Tuesday, 24 June 2014

Our First Prize-Winner Returns

Azfa is infamous at Oxford Spires and First Story. In 2013, she won the Christopher Tower Poetry Prize with her poem 'Origins'. Now, she has become Oxford Youth Ambassador for Poetry, and we are incredibly excited that she has continued to work with us.

Over the last six months, Azfa has been called upon for a variety of responsibilities and opportunities. Amongst these, we have asked her to judge in-school poetry competitions, known to be a horrendously difficult job. She has been around during our First Story sessions, contributing to and continuing to learn from Kate's workshops. She has worked with some of our Year 7 students, engaging them in creative writing by leading classes and inspiring them to express themselves. And she has visited local primary schools, working with gifted and talented children to push them above and beyond the national curriculum.

It has been a privilege to watch Azfa blossom into a brilliant young writer. When I first met her, she was quiet and thoughtful, always with her head in a book, scribbling away. In February of 2013, I escorted her and a group of girls on an Arvon residential to Shropshire, where she benefited from the peace and quiet, an opportunity to escape the everyday. Since then, she has worked closely with Kate Clanchy, slowly becoming more independent. A few weeks ago, she performed with several of her peers for the Oxford Brookes Outburst Festival at the Pegasus Theatre, and I was blown away by the writing she has produced since officially leaving Oxford Spires. Her poetry is powerful, passionate and personal, engaging with subjects that have touched her and affected her life.

Azfa has done so much for us - too much to list - but her impact is profound, and I am so grateful to have her around. Next year, she shall be leaving Oxford to embark on her university education, and I am not sure what Kate and I will do without her.

Monday, 16 June 2014

First Minibus Adventure

On Friday 13th June, University College London hosted One Day in the City, a day celebrating literature in London. Simultaneously, First Story and UCL welcomed four schools from London, Oxford and Nottingham into various museums across the university to experience creative writing workshops with some of First Story's best writers in residence.

We took eleven enthusiastic and talented young writers from years 7 and 8 on our school minibus, embarking on a journey (on a day riddled with superstition) that I was convinced could only go wrong. Fortunately, we were lucky to be driven by our fabulous caretaker; and the organisers at UCL were amazing - printing us a route map and providing us with suitable parking. And the pupils we took were brilliant - engaged and engaging, creating pieces of work that reflected their surroundings and experiences on the day.

When we arrived in London, we were greeted by helpers clad in yellow t-shirts, milling around and showing people where to go. Oxford Spires were guided by Laura, an MA student at UCL who was very friendly, but knew when to put her foot down (i.e. when we were trying to cross the road and the kids weren't paying attention).

All the guests gathered in a lecture theatre, where we were treated to a performance by Anthony Anaxagorou and Bridget Minamore. I have attended workshops and performances by Anthony in the past, and he is a inspiring and engaging young writer; and Bridget was a welcome breath of fresh air on that overly warm morning. Her poetry was sharp, funny and relevant, cutting right to what her audience were interested in.

The Oxford Spires students were treated to a workshop with Kate Kingsley, author of the Young, Loaded and Fabulous series, in the Grant Museum of Zoology - a space full of pickled animals and leering skeletons. I was so impressed that none of the young writers were scared of the items on display - including a jar full of moles and a stuffed cloned cat - but curiously explored and absorbed. Kate had us writing in different styles, thinking about the tone of our prose or poetry. We selected concepts from a bag, telling us to write in the style of someone who was trapped in the museum, or someone who owned the collection, or like we were in a detective novel. In a short space of time, the young writers had funny, scary and original pieces of prose to share with the group.

Then, Kate asked us to write as if we were one of the museum pieces, imagining we were an animal stuffed or pickled or displayed. Again, the minds of the students created hilarity and drama in a way that only young writers can produce.

At the end of the day, all four groups (each of which had been with a different author in a different part of the university) came back together and selected students shared their work. I was impressed by the variety and quality of work produced in just two hours - and, having been to so many events, I should be used to this by now.

Huge thanks is due to all the wonderful people at First Story (particularly Nikki), the invaluable helpers in yellow shirts, and the organisers of One Day in the City. My pupils came home buzzing, even after hours spent confined to the back of the minibus (being sporadically fed treats in the vain hope of keeping them quiet for a few minutes at a time).

Also, good luck to James Dawson, one of the First Story authors present, who is currently shortlisted for the Queen of Teen Award for great writing in young-adult fiction. Please vote for James here: http://www.queenofteen.co.uk/vote.html

Monday, 9 June 2014

My First Attempt at Anthologising

I'm not sure that anthologising is actually a real word, though Kate and I use it like it is. So let me define it: anthologising refers to the process of bringing together a collection of writing from various authors into one perfect book. Synonyms include 'arranging', 'collating' and 'editing'.

Since we have set a date for our First Story anthology launch, we have to anthologise the writing of our students in preparation for publication. I thought it might be good to gather some top tips for arranging a creative writing anthology, so chatted with Kate and our students to get some ideas.

Step 1: The Content
The first thing we did was ensure we had a great selection of writing to choose from. Kate has been collecting the work of our young writers over the course of the year, meaning we had a great range of writing to choose from. We wanted to ensure that each student is fairly represented, and tried to show of their range, so some students have poetry and prose in our anthology; one even had a piece of playwriting.

Step 2: The Order
The best poetry anthologies have flow and rhythm. Each poem seamlessly leads into the next, even where poems by different authors are alongside each other. Look for similar themes or images - something that proved to be common when producing an anthology created by students who experienced the same creative writing classes. Start with something powerful and engaging, and end with something uplifting and thought-provoking. And, as it comes together, start drafting titles - this is the really hard decision.

Step 3: The Read Through
In the same way that we always encourage the creative writing students to proof read their work, we had to read through the anthology to make sure it flowed and we didn't have any silly mistakes. We shared the whole thing with the students, inviting them to share with their classmates and friends again, giving them that sense of empowerment that we love to see. We also discussed titles, checked the spelling of names, and created mini-biographies about each of the writers. Sometimes, students get nervous about writing about themselves, so we worked on this together, getting all members to come up with characteristics that defined each of us. It has produced some lovely conversations about the unique and bright personalities we have in our First Story group.

Step 4: The Edit
When we were ready, we sent the manuscript to the publisher, First Story. Again, more proof reading ensued, with lots of emails back and forth about structure, consent from the writer, and approval by the school. It proved invaluable to be open to changes. We were also lucky enough to be able to get one of our sixth form art students to design our cover, a great opportunity that he will be able to take with him in his future career as an illustrator.

Step 5: The Waiting Game
This is the hardest part. You've seen the layout, read each poem - probably laughed and cried a lot - and admired the cover. It all seems so real, and yet still so far away! Our launch date is fast approaching, so Kate and I have got plenty to keep ourselves busy with. Kate also embarks on extra projects during this term; specifically, we are seeking funding to make some changes to the library, designing a Poetry Hub where students can be inspired, can relax, can share and learn, and can be creative. But in the back of my mind is a constant buzz of excitement that the anthology will be here soon!

But my best piece of advice? Find yourself a Kate Clanchy. She is highly experienced in this area, making my job unbelievably easy. Such rare and wonderful individuals are highly skilled in collecting student work and transforming it all into a beautiful anthology.