The big day is next Thursday, but it lasts all year in Sunderland. Elaine Williams finds out why
In Sunderland they say the moon hangs large over the city, inflated by the salt sea spray. The local children are proud of this. In the past year they have imagined their moons as ghostly galleons "upon cloudy seas"; they have conjured roads as ribbons of moonlight. They have been fired by the rich language of poems such as Alfred Noyes's "The Highwayman", which they have learned by heart. The learned phrases have kick-started their own creative impulses; the enjoyment of memorising poems has spawned many would-be poets.
Kevin Warwick, a pupil at Bishop Harland CE primary, may be no Alfred Noyes, nor even the most academic boy in the school, but he writes about a people who "swan past dead shipyards looking for a bigger moon". Kevin's evocative words have, with those of many of the city's children, been posted on billboards all over the city and unfurled on banners across the main shopping centre this autumn, in an initiative called Sunderland City of Poets. It's not a phrase that comes readily to mind, and it has a gently ironic ring, but Jill Flanders says it has a certain truth.
As director of the city's education action zone, over the past year she has been encouraging Sunderland's pupils to take poetic language to their heart. Thousands of children have been learning poems by heart and writing their own verses. As well as "The Highwayman", they have studied Robert Louis Stevenson's "Windy Nights" and Rudyard Kipling's "A Smuggler's Song"; they can chant "Bobby Shaftoe" and they have danced in the spring to their own recitations of Wordsworth's "Daffodils". Ms Flanders's big poetic idea has made them language-rich where many had no language, and Sunderland's teachers are delighted. The project has been a major factor in the improvement of children's literacy, and writing in particular, in some of the city's poorest neighbourhoods.
Ms Flanders took over Sunderland EAZ when it had just two years left to run (funding comes to an end next April) and was in need of a sharpened focus.
She spent much of her interview drawing sunflowers. All she could hope to do in the time available, she explained, was plant a few seeds that might produce a few big, beautiful flowers but, more importantly, that would produce seeds for the future.
Consultation with headteachers revealed widespread anxiety about standards of writing. But how could children write when they had no effective language to write with? Many pupils within the zone arrive at nursery and school with language development well below the national average, and schools are hard-pressed to compensate. Ms Flanders, a former primary head in Hampshire and early years adviser in the London borough of Lambeth, has always had faith in the power of poetry. Learning verses by heart, she decided, would help to grow the great big sunflowers. "It's the rhythm and pattern of poetry that help children gain understanding of language and an ability to play with words," she says. "It sensitises them to links between meaning and sound, a sensitivity that can make such a difference to the ability to write."
As a child Ms Flanders, now 60, remembers sitting in bed sharing a cup of tea with her parents on a Sunday morning, each of them choosing a poem from the Victorian anthology of English poems and lyrics, Palgrave's Golden Treasury, to read aloud. She cherished these moments and can still remember the poems. Internalising the rhythms, she believes, has helped her writing throughout her life. She is aware that, increasingly, young children no longer learn the songs and nursery rhymes at home that whole communities would once have shared and enjoyed; that the sharing of known texts such as hymns or passages from the Bible has gone. Early sensitivity to language is being lost.
Anne Mackay, headteacher of St John Bosco RC primary, says her pupils come largely from families who are third or fourth-generation unemployed. The great industries of ship-building, glass-making and mining that once bound Sunderland's communities are long gone and little has replaced them.
The children's laureate, Michael Morpurgo, believes children are alienated from the written word because they have lost connection with the spoken word. He is no advocate of rote learning - it took him 20 years to rediscover his love of verse after being subjected to that in his own schooldays - but the shared experience of well-read, well-loved poetry is priceless. With this in mind, he edited an anthology in 2001 called Because a Fire Was in My Head: 101 poems to remember. "Children love the life in words, the binding experience of a poem well spoken." The works of the best poets are, he says, "so memorable, so funny, so intense" that you "want to hear them again and again inside your head, so they never leave you, so they become part of you".
Andrew Motion, the poet laureate, is full of praise for the Sunderland project and the way it links spoken poetry and writing. "The poems I learned as a child are intact in my head at 52," he says. "They are my most valuable bits of mental luggage, they carry me through in those intense moments when I am at a loss for words. There is something primitive about poetry in the way it binds us, comforts and exalts. We forget that at our peril."
Poetry by heart rather than by rote was the big, simple Sunderland idea. It would have to be fun - and it was. Ms Flanders has an infectious sense of humour and believes the most effective ideas are always the simplest. The EAZ produced a laminated pack of six nursery rhymes for infant children, and a pack of 12 poems for juniors. Pupils took the packs home, learned the poems with their parents and were rewarded for their efforts: a bronze medal for learning two poems; a silver medal for four; gold for six; and a special award for all 12 (a day out for the child's class at the North of England Open Air Museum in County Durham, tea with Ms Flanders and her team, and cash for poetry books for the school).
Parents took to the project as enthusiastically as the children. Anne Mackay says: "They were so proud that their children knew these verses, and whole families were saying them together."
Verses covered dining-hall walls and school corridors; pupils wrote them on T-shirts with fabric pens; they lined up at lunchtime and break to recite to their teachers and headteachers; they dressed in costume to recite in assembly; whole schools gathered on the seafront to chant their verses to the waves and gulls. "The children and many of the parents will have these poems in their memory for life and they will be able to pass them on to their grandchildren," says Jill Flanders.
In the spring, with the heads of the city's children buzzing with poetic phrases, the EAZ moved into the second phase of its big poetry idea. In partnership with the writing development agency New Writing North, poets, artists and musicians worked with six primary schools over 10 weeks, drawing inspiration from the city's landmarks: its coastal areas, its wetlands, its glass museum. The cost (around pound;5,000 in Bishop Harland school's case) was met by the EAZ, the Arts Council and Sunderland Arts, and included publication of poetry postcards and Secrets of Sunderland, a beautifully produced anthology of verse illustrated with the children's artwork.
The EAZ team took a "poetry puppy" into schools, asking for poems. Teachers had their own training sessions with local poet Bill Herbert. Schools appointed their own "poet laureates" and made their own anthologies.
Ms Flanders issued golden envelopes and writing paper so laureates could send their poems to the Queen: poems about her corgis, her knee operation, her encounter with the England rugby team. "We had a call from the Lord Lieutenant's office asking us why the Queen was suddenly getting all these poems through the post," she says. The EAZ also received a call from one of the royal ladies-in-waiting. "She said the Queen had had a good giggle, and wanted to know where we had bought the nice golden envelopes."
The result of all this activity has been a steady improvement in writing standards in the EAZ schools as children have become familiar with descriptive language. In some cases, schools have seen their Sats passes in English at key stage 2 go up by 10 to 15 percentage points in a year.
At the English Martyrs RC primary they rose by 30 points to 93 per cent.
Headteacher Christine Robson attributes the improvement to the poetry push, along with a raft of additional language initiatives in the school. "The great satisfaction I have had from this is to see the sheer enjoyment of the children and the pride of their parents," she says. "Poetry has been alive in the school."
Anne Mackay at St John Bosco confirms: "We have never had a response from pupils and parents like it. Jill has made the EAZ into a real resource for schools, and education fun for all our children. We shall miss her after this year, but we'll definitely carry on learning poems."
Go to www.poetrysociety.org.uk for more ideas and resources for National Poetry Day (October 7). Nominate your school as the most poetry-active in the UK on the same site (nominations close on October 3)