Elaine Williams finds why a school tackling emotional and behavioural difficulties won't let a year go by without a visit from their favourite poet
Andy Croft, poet and writer, passed muster the first time pupils at The Meadows School clapped eyes on him. This dude from Middlesbrough didn't wear a cravat and a smoking jacket. He wore black leathers and jeans, wrote books about football and could talk about football. "He had a face and everything," as one boy put it. Not like a poet at all.
That was four years ago. Since then Andy has been visiting this 11-16 school in Spennymoor, County Durham, for 50 boys and girls with social, emotional and behavioural difficulties. He comes every year for a week at a time, producing books of poetry, plays and visual storyboards with students. He has become accustomed to the mood swings, the tension, and the explosions of raw emotion and physical aggression that occasionally beset the students, each of whom carries a statement of special need for behavioural problems. He has broken through the barrier of resistance put up by these young people, changing their belief that writing is something other people do.
Writer-in-residence at HMP Holme House, Stockton, and a former writer-in-residence for the Great North Run, the world's most popular half-marathon, Andy Croft has published 32 books with Hodder Livewire, mostly about football but also including an anthology of poems about sport for children as well as poetry anthologies for adults. He believes that before they can become keen readers, children also have to be writers, but that they won't write if they think "writing belongs to someone else".
"I love it at The Meadows," he says, "because I love the confirmation you get that writing is in fact ordinary, that culture belongs to everyone, that you don't have to be especially clever or privileged to want to write.
It is a human impulse."
The Meadows has developed its partnership with the poet to boost its literacy curriculum and raise the status of writing, reading, speaking and listening by harnessing his abilities to communicate the magic and playfulness of language. During each week-long residency he works with groups of eight to 10 students to create a finished product.
This year the whole school helped to produce Be Careful What You Wish For, a storyboard on a Lord of the Flies theme using digital images and speech bubbles.
The students' narrative describes an adult-free school that descends into savagery when a power struggle develops between girls. Just as violence threatens to turn murderous, the adults reappear. In past years students have written and performed Macdeath, in which trouble starts when two lads, Mac and Banksy, meet three lasses out on The Pipe, the local waste ground.
They have also self-published a cross-curricular anthology, Rhyming Riddles and Dizzy Diddles, which includes poems about geometry written during maths lessons, poems about electricity and magnets written from science lessons and poems about shopping written during geography lessons.
Andy Croft often uses well-known rhymes and songs as a starting point. On the day I visited, Year 8s were working on "I've Forgotten My Pencil, Miss Murray, Miss Murray (The Meadows' English co-ordinator)", a witty romp around classroom excuses to the tune of "There's a Hole in My Bucket". The exercise enthralled a group that had been particularly distracted that week.
During another visit a class poem based on "The House That Jack Built" arose out of a lunchtime incident when an apple was thrown at a 15-year-old Year 11 boy and tables were subsequently overturned. Andy could see the boy was upset during class that afternoon and thought the exercise might help to dissipate any hurt feelings. The poem embraced a series of circumstances, involving the apple, the boy, the Iraq war and US President George Bush.
In a bizarre case of reality mirroring art, the same boy shook hands with President Bush a few weeks later when the President visited Sedgefield and the school's deputy head, Sue Cook, took a group of the hardest-working pupils to watch his walkabout in Prime Minister Tony Blair's constituency.
Andy believes this particular student had become an inspired writer even before the coincidence. "He was the kind of lad who was the butt of jokes by peers, the odd one out, but he began to produce good stuff. He began to see himself as a creative person and the others began to see him that way too. He did a lot of editing, helped to put a lot of the group work together."
As Sue Cook puts it: "Andy definitely has street cred and the ability to make the kids feel good about themselves. He breaks down preconceptions about what a writer is and creates enthusiasm for writing among staff as well as pupils."
Fay Murray adds: "He gives a boost to what we are slogging away, week in, week out, to achieve. The biggest problem for children coming to this school is their EBD (emotional and behavioural difficulties), the second is their levels of literacy. Both limit their achievement."
Who? The Meadows School, Spennymoor, County Durham, with poet Andy Croft
What? Annual week-long residency leading to work that can be performed or published, often cross-curricular
How much? pound;1,500 - pound;2,000 a year, including cost of publications, paid by school, usually with grants for 50 per cent.
Contact Fay Murray. Email: email@example.com