Writing Memories with Year 6: St Bedes School, Winchester

On Friday I did my first visit of the Summer School Season, at St Bedes Primary, in the heart of Winchester. The school brought me in to run a poetry workshop that would help their departing Year 6s ‘reflect on their times at the school and the history they have made or been a part of’, before heading off to Big School.

I thought this was a marvellous idea. Poetry after all is a perfect vehicle for reflecting on what’s important in our lives, and in this case writing a poem would also memorialise something that otherwise might vanish from their memories. And as the children will have a chance to read their poems at  Leavers’ Assembly, it was also a chance to record something not just for themselves, but for the wider school community.

So, I planned the day around writing a poem that might capture an important memory. I read them my commission for National Poetry Day’s Stars theme last year, ‘What’s Bright Is Scattered‘, which is about an important moment for me (albeit not at school, but they didn’t mind that – at their age I was sceptical that grown ups could have ever gone to school).  We discussed how I had got across what happened, where it happened, and how I’d felt about what happened. Once I’d focused them on looking for emotional clues in the particular language of the poem, they could follow its complexity quite satisfactorily through its journey from joy, to despair, to renewed wonder.

Then I asked them to think of their own ‘special moments’ from their time at St Bedes. In advance of the workshop, the Deputy Head had sent me a list of just some things that had happened at the school since 2006, and I must say I was very impressed – they had done and seen a lot. So I was expecting a flood of memories, from the Cententary celebrations to Masai warriors visiting. But to my surprise, they found this step quite difficult. Some of them did pick up on events that I reminded them of, but they couldn’t add many more – other than SATS and Sports Day, both of which are recent! Thinking about it later, I was reminded of Deborah Jackson‘s belief that children live in ‘a bubble of present time’, and I think I might do this part of the workshop a little differently.

But I had more success with asking them to think about small moments at school that had been important to them – like meeting a friend for the first time, or a time when they’d been especially proud of themselves. Of course these aren’t ‘small’ really, and I had been hoping that we’d get lots of poems like this: about moments that matter hugely in a child’s life but might almost never been seen by anyone else. Lots of children did indeed choose this route.

Then, the actual writing. First we took a little time to prepare words and images that could help to get across the feel of the memory they’d chosen. Then they wrote, many of them enjoying very much the challenge of writing syllabic poetry that I had shown them how to do.

When they’d done, we heard some of the poems. SATS and Sports Day both got really good treatment (though with rather different atmospheres!), and First Day At School was vividly recreated as well. There were some really effective uses of the syllabic forms, such as one lad who used exclusively three-syllable lines, to convey the energy of a sprint. After a brief reminder from me of the skills they had practised during the workshop – and how they could use them for all kinds of writing, not just poems, and all through their school careers – it was all over.

I wish good luck to the pupils, in their Leavers’ Assembly, their next school, and in their career as writers. As a final bonus, the best poems are going to be typed and then sent to Writing Hampshire, thus giving these memories an even wider audience, as they deserve.