Idyll for poetic inspiration
Mention Arvon and most people think that you are talking about either a fridge or a character from Blake's Seven. Add that you have just been down to the centre in Devon and they think you are about to try to initiate them into a doomsday cult. But if you are talking to someone who has been to one of the Arvon Foundation's centres, you are likely to encounter an explosion of enthusiasm and instantaneous best-mate status. Anyone who has spent a week on an Arvon course is someone with a passion for literature at least equal to your own.
The Arvon Foundation was set up in 1968 to enable those with an interest in creative writing to spend time working alongside professionals in a distraction-free setting. Most of the courses are run for adults or secondary school groups. After reading that writer Sandy Brownjohn used to take groups of Year 6 children there, I gave the Devon centre (there are two others, in West Yorkshire and Inverness) a call. Andy Brown, one of the centre directors, was more than happy to organise a week for a group of 16 Year 6 pupils. After a brief discussion, Andy and I agreed that Sandy would be a good candidate and the second tutor should be poet Kit Wright. The aim was to achieve a good balance between experience with children and technical expertise.
The first thing that struck us was the beauty of the place itself, a pre-Domesday farmhouse and outbuildings nestling in a valley between steep hills. The structure was to be group teaching in the mornings, informal tutorials in the afternoons, and readings in the evenings. We were also to have a reading from Michael Morpurgo.
The children were expected to prepare lunch and dinner for the group under adult supervision. They enjoyed the responsibility.
Morning teaching sessions took place in the farmhouse dining room. The children sat around a long wooden table against a backdrop of dark wood beams and an immense stone fireplace. The atmosphere was one of calm intensity as Sandy and Kit took them through various writer's workshops. These sessions gave the children the opportunity to look at examples of a particular form - such as the sonnet or iambic pentameter - and to talk through the conventions before having a go themselves. They covered techniques such as extended metaphors, writing to syllabic counts, odes and metonym. It was pleasing to note how the quality of their poetry rose from one day to the next. A major factr in this was the depth of feedback that they received in the afternoons. In this period, the children dispersed among the various rooms and outhouses to work over pieces started in the mornings. The tutors circulated within the group and spent time commenting on individuals' work in progress. Judging from the children's responses, it was this teaching that really made the difference. After all, how often is it that they receive prolonged one-to-one attention in a classroom situation?
The evening readings were also highly effective. One evening the children were let loose in the centre's library and told to find a poem they liked written by an unfamiliar author. The choices that were read out were surprising and gratifying, ranging from Andrew Motion to Roger McGough via Sylvia Plath, Ted Hughes, Paul Muldoon and Seamus Heaney.
The highlight of the week was Michael Morpurgo's visit. As he read from the opening chapters of a novel in progress, I could feel the room shrinking away leaving only the sound of his voice. The children were equally spellbound by his tale of a Spanish boy discovering the horrors of bull fighting in Guernica during the 1930s.
On the last night, the children read out their own work, which had already been collated into a small magazine. As they did so, I was amazed how much their confidence and understanding had grown in so short a time. It was particularly gratifying to see children who were wavering on the edge of good writing make the final leap into real proficiency; this would just not have been possible in the school environment. On our return, I was told by several parents that they had been receiving ecstatic phone calls all week.
As yet the foundation is not widely known. This still surprises me. It offers an excellent opportunity for children to spend a week focusing on a subject they love under the guidance of professional practitioners. How often do they get the chance to meet writers and teachers with the level of expertise offered by Arvon's pool of tutors? "Not often enough," would be the response of those of us who work in schools.
It is not only the children who benefit. I have come back from Arvon with a greater understanding of both my subject and profession.
Tim Scott is English co-ordinator for St Michael's primary school, Highgate, north LondonArvon Foundation centres: Totleigh Barton, Devon Tel: 01409 231338 Lumb Bank, West YorkshireTel: 01422 84371 Moniack Mhor, Inverness Tel: 01463 74167 www. arvonfoundation.org