Monday, 24 March 2014

First Poetry Podcast

Last week, BBC Radio visited Oxford Spires Academy to record for a special show about the vast culture of creative writing across the school and the success we have seen in this area. This is just a little sample demonstrating how wonderful the students are that I am lucky enough to work with on a daily basis!

Tuesday, 18 March 2014

First Draft

Today, we looked at the first draft of our anthology and it made me cry.

Over the last six months, Kate has been collecting in the work produced each week. She calls it 'Kate's Magic Writing Up Service' and she will turn scraps of paper into 'proper-looking' poems. As such, we find it is rather easy to get an anthology together, with Kate and the students selecting their best pieces and arranging them in an order that has style and fluidity.

Today, Kate proposed that our anthology might be called Wings. This is because we have some lovely poems in which wings feature, including a poem about a young boy's dream of being a superhero. We also hope this will lend itself to a brilliant cover design, and we are trying to recruit one of our art students to design it!

There is a mixure of poetry and prose throughout our first draft; some are funny and some are heart-wrenching; some are from the heart and some are pure fantasy. We try and put in at least two poems from every student, and with all the groups we have, this means we get a packed, varied collection.

Even though I have read many of these pieces of poetry and prose before, or have heard early versions read out during our First Story classes, I was touched when reading them all together. There is something special about knowing who has written a poem, and it is humbling when they share this little piece of themselves with you.

As we wind down towards the end of the year, First Story will take a slighly different appearance in our school. There will be a lot of administration for me to deal with, especially in preparation for our anthology launch, and students will become increasingly preoccupied with their examinations. However, this is a great opportunity for Kate to do some innovative things with students in other areas of the school!

Sunday, 16 March 2014

A First World War Poetry Showcase

This weekend, I took one of Oxford Spires' sixth form students to a national poetry recitation competition: Poetry by Heart. This innovative and exciting celebration of poetry involves students selecting and learning poems off by heart, exploring and presenting them in their own voices.

In order to be invited to the regional finals in London, Esme had to compete in a number of rounds in school and against other schools in the county. A few weeks ago, Miss Woolley and I escorted Esme to the Oxfordshire heat at the Old Fire Station in the city centre, where she recited her three chosen poems to an exclusive audience.

Esme worked very hard to learn these poems, especially considering how many other responsibilities and commitments she has. The poems she selected are true reflections of the person she is, and she inhabited them like they were her own. The competitors had to chose one poem written before 1914, one poem written after 1914, and one poem from the First World War, to honour the centenary. Her poems were:

Since there were not many entries from Berkshire, the two counties were combined, and although Esme performed magnificently, she lost out to a confident and passionate competitor from St Gabriel's School for Girls.

But two weeks later, we received a letter inviting her to the regional finals - apparently, although the overall winner for that heat was from Berkshire, the organisers still wanted a competitor from Oxforshire and Esme was chosen.

As such, we ended up in London this weekend, sharing in a wonderful celebration of the written and spoken word. The schedule was made up of a variety of events, including a literary bus tour via Poet's Corner in Westminster Abbey and past the spot where Sherlock fell off St Bartholomew's Hospital (my risk assessment did not account for the level of excitement experienced by Esme and I), a visit to BBC Broadcasting House to record her The Things That Matter for Poetry Please, and the regional and national finals.

The South East heat was the first of the regional finals, and it was immediately clear that the competition was tough, though the interpretations and performances varied. Where multiple students had selected the same poem, each recitation seemed completely different as competitors interpreted the words in different ways. But what I loved the most was the way each reader so completely adopted the poems as their own, and the support they gave each other when they were up on stage and mingling elsewhere during the weekend.

I have come home from this weekend with my love for poetry completely reinvigorated, and plan to spend today dipping in and out of various anthologies, as well as trawling the Poetry by Heart website. I hope Kate and I can draw from Esme's success and extend the value and love of recitation through the school.

To find out more about Poetry by Heart, or register for the competition, visit

Tuesday, 11 March 2014

First Things First

I am always looking for ways to improve the library, making it more accessible and comfortable for the students at Oxford Spires Academy. I have found that the best results come from consultation with the library users, and now, we are beginning to initiate student-led projects across school through the Learn to Lead program.

This week, Kate wanted to work one-to-one with each of our First Story students to look at which pieces of work will go in the anthology and which might need further development. Meanwhile, I took the other young writers and gave them the opportunity to be creative in another way, through thinking about possible renovations that could be made to the library.

Upstairs there is a large, empty space that is currently used for meetings or silent study. However, it is poorly decorated, completely uninspiring, and often misused. I would love for it to become a hub for creativity and reflection, and proposed that the students might like to lead a project to turn it into a Poetry Hub.

So we met with our Learn to Lead teacher, Mrs Fisher, to look at our options and think up some ideas about how the space might be improved. We started by thinking about what is good about it at the moment, and we agreed that it was exclusive, usually peaceful, and perfect for independent study. However, when we discussed the issues with it, we thought it is unattractive, uncomfortable and subject to disturbances from noisy students from elsewhere in the library and the courtyard outside.

Then, the creative writing students discussed how they might like to see it changed. We had some brilliant (and some strange) ideas, such as giving it a fresh lick of paint, buying some more comfortable furniture, and adding some inspiring stock to the shelves. They also wanted to decorate the walls with quotes from famous writers and asked if we could alter the lighting to induce a more relaxed mood. The sixth formers were keen for the area to remain somewhat exclusive to avoid misuse, and agreed some rules should be developed, but also wanted it to be open to kids from all year groups, offering anyone the opportunity to use the space for inspiration and writing.

We ended the session by creating an action plan, helping us work out what we need to do next, step by step, starting with a meeting to propose the plan to our Principal. The students will have a lot of work to make this come together, but were enthusiastic and motivated to make the necessary changes. Our aim is to get it looking better sometime during the summer term, so we have lots to be keeping us busy!

Friday, 7 March 2014

And First Place Goes to....

I am incredibly excited to be able to announce that the Oxford Young Writer of the Year 2014 is Coral Dalitz from Cheney School.

Over the last few months, students from across the city schools in Oxford have been creating poetry and prose to enter into this new and exciting competition. Judge David Constantine, internationally acclaimed poet, had a hard job to read through the brilliant writing and select a group of finalists and just one winner.

This is the second year that Oxford Spires Academy have hosted this competition, with support from Kate Clanchy. We liaise with the other state schools across the city, working with librarians and English teachers, to give students the opportunity win a creative writing workshop with David Constantine and the title of Oxford Young Writer of the Year.

We got a number of entries from lots of schools in the area, and this competition is specifically targeted at state schools, as many more prestigious competitions tend to favour students from state schools. The competition welcomes poetry, prose, and scripts, meaning we get an interesting variety of literature submitted.

The Finalists 2014
At the end of an exciting and slightly busy World Book Day, we invited the finalists to a special workshop with David Constantine, and all other entrants were invited to a class with Kate Clanchy. Unfortunately, David was unable to attend due to illness, so our friend Alan Buckley stepped in to do the honours. All over the school, we had creative geniuses buzzing with inspiration.

Following the workshop, we invited students, parents and teachers to the Library for the finalists to read their writing aloud. There was an array of themes covered, from migration to childhood dreams to badger culling. All the students were confident in their performances, demonstrating their love for writing and poetry or prose. I was incredibly proud that even the seemingly quiet teenagers could be heard from the back of the room.

I love hosting events like this in the Library, during which creativity can be celebrated and success is shared. All present were astounded by the quality of the writing and reading aloud, and the diversity of the poetry and prose.

 Keep abreast of next year's competition by visiting the website at

Thursday, 6 March 2014

Definitely Not the First World Book Day

World Book Day is the biggest day of a School Librarian's year, taking months of planning and culminating in one manic day of celebration and sharing.

Today, we were honoured to welcome Chris Priestley to Oxford Spires, author of brilliant spine-chilling novels such as the Tales of Terror and The Dead Men Stood Together. Chris gave talks to students in Years 7, 8 and 9, and was then available in the Library during lunch time selling and signing his books. He is very popular amongst a range of children at our school, and I love that he appeals to girls and boys, young and old.

Our students were engaged and attentive, producing some challenging and unusual questions to ask our visitor. One boy asked Chris how he imagined death. Later clarification revealed that he was not asking Chris how he envisioned his own death, but how he thought 'death' might appear if personified in physical form.

Chris also met with our creative writing sixth form students, talking to them about writing, editing and publishing. There were some really interesting things that I took away, during which he explained the inspiration for some of his metafiction novels and highlighted the importance of planning (even though he confessed he hated the process). He talked about plotting the story in key moments from 1 to 10, so you have a clear image of where you are going. Otherwise, many writers start out with an idea, but cannot complete the novel because they have no conclusion.

If you are feeling unable to edit something, Chris suggests you put the work in a drawer for six months and come back to it later, fresh with new perspectives and ideas. Apparenly, some publishers even edit backwards, which enables them to focus more on the language and structure rather than getting engrossed in the plot and distracted from the process. I think I might have to try this out!

We were really pleased with World Book Day this year. Alongside our author visit, we run competitions for the students, including challenging them to write book reviews and fifty word mini-saga, which I cannot wait to read. We have had tonnes of brilliant entries, even from students who don't consider themselves to read or write very well. All around school, we have a great buzz about reading - the sign of a truly successful World Book Day.

Tuesday, 4 March 2014

Read First, Then Write

Bullet in the Brain is a weirdly funny piece of writing by Tobias Wolff. In an attempt to get our students to write more prose, Kate asked us to read it before this session, and I was entranced by the detail and beauty of such a dark piece of writing. It is about a pretentious book critic who, when confronted with a gun, regresses into sarcasm rather than submitting in silence. The result is a bullet in the brain, and Wolff details the final moments of Anders' life, recounting the memories that come to the fore of his mind.

As a group, I think we struggle to write prose, feeling more comfortable with poetry. To loosen us up, Kate started us with writing about memories (it was up to us whether they were from our own experience or imaginary), prompting us with starter sentences like, "I remember the grass..." or "I remember the sea...". In Wolff's piece, he lists all the things that Anders does not remember before detailing one seemingly insignificant memory, which is the last thing he thinks about before he dies. So Kate advised us to use a similar style, pinpointing a unique, unusual moment for our characters to be thinking about.

A lot of the pieces were rather dark, probably due to using Wolff as inspiration. Many recounted suicides or deaths, from jumping off a bridge to waking from an overdose, though we also had some more optimistic writing in the group. But all the memories, fictional or otherwise, were magical, written to make the tiniest detail become powerful and emotive.

Even Miss Woolley managed to write something serious!

Kate has challenged the young writers to expand on this writing, turning it into a short story. Since we only have an hour or so each week, it is impossible for the young writers to create anything particularly long in that time: today's pieces were about 500 words. Plus, some of our students have a habit of leaving a piece to fester and not adding to it - either because they think it is complete or because they are embarrassed to read over their own work - but we are trying to encourage them to look at the writing of prose as they do poetry, as an ongoing process of revision and improvement. So hopefully, we will have some marvelous pieces of prose to read soon. It is brilliant to see the students so quickly inspired by a piece of prose!