National Poetry Day Blog

When children and teachers retreat into poetry

Jonny Walker runs Otherwise Education, a creative learning organisation that works with schools on collaborative writing, poetry and oracy projects. The OtherWise Poetry Retreats this year, led by Jonny and Adisa the Verbaliser, are embracing the 2019 National Poetry Day theme of Truth.

“I have my own ways of doing stuff and I don’t like people telling me I can’t do that … it makes me have an easier life because I’m good at doing things the way I do them. I’m set in my ways…proudly.”

So spoke one of the 10 year old poets who took part in our retreats last year.

Authenticity and self-confidence is something that we expect in our published adult poets, but when we hear it from the voice of a child, or in their writing, it can feel more challenging. Defiant, even. Teaching poetry in a way that keeps its revolutionary spirit intact can nudge teachers out of their comfort zone; opening a space for self-expression requires confidence and a different kind of listening.

We are fortunate to be working with schools in Newham for the fourth year now, leading groups of Y5/6 pupils and their teachers out into places like the New Forest and the South Downs for a real retreat into writing.

Adisa and I thought at first that by providing the children with beautiful scenery, and some time to think, we would create phenomenal expressive nature poetry. We did get a bit of that, but we were pleasantly surprised to find something else happened. The thing the children appreciated most of all was the headspace – given the opportunity to step outside of their regular East London lives, they were able to think differently about family, about London, about culture and religion – in short, about themselves and their social worlds.

Now, whilst we are keen to explore the natural world, and to use the scenery to galvanise our writing, Adisa and I keep things open, not wanting to ‘overscaffold’ the children’s writing. So when we stumbled across a long-abandoned railway line, and Adisa shared the poem ‘Bridge Builder’ by John Agard, we then encouraged children to consider the notion of pairs, similarities and differences in their poetry, rather than encouraging them to ‘gap-fill’ an existing poem.

The challenge here is one that is familiar to any teacher who is encouraging their children to write; the challenge of striking a balance between freedom and constraint. The two are not diametric opposites, and the playful relationship between the two of them can be what leads children to create poetry we can all celebrate. To be able to express an authentic idea, or tell of one’s emotional truths, in the tight form of a sonnet is an incredibly creative thing to do, though not ‘free’. Likewise, when Adisa and I look back to our first retreat, the most potent and well-expressed thoughts were those which deviated just beyond the parameters of where we had invited the children to go. Small rebellions.

The theme of Truth for National Poetry Day is a fantastic one, and could not be any more well-timed. Poetry provides a space for the children and young people we work with to speak and to be heard, and in times of such political and social turbulence, their voices matter more than ever. At our next retreats in November, we will explore the many different notions of truth – the playfulness of honesty and dishonesty, the political power to define reality and the value of sticking to one’s truth, in the face of adversity and untruths.

This is the joy of it though:  some children will express truths through political poetry, like that found in the words and lyrics of Benjamin Zephaniah, and some will express it through anecdotal free-writing and doodles. Some will write limericks, and some will rhyme and some won’t. Some will make you laugh and some will make you bite your lip.

There is a certain frankness to a Poetry Retreat, and the alien nature of it all does something to people, whether they are a 9 year old away from home for the first time, or a young teacher exploring different ways of teaching English with us, feeling fully out of their comfort zone. That frank, pithy unadulterated truth, well-expressed, such as is found in the contemporary poetry of Imtiaz Dharker, Andrew McMillan and Carol Ann Duffy, is echoed in the moments of inspiration and truthfulness that bubble up on the retreats.

Like when a child held a pebble and looked analytically at it, before deciding it reminds her of herself, because she too seems incomplete.

Or like when a child described the eye-wateringly red sunset as a gift to cherish.

Or like when, in amongst the children sharing the things they used to be scared of but no longer are – like spiders, the dark, alleyways, killer clowns – a young teacher let slip ‘commitment in relationships’, much to our amusement and his own surprise.

Truth may not always sit comfortably within society, in these fraught times where what is true is itself so manipulable and contested, but truth finds itself at home with poetry. In the capable hands of the young poets in our schools, we have the wordsmiths and truthtellers we need, to speak truth to power and to give power to truth.