Tuesday, 10 December 2013

The First Performance Poetry Day

Words cannot describe how elated I feel after the events of today. 

Six months ago, I was watching Jools Holland with my sister when George the Poet graced the screen and my sister and I stopped everything to watch this (note: my sister rarely stops talking, so I knew this was a special moment). I thought he would be an ideal role model for our students: young, intelligent and passionate, with incredible skill in writing and performing poetry.

Today, Oxford Spires hosted the inaugural Performance Poetry Day. We already have some confident and competent performers in school, from alumna Azfa Ali to current First Story students. But today, we targeted the kids who don't usually come into contact with our creative writing activities, offering them an opportunity to work with inspiring and talented young spoken word poets. 

We set up two parallel workshops: one for a select group of twelve boys to work with George and another for twelve girls to work with Azfa. In Azfa's group, she got the students to think about rhythm using playground clapping games, whilst the boys who worked with George impressed us by turning up full of ideas about which they might want to talk and write.

George's enthusiasm for change and hope was infectious. The students instantly respected him and wanted to share with and impress him. He talked about the state of contemporary society and the problems he saw with the current political system and the struggles he anticipated his teenage audience are likely to soon face. The students engaged immediately, talking about misogyny, poverty and racism. In a short space of time, they worked together to create poems about these issues and more, drawing on their own experiences. 

At the end of the day, we crammed as many students as possible into our new Theatre to show off the hard work of the selected workshop students. Those who wanted to perform had the opportunity to stand up in front of their peers and demonstrate their new-found talents. Azfa and George also performed some of their poems, and the students showed their appreciation through applause, sometimes interrupting the performances with clapping and cheering.

I am so proud of the students who were involved with the events today. Kate and I are buzzing, because we have managed to reach a large number of students who previously had little knowledge of the great creative writing activities that take place in our school. Across OSA, everyone is talking about poetry. At last! Our plan now is to create a performance poetry club to take these skills and talents even further!

With thanks to all my colleagues for their help in running Performance Poetry Day; and many, many thanks to the people at the John Betjeman Poetry Competition for Young People for their support and sponsorship for this event.

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.