Young south Londoners are off to Chicago next month after winning a secondary schools slam competition. Heather Neill raps with the organisers, and, overleaf, Geraldine Brennan meets Jez Alborough, whose picture-book anthology was inspired by his teachers (and TS Eliot), and launches the TESHarperCollins search for new poems about school life
A boy is reading poetry. Suddenly he stumbles on a line, transfixed by fear, and tears roll down his face. Another boy, not much older, his dreadlocks neatly tied back, steps forward, gently places an arm around his team-mate and encourages him to go on. They finish their poem triumphantly to rapturous applause from an audience of hundreds of their peers. It is a telling moment from the video recording of the 2003 Inner-London Teenager Poetry Slam. The young performers are two of four representing Kingsdale school, from the London borough of Southwark, in the competition. The moving incident illustrates the sense of community, the desire for self-expression among the participants and the way their confidence has been bolstered by working together. But it is more even than that, because the lines from "Where I'm From", over which the young poet stumbled, are vivid and powerful: I'm from a place not near or far Where children carry the sun in their hearts My tongue burns for the rich taste of peas and rice and the steam rising from a plateful of saltfish and breadfruit The performance day at London's Bloomsbury Theatre in June was the culmination of months of work, which started when Peter Kahn, a poet and teacher based in Chicago, visited London and thought that the youth poetry events he had taken part in in the United States could be a success in Britain, too. He got together with Fahro Malik, who runs Lynk Ray, an education and management company that celebrates cultural and linguistic diversity. Ms Malik, who has a background in multi-ethnic education in east London, set up a non-profit-making subsidiary, Lynk Reach, to run the poetry slam.
Mr Kahn had already started working with schools in Hackney, and others were approached through Ms Malik's contacts. Eventually, Year 10 classes in eight schools were taking part in a pound;70,000 project. Lynk Ray, the Arts Council and the Hackney Learning Trust were among those supporting the slam financially, but each school had to raise pound;3,500.
One of the schools was Charles Edward Brooke, an 11-18 girls' comprehensive in Lambeth, whose team of eight went on to win the slam, judged by a panel of poets for performance and teamwork as much as content. Their prize is a visit to Chicago later this month to meet other young poets, visit schools and perform.
Mr Kahn is aware of the dangers of competition: while it can engender excitement, it can also bring a sense of failure, so, although the competitive element was integral to the project, it was "de-emphasised".
Team-building and community support were emphasised, helped by a workshop day in May.
The competitors, some with family and friends, were mixed with people from other schools. One says: "I was nervous at first, with people I didn't know and we had to introduce ourselves, saying things as interesting as possible." This strategy paid off; new friendships were established so competitors were pleased to meet again in June and the supportive excitement in the audience for all the performers extended to the announcement of Charles Edward Brooke's success.
The liaison teacher at Charles Edward Brooke is Jennifer Watson. She joined the English department as head of Year 10 as recently as September 2002, but when Nathan Gardner, her head of department, asked for a volunteer, she "jumped at it". She has a personal interest in poetry, especially the Caribbean dialect poems of Louise Bennett. "But I also thought it would fit neatly with teaching poems from other cultures for GCSE. I played down the star prize; everyone who took part was committed to the slam for its own sake," she says.
Peter Kahn did a workshop with one class in each school, ran Inset days for the liaison teachers and recruited poet-coaches. Charles Edward Brooke's poet-coach is Malika Booker, who runs Malika's Kitchen, an open house for writers who want to share their work. Ms Watson worked with whole classes first, developing poems together. Then the keenest writers committed themselves to five after-school sessions with Ms Booker and two whole Saturdays (the workshop day and the slam itself). The school organised an internal event, from which emerged the representative team, who formed two groups of four for the slam. Other schools provided one team of four to perform twice.
The students began by producing individual work on similar themes - starting with Where I'm From - then weaving sections together. MsBooker admits that some of the five poet-coaches were anxious about the competitive element. "But this has been so much more. It motivated the girls to write powerful, honest poems. It helped them find a voice, and in the end we were meeting at lunchtimes too. The process was as important as the slam itself, but on the day the standard was so high, they were more professional than professional poets. It's an amazing journey they've made.
Now they are composing poems for Chicago."
The girls agree. Clara Bakosi, the team captain, is said to be writing all the time and they've all learned to chat confidently with new people. The other members give special acknowledgement to Christianna Sesay, who arrived recently from Sierra Leone and whose first language is French. "I was so scared at first. I thought, 'I can't do it'," says Christianna. But, supported by the team, by Ms Watson and Ms Booker, she persisted and turned in a polished performance at the slam. The lines allocated to speakers are not necessarily their own, so Christianna had some by Eira Beckles, who is of mixed race: I was born with skin a light shade of brown To two cultures entwined My mum's Gaelic tongue merged with dad's Bajan twang Until they sever Like a coconut split in two My mother, the inside, so sweet, so useful My father, the outside, so dry, so useless (From "Mother Awaits", by the Charles Edward Brooke team).
The word has begun to spread; next year's slam will be London-wide. The new Year 10s at Charles Edward Brooke are already working on their lines.
A book, Where I'm From, Where I'm Going: poems from the 2003 inner-London teenager poetry slam, containing a CD of the live performance, is available at pound;7. Contact: firstname.lastname@example.org or www.lynkreach.co.uk. Enquiries about next year's London Teenage Poetry Slam: 2004: 020 8432 0694. More about Malika's Kitchen at: www.jsamlarose.compoetrykitchenNational Poetry Day next Thursday has the theme of "Britain, exploring our linguistic and cultural diversity". Teachers' resource pack at www.poetrysociety.org.uk.Shakespeare's Globe launches 150 pages of online resources on the sonnet on October 6, free to teachers and students until October 10. See www.shakespeares-globe.org\globelink and select "resource centre" and "sonnets". See anthology reviews in this week's Teacher magazine, page 14