet, some poetry lovers and some more apathetic individuals. The first hour was spent selecting the poetry they would recite, scrolling through the Poetry by Heart website, but also looking at some of the books on the shelves of the library - talking about what we liked, what we didn't like, and sharing poems that we had found.

We only had a short amount of time with the lower school students, so in the second hour, Kate Clanchy gave the students some tips on how to learn off by heart. In corners all around the room, students were practicing with friends and celebrating the written word.

Finally, it was time for the students to recite their poems. Having had such a short space of time, many did not know theirs off by heart, but we wanted to create an atmosphere of celebration and excitement around poetry, so did not put too much pressure on the children. There was no 'winner', but Kate and I were so impressed by the articulation and delivery of the students, especially those who we thought lacked in confidence.

 One student, who had been a finalist for our in school poetry competition, had not read her winning poem out the day before in assembly, but stood on stage in front of her peers and read off by heart in our event.

Yesterday, we hosted the competition for the upper school (predominantly creative writing students), to find Oxford Spires' Poetry by Heart finalist. These students had more time to prepare - it is a competition, after all! Mrs Croft attended as a judge, and the sixth formers read their poems with pride and love. It was incredible that they all seemed to select poems that sounded like something they would have written themselves.

There was one student who stood out amongst the rest - Asima is an intelligent and well-read girl who writes bright, merry poetry, and who has come on an incredible journey from a timid teen to a confident young woman. We are very excited for the Oxfordshire and Berkshire final next month at the Old Fire Station.

Friday, 5 December 2014

Just, Wow!

On Wednesday 3rd, we were honoured to welcome Bridget Minamore to Oxford Spires Academy for our second Performance Poetry Day.

Read about the first Performance Poetry Day here.

Bridget is an inspiring young writer and performer who spent the day working with a select group of fourteen and fifteen year old students. She carried out workshops to develop their skills in storytelling, creative writing and performing. The day ended with students performing their work to their classmates.

At the start of the day, the students seemed a little embarrassed and nervous. Bridget encouraged them to tell stories about themselves, in part to get to know their names but also to help them relax. The group consisted of high ability students, both boys and girls, with varying levels of confidence - some had been selected specifically in the hope that this event might boost their self-esteem.

Throughout the writing workshops, the students revealed their creativity, impressing Bridget and their classmates. Some are First Story veterans, but many would probably consider themselves reluctant poets, so I was thrilled by how engaged they became with the writing.

In the last lesson of the day, after Bridget had worked with everyone in small groups to develop their performance skills, all the students stood on the library stage and read their work. There was great variety in the subjects explored (as Bridget had given them free reign to write about whatever they wanted to), and in their performance styles, each student revealing their true colours through how they held themselves in front of the mic.

On a personal note, it was so nice to spend the day with Bridget - she is clever and open and is brilliant at working with kids, making my day so easy and enjoyable.

Here is a little sample of some of the students' work, from Y9s, Renad, Ulfat and Mukahang:
As a trio we agree
What a poem should or shouldn't be
Although each of us a different nationality
We are all beings of abnormality
 To each on our own
Our own stories to be told
 Though we all came from different places
We all have one person in our heart spaces
Our inspiration plays a big role in our lives
Our motivation, our hero, our mothers. 

We would like to thanks the John Betjeman Poetry Competition for Young People for making this event possible.

Friday, 14 November 2014

Number 10

So last night I found myself in Number 10 Downing Street.

Yeah, I know, right?!

(Right to left:) Mrs Croft, Esme, me!
Fortunately for you, there is photographic evidence, albeit from outside the infamous historical home of the British Prime Minister (we weren't allowed to take phones inside).

I attended the reception with the Oxford Spires Principal, Mrs Croft, and one of our star creative writers, Esme. The event was hosted by Frances Osbourne for First Story, and Esme was thrilled to give a speech about why she loved the charity so much.

Esme and I left school after lunch to visit the V&A (my favourite museum) and release some of the nervous excitement we were both holding on to. In the Islamic Art section, Esme rehearsed her speech and poem one final time - she was presenting a new piece written just last week; a piece which reflects her growing maturity and independence and the incredible impact of First Story on her life.

She spoke about the presence of Kate Clanchy in our school, the friends she had made and they changes she had seen in their self-confidence, and how much she loves the way First Story see her not just as a student and teenager but as a writer

At Number 10, I was so relieved to be surrounded by my friends from First Story (having held myself together for most of the day in order to keep Esme calm, I found myself tipping over into childish excitement by the time we arrived).

David Cameron was not there, but Mrs Osbourne welcomed us all and introduced Esme and Reem, another First Story alumni who read an emotional poem about her home country. The venue was better than I could have imagined - we walked up the staircase lined with images of past Prime Ministers, and the rooms were filled with extravagant chandeliers and priceless art.

I am still reeling of the thrill of it all - I feel so privileged to have been invited and to have visited Number 10.

Wednesday, 5 November 2014

Poetry Hub Update

I thought it was about time I wrote a little update regarding our progress with the Poetry Hub at the Oxford Spires Library.

Earlier this year, a group of creative writing students initiated a Learn to Lead project in the Library, by which they would transform an unused space into a comfortable, inspirational environment for reading and writing.

In the final few weeks of the last academic year, I met with the group (a mix of students from year 8 through to sixth formers, participating as much as they could between revision sessions and exams), and we managed to develop a proposal to take to the Principal, Mrs Croft. The proposal included a breakdown of their objectives and intended outcomes, including removal of the existing furniture (some dirty blue chairs), cleaning of the walls and carpets, and the purchase and installation of the new seating and lighting.

Mrs Croft was excited by our proposal, and was happy to fund labour and furniture from the Learn to Lead budget, with thanks to Oxford City Council.

Over the summer break, the brilliant site team removed a block of old wooden shelving along the back wall, and it was discovered that the wall behind it was not in a good state. As a result, the area required more cleaning and redecorating than expected; but I returned in September to rediscover that the carpet was a beautiful bright purple - a colour I hadn't seen before due to all the grime and dirt trodden in to it.

Through September, I caught up with all the Learn to Lead students to get their thoughts on the specific furniture they wanted in the Poetry Hub. They asked for a sofa, bean bags, new chairs, and space dividers, so they can block out the sounds of the students in the rest of the library and enclose themselves in privacy.

I have taken to ordering a little of the furniture at a time, so that we can see how it looks before we can add to it. But I am under full instruction from the students who keep coming to tell me what to do next - I have never been bossed around quite this much, and I love it!

The Poetry Hub is well on it's way to being an ideal space for creative writing and reading, though there is still work to be done. More furniture is on it's way, and Kate and I are still looking for sources to fund some new shelving and additional stock. But for ambitious perfectionists like our Learn to Lead Poetry Hub team, nothing is impossible.

Hopefully more news to follow soon!

Monday, 6 October 2014

Foyle and Betjeman Competitions

Thursday 2nd October has to be one of my favourite days of 2014.

Kate and I travelled to London together, where we met with the families of two of our students, Jasmine and Helen.

Jasmine was one of the 15 'super winners' of the Foyle Young Poet of the Year competition, whilst Helen was highly commended, along with another student, Emee. Elsewhere, both Helen and Jasmine were finalists for the John Betjeman Poetry Competition for Young People; a competition in which Jasmine had been a finalist in 2013 as well!

We started our day at Royal Festival Hall, where a variety of celebratory events were taking place for National Poetry Day. On the fifth floor, the one hundred commended poets and winners of the Foyle met and shared their success. Grace Nichols and Simon Barraclough had done an incredible job of selecting the best poems from over 13,000 entries, and we were privileged to hear the best fifteen read aloud. There was a great variety, including comedy, philosophy and epic descriptions. Hearing poetry read aloud by the individual who wrote it adds meaning to the work, and even the youngest of the winners read with confidence and fluency.

I was also honoured to be recognised by the Poetry Society as a Teacher Trailblazer. It is no secret that I simply love my work.

From the Southbank, we traveled north, up to St Pancras, where the prize ceremony for the Betjeman competition takes place. It shows the brilliance of the young writers at Oxford Spires that Helen and Jasmine had two different poems shortlisted in two different competitions.

Alongside a statue of John Betjeman, Helen and Jasmine read their poems, along with the third finalist, Noah Bodley Scott. We were so proud when Helen was announced as the winner - her poem is complex and sharp, especially for a thirteen year old!

On my journey home at the end of National Poetry Day, I felt infected with love for the written word, so was relieved to have so many poetry books to entertain me.