Beginning to write poetry with secondary school students

I’m using this blog as a notebook to record my time working with students at St Gregory’s Catholic College, Bath, as Writer in Residence.  I’ll use the tag ‘writer in school’ so you should be able to find my posts here by using that search term.  It’s still early days in my residency, I’m now in my fourth week although I’m actually only ‘in residence’ one day a week.   Between weekly visits, I keep in touch with students and staff by school email.

It’s important to mention that I’m being hugely supported by staff in the English Department of the school, who have organised rooms and spaces for me to work from and arranged for students to take time out of their scheduled English lessons to write with me.  Anyone who understands the complexities of classroom availability and a school timetable, and the obligation to write to parents and carers to ask their permission for students to take part in an extra curricular activity, will understand the extra admin involved in this kind of venture.  I’m very grateful to staff for doing this work and for making me feel welcome and supported in the school.

Teachers are sharing information about me via their tutor groups and through word of mouth so that students know which day I’m in school and where they can find me.  This means that students are now coming to see me at break and lunch time, to ask questions about writing and to take part in on the spot writing sessions.

As free as a…

Last week, I saw small groups of students from Years 7 – 9, who are aged from 11 to 14.  The previous week, I’d also spoken to, and done some writing with, a few students from Years 10 and 11 (aged 14 – 16).  The writing I’m sharing in this post features work from all of these students.

It’s National Poetry Day on 28 September and the theme this year is ‘Freedom’ so I began by asking students to finish the expression “As free as a …”

The majority of people answered with the simile “As free as a bird.”  So we talked about whether that was a good expression, whether it was true – yes, birds are free to cross borders, they don’t need passports, they don’t have to go through passport control, but are they free when we think about pollution, climate change, their habitats being destroyed, and so on.

Sharing my notebook with students

I shared with students how I had begun to think about writing about freedom.  Like many of them, the first expression that had come into my mind was “as free as a bird” so I had written that down in my notebook.  Then I’d set a timer on my phone and written freely for three minutes. I shared the results of this exercise with students.  My aim here was to show them how I write and to show them that I sometimes write quickly and don’t always keep everything I’ve written!  In fact, I discard much more than I keep.

Next, it was the young people’s turn.  I set my timer and gave them five minutes to write. I told them that my writing had started as a list of things (that I could think of that were free), so a list might be a good way for them to start.  I said it would be fine if they just wrote a long list and it would be fine if they went back to add to their list whenever they wanted to during the five minutes.

After their writing time was up, I asked students to read out one or two lines they liked – if they wanted to.  I tried to make sure that nobody felt they were being forced to read out anything they’d written.  I was very impressed with how kind and encouraging the young people were to each other and to me!  Almost all of the students were happy to share what they had written with the group.

I worked with about forty different students in all and took one or two lines from as many as I could to add to the beginnings of a group poem – really a composite list of the day’s work.

Here are the results of our labour.  I’ve left the poem on display in school and I hope students, staff and visitors to the school are reading it during my absence.  I will find out when I am next in!

Thanks to staff and students at St Gregory’s Catholic College, Bath, for all of their contributions to this post.

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