Poetry in schools

27th October 2000 at 01:00
Poetryclass. www.poetryclass.net

Heather Neill waxes lyrical about the launch of a project to promote the teaching of poetry

Waste some ink. That was Cliff Yates's instruction, and wonderfully liberating it was too. A group of us - English teachers and representatives of interested organisations such as the National Association for Writers in Education, the Poetry Book Society and the Arvon Foundation - had met in a sunny room off Russell Square in central London to celebrate National Poetry Day, October 5.

And what better way to do so than by launching Poetryclass, a teacher-training project set up by the Poetry Society and the Department for Education and Employment with the encouragement of the Poet Laureate, Andrew Motion. Yates, an inspiring teacher, was not going to be satisfied with talking to us - we had to put pen to paper. And this was how he began, commenting all the time he was "teaching" us on why and how he introduced similar ideas in school and in workshops.

"I always give warning when I'm going to ask people to write. Then to avoid panic mode - well, wouldn't you panic if you were told you had to have a poem finished in 40 minutes? - I say 'Write whatever comes into your head. The only rule is that once you start writing you mustn't stop for five minutes'." Then he gave us a line and we were off, confident because, after all, it wasn't supposed to be polished and we were not allowed to think too much about it.

Cliff Yates aims not to be too prescriptive, but to provide a structure and then to encourage a combination of discipline and anarchy. "I encourage students to surprise me and themselves," he says. And he describes how one girl serendipitously invented the phrase "scrap mental" and he persuaded her to see its possibilities. His ultimate aim is not to criticise, although he does make suggestions based on the question he asks himself - "How can I help them say what they want to say?" His methods are successful. Not only do Yates-taught children regularly win poetry competitions, but at the Maharishi School in Ormskirk, Lancashire, poetry is "cool", as much discussed and highly regarded as football and pop music.

A favourite Yates workshop ploy is to read William Carlos Williams's short poem "This is Just to Say" which is a note of apology in verse (Williams, a New Jersey doctor, has, late at night, eaten the plums his wife was keeping for breakfast). Soon we were writing verse apologies too. Cliff is keen on "five-minute blasts" so young poets get used to drafting and revising. Admitting that something can be improved is an important stage on the road to being an accomplished poet. A lesson based on "This is Just to Say" is already available on the Poetryclass website.

The website is part of a larger strategy to take the fear out of teaching poetry. Jean Sprackland, the Poetry Society's education development officer and herself a poet, is all too aware of the dangers of "hit-and-run" visits to schools. Under Poetryclass, funded to the tune of pound;92,000 by the DfEE and supported by the exam board Edexel, a team of professional poets is learning what is needed for school work - about the literacy hou, for instance, and how poetry can contribute to delivering it.

Twenty-six of the 40 or so-strong team are ready to lead in-service training days in schools, bringing hundreds of ideas and providing a chance to discuss problems and find out about resources, competitions and training. Each participant receives Anthony Wilson's The Poetry Book for Primary Schools or Cliff Yates's Jumpstart Poetry in the Secondary School. A half-day session can be combined with a half-day workshop for pupils. Schools can join together for these sessions, which can be tailored to individual requirements, or send individual teachers to regional sessions. The training costs pound;90 per teacher per day, but some of it is also available free on the website. The site already containes 14 lesson plans, generated by experienced poets such as Peter and Ann Sansom, Debjani Chatterjee, Graham Mort and Anthony Wilson.

With any luck, Poetryclass will help to change the public perception of poetry. On the morning of National Poetry Day, Cliff Yates's son, Luke Yates, who had just won a Poems on the Underground award for his poem about capturing a bit of his brain in a jar (and who has appeared in the TES Young Poet column), was doing his bit. He and other young people were giving poems away to office workers arriving at Canary Wharf in London's Docklands - at least that's what they were trying to do. One man actually said: "No thanks. I'm on a diet." Let's hope the next generation will simply regard reading a poem as a nutritious treat - and writing one akin to the activities of a television chef.

Cliff Yates recommends publishing children's poems whenever possible. See page 2 of Friday for details of the TES Young Poet column. The Poetry Society runs the annual Simon Elvin Young Poet of the Year Awards for 11 to 18-year-olds.There are more than 100 prizes, and 15 winners attend an Arvon Foundation creative writing course. For details of the competition and other Poetry Society events, tel: 020 7420 9894. Email: education@ poetrysoc.com. Christ church College, Oxford, has just launched the Christopher Tower Poetry Prizes, which offer pound;5,000 to young poets aged 16 to 18 in full or part-time education and their schools and colleges. Peter McDonald, Christ church's newly appointed tutor in poetry, will be taking workshops in UK schools throughout the year. For details, tel: 01865 286591. For details of Poetryclass Inset days contact Jean Sprackland: 020 7420 9889. Email: jeansprackland@poetrysoc.com * Poetry reviews, page 25

I THINK MY BRAIN IS COMING OUT OF MY EARS

* Found a pink wet thing

like a prawn on my pillow this morning

felt it, smelt it, looked at it under the microscope

and I could see memories, rumours and dreams

scrawled in my handwriting over the surface.

I keep my bit of brain in a jar, feed it marmalade, call it Fred.

* Frightening to think what might be missing -

unexplained chunks of life.

(I can't find the remote). Tonight

I sleep, orifices stuffed

and my ears glued to the sides of my head.

Luke Yates

Luke Yates, 16, is a pupil at the Maharishi School, Skelmersdale, Lancashire


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