Wednesday, 4 December 2013

First Trip*

*I should clarify: this is about the first trip since I officially started this blog. (Also, I have to stick with the 'Firsts' of the blog titles, which is proving to be a challenge). I have been on many First Story trips in the past, from residentials in Somerset and Shropshire to the First Story Festival at Lady Margaret Hall in Oxford.

First Story students from Larkmead, Cheney and Oxford Spires Academy gathered together at the Pitt Rivers museum to work with Kate Clanchy, Tim Pears, and Julie Bolitho-Lee. We were separated into three groups, giving the students a chance to work with different young people and different writers. It was a really mixed group, with some fresh little year 7s, some gifted and talented children, and some inclusion students.

Tour guides from the Pitt Rivers showed us around, highlighting specific items in the museum. If you have ever been to the Pitt Rivers, you will know that it is full of acquisitions! There is hardly room to turn around, but this is it's charm. As our tour guide informed us, most museums work on the idea that they have the best of something - the best portraits, the oldest artefacts, the most unique exhibits. But the Pitt Rivers has the most of everything - twenty different boomerangs from loads of different countries, thousands of materials from hundreds of eras. They reckon they have items from all but five nations!

Naturally, we could not see everything there - I have been often and I still see something new each time I visit - so we focused on a few select areas. We looked at items that would have been given as an offering in the hope of medical cures or blessings from the Gods. We debated what might be in some mystical bottles, thought to contain witches. We saw the totem pole that stands tall in the centre of the museum. But best of all, we got to look at some local artefacts: magical potatoes from Cowley, believed to ward off rheumatism, and mandrake root from Headington, which would have been used in love potions.

Then it was time to write. As a starter, Kate got us to write word photos, which are short poems designed to capture a specific moment or item. We thought about things we had seen in the museum, and had to select just three adjectives and keep our poems to about ten words. This was a lovely little task to get us thinking about how language can best be utilised, and it encouraged us to keep things short.

For the main element of the workshop, we talked about our 'demons'. Kate asked us to think about creating a container in which we could trap all our dark memories and bad habits and pet peeves. Students were encouraged to write about whatever came to mind, from their hatred off-brand ketchup to their fears of not fitting in.

When we all gathered together again, every group had something to show off about. Students in the other groups wrote list poetry or flash fiction, starting with the phrase: "The night I was locked in the museum..." It was interesting that a lot of the students used the totem pole in their writing, highlighting what a significant feature of the Pitt Rivers museum it is.

My students came away from the trip feeling freshly inspired and with new techniques for creative writing. I love having the chance to work with students and authors from other schools, sharing in their experience and creative processes. I appreciate that these events are complicated to organise, but First Story should be incredibly proud of all the opportunities they are providing for young people across the country.

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