As I’ve mentioned before, I’m using this blog as a place to keep a record of my residency at St Gregory’s Catholic College, Bath, a non-selective comprehensive school for young people aged 11 – 18. I go into school one day a week, run a creative club (open to any student) during break and at lunchtime, and work with small groups of students from Years 7 – 9 (aged 11- 14) during their timetabled English lessons. I also correspond with students about their creative writing via school email, and I’ve worked with a few sixth formers on their UCAS personal statements, as well as the Creative Writing elements of their A Level English Language and Literature course. You can find my posts on this blog by using the search terms ‘writer in school’ and ‘working as a writer in a school’.
Over the last three weeks, we’ve been reading and writing poems about ‘Where I’m From’. I was inspired by this great post by Jean Atkins and I thought that, as it’s still early in the new school year, and lots of students, as well as me, are new to the school, this would be good way of everyone getting to know each other a little bit more.
To begin with, we read Lament for Syria by Amineh Abou Kerech, aged 13, who won First Prize in this year’s Betjeman Poetry Prize and Where I’m From by Melanie Poonai, who was a winner in the 2007 Foyle Young Poets of the Year.
Students warmed to poems by writers who are close to their own age. We talked about how Amineh’s poem made us think about Syria in a completely different way from how the country is usually portrayed on news reports.
I am from Syria
From a land where people pick up a discarded piece of bread
We also talked about how poetry allows us to say a lot using few words, and how it breaks the rules of prose.
From: after you, aunt; as you wish, uncle; with pleasure, sister…
From a place which endured, which waited, which is still waiting for relief.
We liked the way Amineh used direct speech here, and thought about using it in our poems. One student used something a grandparent often says, to come up with the great line “I come from whatever the weather blows our way.” Another wrote the line “From: sad since my dog died.”
Some students chose to write a lament, like Amineh, about a place they loved very much and missed. Others followed Melanie Poonai’s use of anaphora to write an ‘I am from..’ poem.
I am from a life filled with colour,
From the chocolate brown that is my skin.
I am from the sunshine yellow of my mother’s laugh,
From the red and white of my brother’s favourite football shirt.
Some students also used colour in their poems, others tried using the sense of smell and sound to describe themselves and their lives.
We developed the theme of poems about ourselves by reading another winning poem from this year’s Betjeman Prize, Six Haikus From Mangalore by 10 year old Shanelle Furtado. Most of the students I was working with had already heard about haikus and had written some at their primary schools. What we particularly liked about Shanelle’s poem was the way she’d used six linked haikus which gave us scope to say more, either about a particular place, ie Mangalore, or about another subject (later, one student wrote a really good set of haiku about different fruit, for example).
But inside the house
The bafat masala cooks
Home in Mangalore
This poem also encouraged students to write about their own heritage, either about the country where they were born or where their family are from, and to use specific language to describe food, culture or customs, without the need to explain what it meant – we could all work that out from context.
Inevitably, some students race ahead, and seem to devour poems and produce them in large number! I was glad to have copies of Candlestick Press’ Ten Poems about Home to hand, to give to students to read.
One young writer I gave this pamphlet to, read it silently from cover to cover then told me that their favourite poem in it was Tony Harrison’s Long Distance. The student’s reaction reminded me of a post I wrote a while ago about making all poetry books available to young people, and not restricting their reading to ‘poetry for children’.
The poet Ben Bransfield, who is also a teacher and a Poetry Society Teacher Trailblazer (read Ben’s (and others) Top Tips for Teaching Poetry) has spoken about the benefits of bringing a wide range of poems into school. Ben is also a big fan of using poetry pamphlets in teaching sessions, since students are able to read the entire ‘book’ in one session, giving them a great sense of completion and ownership. At some point, I will invite Ben to comment further on this and I would like to design some sessions around a collection of different pamphlets.
We rounded off our writing about ‘Where I’m From’ by reading Kim Moore’s My People and Liz Berry’s The Sea of Talk. Students talked about the way you can have a strong sense of who you are and where you’re from, without knowing all the facts for certain. They liked the way Kim imagines who her people are. With Liz Berry’s poem, we talked about dialect and accent, and how the way we speak, the words we use, are as much a part of who we are as the way we look.
Please feel to add links to more poems that would work with this theme.