Lisa Hutchins describes how a week-long workshop with a professional poet provided fun and inspiration for children and teachers alike
In a north London church hall, a Year 6 group crowds around a table, bent intently over their work. The children are creating a poem describing someone they know by focusing on the person's hands. After a few minutes, poet Peter Sansom asks them to read the results aloud. There is no shortage of volunteers. They even include teacher Tim Scott, who organised this week-long event. The workshop is led by Peter and fellow poet Gerard Benson, who is working upstairs with the other half of the class. The school, St Michael's C of E Voluntary Aided Primary School, in Highgate, has regularly sent children on residential writing courses. This time it is attempting the same intensive week-long workshop in-house.
Peter is achieving results - the class is producing vivid and surprisingly sophisticated writing. The supportive atmosphere is doing wonders for their confidence. He describes his approach: "You do sometimes write alongside the kids, but it is quite draining, so I tend to do this instead of writing.
"I like doing it, and running a workshop is a kind of poem. You do it by instinct, working out which exercise to do next and which things to emphasise, without knowing why. To have a whole week is very good. Tim reads poems with them, which makes a difference, and kids are very open and willing."
He feels it's not just their writing that improves. "It is the kids who you don't expect to do well who make it worthwhile. Nobody really knows who is going to be good at writing poems.
"They don't need a very long attention span or to do all the characterisation and plotting you need for stories. There is also something rebellious about poems, and so the kids who, for whatever reason, are failing in school or are failed by school, are often quite bright kids, but there is no challenge. In poetry they can do it, without seeming a nerd."
Unfortunately, he says, some teachers are still afraid of poetry. "The great thing about bringing in a writer is it completely overturns that preconception.
"The important thing is for kids to feel that they are practitioners. They are working alongside a real writer, and their work is often a lot better than the writer can do at that moment.
"It is really important that the teachers join in and read back, and feel sometimes that they have not succeeded, and other times that they have succeeded almost too well and have been moved by what they have written."
So what do the pupils think? Emerald Coulthard, 10, says: "This is really good fun and we get to do lots of writing. I like doing something that is not composition or revising for tests."
"I liked the game we played called Ink-wasters, where we had to write as much as we could in four minutes," says Daniel Judd, 10. "I have learned quite a lot about how to write words."
"I am enjoying 'my favourite book'. We choose a page to bring in. I used to not be very good at writing poetry," says Rosie Elms, 11.
Gabriel McCann, 10, says: "It has made me a lot more confident."
And the workshop is not only for the children. After school, the poets are off to the staffroom to do an hour with the teachers. Soon they are enthusiastically writing and reading out poems based on staffroom objects.
Gerard tells them: "We have already had a body of amazing writing. I had a poem this afternoon from a girl about the death of her father, which was just heart-rending and yet beautifully put on the page, and rather cool - a brilliant little bit of writing.
"Children learn much more about language by actually doing it, by playing with words. There is an element of excitement in making. What I also do is lavish praise where it is due. We hope there will be some wonderful stuff by the end of the week."
As the meeting breaks up, Tim is satisfied with the day's results, for staff and pupils. "One of the most important things it does is to demystify it all. A colleague just grabbed me and said it was really good to be working with a poet, and the same thing works for the kids, especially male role-models in writing.
"They use approaches that fit into the curriculum, but which are not explicitly expressed within it, and maybe need to be. What professional writers provide is more about going straight to the heart of the matter.
You could call it inspiration, but that does not do it justice, because it seems very woolly and people can't actually teach based on that.
"This area needs a lot more research. Once you start looking at it, you realise how the language to describe it doesn't exist. One area where it does is psychology - the ways in which mental processes influence performance. But not in terms of the arts."
Tim would like to change that, with a project of his own to research the subject, and ambitions to run a dedicated creative writing centre. However, in the meantime, he's keen to share with colleagues at St Michael's and elsewhere what he sees as the unarguable value of this kind of work.
Sheep Skull The chewing of grass Still echoed through that hollow head And the memories trodden down Till they sunk into the muddy grass Of the field it last took breath in.
Company of young now gone The warmth of that summer's day now turned to winter.
Brain rotted away to dust in another downstream-flowing river.
Only one horn now remains, the other broken off in time, Snapped remains now the tail of a winter's cloud Full of rain from the North.
The tree wriggles in its place, pinning it in and smoothing out.
The tree leans over to see.
The Moon looks at the pond.
The pond stares back from the edge of time.
There was a hush over the pond, Like a mother hushing to her baby And everything slept.
My names are three, long twisting snakes coiled around my identity like a wrapper round a chocolate bar.
Their long tongues flicker as they hiss silently.
My name is my fortress as it is my enemy.