Tuesday, 29 July 2014

My First Flight

Thanks to Julie Bolitho-Lee, I flew this week. Okay, so it might have been a supposedly simple yoga move (I say supposedly because I struggled somewhat), but technically my feet left the ground and I was not in an aeroplane.

The First Story Residential is one of the highlights of my year. Nestled in the wilds of Somerset is the Nettlecombe Field Studies Centre, where, once a year, seventy budding young writers descend for five days of workshops, exploring and making friends.

Picture credit: http://www.field-studies-council.org/centres/nettlecombecourt.aspx
This year, two students from each First Story school in Oxford, London, Nottingham, Leicester and Bradford were honoured to be taught by some of the best First Story has to offer: Caroline Bird, Matt Black, Julie Bolitho-Lee, James Dawson, Kate Fox and Andrew McMillan. These talented individuals are an invaluable inspiration to the students, both in their own writing and in the time they share with the future writers, offering starting points, feedback and conversation.

Nettlecombe Court is the perfect location for this residential. With rolling hills and quiet spaces, you can read a book or even write one, in the case of many of the guests last week. With rooms full of games and the opportunity to participate in Julie's yoga classes, you can make friends and share laughs. And without phone signal, you are free from the pressures of everyday life.

The gorgeous faces and brilliant minds at First Story work incredibly hard to make this week happen - one even hopped on a train from London to Bradford at the last minute to make sure everything ran smoothly from the North. They sit up all night making sure the kids are asleep, and run around all day reminding them to phone home.

But it is well worth it. On the final night, all the students share something they have been working on during the week. They stand up in front of their new friends and read out, loud and proud, and everyone has something to celebrate.

It is not just the students who massively enjoy the First Story residential. As a First Story teacher / librarian, I made new friends (kumbayah), wrote poetry I am proud of (including my Ode to Andrew McMillan), and participated in yoga for the first time (I flew!). Now I am back in the city, I am experiencing withdrawal symptoms, and I cannot wait to jump back into the First Story program in September!

Thursday, 10 July 2014

This is Not the First Time I Have Cried about Poetry

I have spent the last three days looking for the words to articulate the incredible event that took place in the Oxford Spires Library on Monday evening.

The final term of the year is one in which the First Story workshops begin to wind down, with students preoccupied by exams and the summer sun, and our writer-in-residence busy submitting poetry to various competitions.

The First Story anthology launch is the day all Teacher Liaison's look upon with a mixture of excitement, nerves and dread (but only because I want everything to run perfectly smoothly!).

Like last year, we hosted this year's launch in the school library - the same place the workshops have been taking place throughout the year. Behind the scenes, the marvels at First Story and Oxford University Press have been editing, typesetting and printing away, whilst Kate and I have been putting everything in place for the launch party.

It all came together - quite miraculously - on Monday 7th July, when a year of hard work, creative writing and wild fun came together. All but one of our students attended - the absentee has now returned to her home in Michigan, USA, following a short stint in Oxford, where we were fortunate enough to welcome her to our workshops. Her anthologies have been posted across the Atlantic, and I cannot wait to hear what she thinks!

Rehearsals ran fairly smoothly, though there were some nerves. Public speaking does not come naturally to all students, but the shared community feeling amongst our First Story group meant that the young writers enabled each other to find the confidence to stand on stage and share a little piece of themselves with the audience. In fact, my highlight of the whole day was when Kate sent one of our Year 13 students - who has blossomed into a confident and eloquent performer - outside to mentor one of the newer young writers, and the quiet mumbles of the student were transformed into a loud and engaging recitation in a matter of moments.

As the audience arrived, the Library buzzed with excitement. We welcomed friends, families and special guests, including Mark Haddon, author of The Curious Incident of the Dog in the Night Time - a complete gentleman who is lovely to chat to.

I knew the students would be amazing - I had read the anthology and been there in the workshops - but I was still blown away by their performances. It is a big step for a young writer to share their work with you - often if feels like giving a piece of themselves up; and for some students, reading their poem to a future lover or a letter to a lost fathers, it is an incredible expression of trust.

I laughed and cried, riding a crazy rollercoaster of emotion, reminiscing about workshops full of frustration and instances when we finally broke through. Kate and I have been making big plans for next year (but I will talk about that another time), but it is these seemingly simple moments of sharing and enjoying that I look forward to the most.