Monday, 6 October 2014

Foyle and Betjeman Competitions

Thursday 2nd October has to be one of my favourite days of 2014.

Kate and I travelled to London together, where we met with the families of two of our students, Jasmine and Helen.

Jasmine was one of the 15 'super winners' of the Foyle Young Poet of the Year competition, whilst Helen was highly commended, along with another student, Emee. Elsewhere, both Helen and Jasmine were finalists for the John Betjeman Poetry Competition for Young People; a competition in which Jasmine had been a finalist in 2013 as well!

We started our day at Royal Festival Hall, where a variety of celebratory events were taking place for National Poetry Day. On the fifth floor, the one hundred commended poets and winners of the Foyle met and shared their success. Grace Nichols and Simon Barraclough had done an incredible job of selecting the best poems from over 13,000 entries, and we were privileged to hear the best fifteen read aloud. There was a great variety, including comedy, philosophy and epic descriptions. Hearing poetry read aloud by the individual who wrote it adds meaning to the work, and even the youngest of the winners read with confidence and fluency.

I was also honoured to be recognised by the Poetry Society as a Teacher Trailblazer. It is no secret that I simply love my work.

From the Southbank, we traveled north, up to St Pancras, where the prize ceremony for the Betjeman competition takes place. It shows the brilliance of the young writers at Oxford Spires that Helen and Jasmine had two different poems shortlisted in two different competitions.

Alongside a statue of John Betjeman, Helen and Jasmine read their poems, along with the third finalist, Noah Bodley Scott. We were so proud when Helen was announced as the winner - her poem is complex and sharp, especially for a thirteen year old!

On my journey home at the end of National Poetry Day, I felt infected with love for the written word, so was relieved to have so many poetry books to entertain me.


Because I was in London, there was a weirdly small amount of creative writing and reading taking place in Oxford Spires on National Poetry Day. In preparation, Kate and I created a poetic atmosphere to leave in our absence, including arranging for some students to go to Blackwell's on Broad Street, Oxford for a Pop Up Poetry event. This was a great opportunity for select sixth formers to share their work with the general public. Emee Begum, who was in the 85 commended poets for the Foyle Young Writer of the Year, read out her winning poem in Blackwell's as she could not make it to London for the ceremony.

Throughout the week, at school, I had been getting excited about the #ThinkOfAPoem campaign from the Forward Arts Foundation. Poets, students and educators were encouraged to get the conversation started with transfers and posters and workshops. At Oxford Spires, Kate carried out a 'first lines' workshop, in which she gave our young writers the first line of a famous poem and asked them to write where they saw it going. In some cases, the line was lost when their imaginations ran wild, but we were lucky to get some brilliant pieces like this:

Meanwhile, I have come away from the whole week buzzing with inspiration and excitement. Part of the Teacher Trailblazer Award was getting some new poetry books, which will go straight on the Library shelves (after I have read them and maybe even dabbled in some writing). I also got my copy of the Forward Book of Poetry 2015 (see my review here), and have been popping in and out of the pages whenever I get the chance.

Over the next couple of weeks, I hope to use this momentum to get some students to enter the Forward Young Responses competition; I cannot wait!

First Story Festival

On Thursday 25th and Friday 26th September, First Story hosted their annual Festival at Lady Margaret Hall.

This year, with the charity expanding into more and more schools across London, Oxford, Leicester, Bradford, Nottingham and Cheltenham, the festival is spread over two days. More schools, more writers, more brilliance!

I attended on the Thursday as a volunteer, and was thrilled to see the First Story team again. This festival takes a lot of hard work and dedication, culminating in an incredible and inspiring day. For many students, it is their first contact with First Story, introducing them to what they will experience over the course of the year, which finishes with them publishing an anthology of their own writing.

On Friday, I took thirty budding writers from Oxford Spires - from zany year eights to literary sixth formers. The day was made up of talks from First Story alumni, performances from poets and novelists, and workshops with writers they otherwise would not come into contact with. Mark Haddon, writer of The Curious Incident of the Dog in the Night Time, was the key note speaker, describing his journey into being a novelist and answering questions about where his stories come from; and Philip Pullman was a surprise guest at the end, awing children and adults alike.

At the end of each day, First Story try to get one student from each school to read out one of the pieces they have written during the day. For Oxford Spires, the chosen student was a modest, quiet girl called May, who has won in-school writing competitions but is consistently reluctant to read out. But at the Festival, in the excitement of the moment, she read her poem beautifully - a poem about her dislike of maths. I am so proud of her - I know how nervous she would have been, and I am impressed by what she achieved.

First Story have just launched a really exiting competition, with the chance to win a trip to an Arvon residential. The theme of the competition is 'Home' - a subject about which I know every young writer has something to say. There is even a sub-competition for teachers!