Writing Hampshire at Costello School

In April, I went to the launch of 10 Days Creative Collisions, a 10-day interdisciplinary arts festival in Winchester this autumn.  I went expecting to promote the festival’s Schools Engagement Project, of which I am a part; and to be fair that was mostly what I did. But what I didn’t expect was also to set up two days doing Writing Hampshire poetry with the Year 7s at Costello School, Basingstoke.

Here’s how it happened. The Secretary and all-round star of 10 Days organisation is an artist called Jane, without whose efforts the whole project wouldn’t stand a chance. Naturally she was at the launch, and she’d corralled her husband, Nick, into doing the refreshments. In a quiet moment I got talking to him, and discovered he was the deputy head of a school in Basingstoke. I’d never heard of it, but I had just that week been wishing (not for the first time) that I could get more poems for Basingstoke onto the Writing Hampshire map – its population is close to double that of Winchester or Andover, yet both those towns have had far more poems submitted. So, I explained poor Basingstoke’s problem to Nick, and asked, what about me helping his pupils create some poems for the map? Great, he said, how about July? And that, more or less, was that. On the last Thursday and Friday of term, I braved the M3 at rush hour (slightly less bad than I feared) and made my way to Costello School.

Now, this was a new kind of project for me. For a start, instead of being given selected classes to work with, I had been given their entire Year 7 cohort – about 200 pupils. They were split between the two days, but still that meant about 3 times the maximum number I had previously worked with.  And secondly, I had been given 5 hours with each group, compared with the usual hour.

The scale seemed huge, and although I was a little daunted by it at first, I soon realised what tremendous possibilities it opened up. In standard school sessions of an hour each, I often regret three things: that there isn’t time for pupils to experiment in different forms and styles; that they often don’t have time to redraft their work, or finish long poems; and that only a few pupils have time to present their work to everyone else.  So I tried to make a plan that would correct all those. I also thought hard about inclusivity: having a whole year group was bound to mean a wide range of motivation and ability, and I really wanted to plan so that every pupil would have the desire  and the opportunity to join in.

In the end, the plan looked simple, though it took me a long time to achieve that simplicity! In the first 2 hours or so, I had them all together in the hall (or gym), and got things started. At first I concentrated on making poetry seem fun – which of course it is, once preconceptions and barriers have been stripped away – and getting pupils used to ‘playing with words’. Then I showed them 6 different types of poem they could create: a ‘wordy’ poem (like the ones I usually write!), a ‘sparse’ poem (which is what I probably should be writing), a rap, a shape poem, a picture poem, and a sound poem. (For those last three I was indebted to the NAWE Schools Skills Sharing day, and especially to experimental poet Paula Claire.) My cunning plan was that, from such a range, all pupils ought to be able to find at least a couple of forms they would enjoy; and so it proved. Before this part of the day was over, every pupil had at least a couple of different poems on the boil.

Then they went to work in small groups, each with an English teacher, to redraft, polish, and present their work. This was the part I was most nervous about: I didn’t know whether I would have given them the enthusiasm and focus to keep going, or whether I’d been able to provide enough guidance. But I needn’t have worried: in fact they were like whippets out of the traps! They dived wholeheartedly into getting their work finished and ready to share.

The final hour was given over to them sharing their work. The first part was visual: everyone had copied out at least one poem for display, and they stuck them all around the hall (or gym). The room looked fantastic; I wish I’d remembered to take some pictures, but as usual I was too much focused on appreciating their work and seeing new pieces. (Though I may be able to get some pictures from the Head of English, so watch this space…)

Then we had readings. There still wasn’t time for 100 pupils to read their work out, so I’d asked each small group to listen to everything in their classroom, and then choose their favourite readings to represent the group. That way, everyone had had a chance to read out their work to an audience, and everyone who read in the hall already knew that their poem was going to be appreciated. I’d hoped this would boost the confidence of the poets, and it seemed to work: there were a lot of strong readings. I also made this section gently competitive, and I think it helped that readers also knew their fellow group members were rooting for them. I think this section was greatly appreciated, because the pupils made an excellent audience both days: attentive, respectful, and hugely supportive of each other (for example, encouraging shy poets to read).

So I felt both days went very well. They did absolutely what I wanted, in terms of getting everyone involved, giving children an interest in poetry and belief in themselves as poets, and leading to the creation of good work. I enjoyed them very much and I’m pretty sure the kids did too: certainly their drive and focus, on two very hot days, was tremendous. Thank you very much kids, if you’re reading this; thanks also to Nick for giving me the chance to do this, and the English team at Costello for helping me so wholeheartedly during them both. I hope I get the chance to do more like this.