Root and branch
Ten-year-old John speaks with conviction as he leads me to his classroom at Kirkby C of E Primary School for the final session of the Forest on a Leaf project with poet Kevin McCann. "It's been dead good," he says. "We looked down a microscope. I'd never done that before."
If inspiring children to write poetry is one of the challenges of Forest on a Leaf, then the microscope has become its metaphor. The project takes its title from an 18th-century poem, The Enquiry by Mary Leapor, which captures the thrill of using an early microscope: "There are Creatures which no Eye can see, That for a Moment live and breathe like me Where little Forests on a Leaf appear."
In John's Year 5 class, the view down the 21st-century microscope is projected on to a screen. Like children at two other Knowsley primaries, St Laurence's in Kirkby and St Joseph's in Huyton, they have worked with artist Claire Weetman, ecologist Chantelle Edwards, and the environmental education team of Wendy Murray and Ian Ryall to explore their environment (school grounds and local park), collect small objects for their scrapbooks and produce larger pieces of art, all fuelling the poetry they write with Kevin McCann.
Kevin encourages the Year 5s to read out their poems on an ant-sized view of the world, "Now that I've Shrunk". Children hang on his every word as he carefully comments on theirs. "I liked the way you said the ant would see a puddle as the ocean. Well done, that's great. Would anyone else like to read their poem? You don't have to." With the final opt-out clause, he shares his own school-day fears about sharing his work.
"Poetry is about instilling a sense of wonder that will enrich children's lives," says Kevin, who taught for 16 years and has been writing full-time since 1991. He has a wealth of experience in working with schools and youth groups, including as a poet-in-residence for Knowsley's after-schools poetry clubs. "Ask an adult to write a poem about happiness and they'll describe their emotions. A child will define it as ice-cream. Children think in concrete images and that's a good reminder to adults of how the world looks from a child's point of view. That's how children gain self-respect."
Class teacher Collette Wilson says that as well as inspiring writing, Kevin's work has brought confidence to pupils with special needs, stimulated more able children and fitted in well with her extended English session. "Kevin came in with lots of ideas and was able to address all levels." With classroom assistant Dreen Williams, she supported less confident writers during Kevin's exercises.
For Kim Woodham, the school's arts co-ordinator, the support of Knowsley arts development officer Charlotte Corrie was key, especially in making links with other schools. "Sometimes you just don't know what's out there.
Meeting other teachers while co-ordinating the project was good for networking. Charlotte was the lynchpin. She organised the timetable and told us when to expect everyone. Charlotte has also put us in touch with people who can help us clear wasteland at the school for a children's garden." Forest on a Leaf has led to the school receiving a silver Artsmark award.
Kim decided to focus on Year 5 during the project "because they can disseminate their experiences to the rest of school". At the end of term, she said, the children were "still buzzing from the experience".
Charlotte Corrie believes the money has been well spent by the three schools involved. "Children have been scientists, poets and artists. It's been pretty hands-on," she says. "It's given teachers new experiences and the chance to further their professional development. The final Sharing Day in July, when we brought the three schools together, also gave parents a rare opportunity to see their children performing and working with Kevin and the other artists. Knowsley is committed to supporting and creating new learning opportunities, and we hope that Forest on a Leaf illustrates to other teachers just what can be achieved."
Kevin McCann says the children have produced some startling poetry. "One of the best moments was seeing their faces split into big grins as they got up to read at the Sharing Day."
Who? Kirkby C of E Primary School, Knowsley, Merseyside, with poet Kevin McCann
What? Forest on a Leaf project: half-day sessions for eight weeks on creative writing, visual art and ecology. Children produced sketchbooks of poetry and objects collected from the local park, and made a local map on a giant leaf; may produce poetry anthology. Links with literacyEnglish, poetry, art, science, design technology
How? Organised through the Windows Project (see panel, right) with two other Knowsley primaries. Knowsley metropolitan borough council provided the time of an arts development officer and a subsidised celebratory Sharing Day for the three schools in July. How much? pound;800 paid by school. Contacts: Knowsley Arts Service. E-mail: Arts.Unit@knowlsley.gov.uk