One of the unfortunate things about my poor wife being ill over the summer was having to postpone a July visit to Foundry Lane Primary School, Southampton. I had been asked to lead poetry workshops to celebrate the opening of their new Year 2/Year 6 classroom block, and I was very much looking forward to the privilege; but it was not to be.
So one of the best things about this autumn, with our home life back to normal, was being able to reschedule those workshops; and I’ve spent the last two days in that very commodious and impressive new building, having a great time with wonderful kids.
I started off in Assembly, where I talked to the whole school about how I became a poet – a compressed version of my talk to Year 6 at Liphook Junior School last week for their Biography project. I also read my poem ‘The Thought Bird’, about the importance to me of my two black-and-white Moleskine notebooks, one large and one small, which I compare to a baby magpie and its mother. Talk and poem seemed to go down well: they certainly generated some questions later on in the classrooms.
Then it was off to work with the Year 2s. As well as having the new building, Foundry Lane is celebrating its centenary this year, so Literacy leader Jack had asked me to use Time as my theme. I’d noticed on the school website that they had a ‘History Cabinet’, so Jack and I raided it for lots of school things that would have been commonplace there at some time in the past. Among these were slates and slate pencils; fountain pens with ceramic ink wells; an old school bell; and a battered leather satchel that took me straight to my first days at Kings Road Infant School, Chandlers Ford, back in 1977.
In the classroom, I got the Years 2s exploring these objects: picking them up, using them, opening them, shaking them, seeing what noise they could make (and in the case of the bell, that was a lot of noise). We also talked about how they could have been used, what the children thought of them, what they’d noticed about them. Then it was easy to get them jotting down some words they could use in the poem. Lastly in this stage, we talked about ways to make comparisons, and the table groups came up with as many as they could – the satchel as a brain holding lots of information, the slate as an ipad, and so on. (One of my favourites was the fountain pens as arrows, hitting Literacy targets right in the middle!).
For the drafting of the poem, I gave them quite a bit of help with the structure. I wrote an example poem in front of them, using their ideas to help me, which had a clear pattern of ‘starter phrases’. Then they could use it as a pattern for their own work if they wanted. Most did, but some felt confident enough to make up their own structures, which was great to see. We finished off with some sharing time, when very proud kids stood up and read their work.
It was great fun working with these pupils; I love the range and energy of the ideas that children this age come up with, once someone has given them a bit of a start.
In the evening, I took the objects to a Parent-and-Child evening, and they were no less popular there: lots of kinds from other years came and did, in miniature, the same exploring-thinking-writing process. I think it’s hard to beat hands-on stuff as a stimulus for writing at that age.
Next day, I worked with Year 6. We used the objects again, and the explorations of them were just as vigorous, but obviously the discussions afterwards were more developed; and I extended the jotting-down-notes stage quite a bit. When it came to drafting, I asked them not just to describe the objects, but to make the object speak, just as I had made my ‘Thought Birds’ speak in my poem. We got some wonderful results from this: often the objects struck a note of real sadness at not being in the hands of children every day, as they used to be. We also had time for a ‘Going Backwards’ poem, in which I asked the children to write about something they did that morning, then yesterday, then last week, going further and further back in time, till they ended up writing about things that happened before they were born, and even before the universe was created. Being more abstract, this was a more challenging poem to write, but the children responded well, and came up with some striking images for before the universe existed – ‘a blank page with no pen, ink, or paper’, for example.
Again, these sessions were brilliantly fun and rewarding. When I left the first classroom, the teacher asked the kids what they wanted to do. ‘Write more poems!’ was the answer. When I popped back down after finishing with the other class, they were waving their new poems at me and jumping up and down, asking me to read them. It was astonishing and lovely to see such enthusiasm.
But perhaps the best moment came when the Deputy Head and the Head of Literacy both made special trips to the classroom to congratulate one lad with a very troubled background. He’d written three stunning poems, and been exemplary throughout the class. Usually their special trips are for quite other reasons; for this day at least, he had a good experience at school. I hope it continues to mean something to him.
Finally, it was time for me to really earn my stripes as a poet. Throughout the two days I’d been collecting phrases from the children in answer to questions about their school. From these, I selected and arranged until I had a Foundry Lane School Poem, to be read in Assembly at the end of the week. I hope they like it! It wasn’t hard to make it celebrate the school: the kids were full of praise for their ‘learning universe’, and after two very happy days there, I can see why.