Planning a Y5 Poetry Retreat

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It came about first in idle conversation with a colleague.

“It’s a shame that we can’t give the kids much time to put into practice the things we teach them about poetry.”

We had recognised that whilst the children were gaining a much better understanding of the mechanics and techniques of poetry, this wasn’t translating into a desire to write. What we needed was a way of giving pupils a prolonged period of reflection and time in order for them to really think deeply about the world about them, about the power of words and about the craft of poetic verse.

“Maybe we run a Poetry Retreat?” we half-joked.

And so it came about that in a couple of weeks, after many an email and an amusingly-absolutely-necessary-thank-God-I-didn’t-have-kids-with-me-when-it-happened Risk Assessment, we are filling a coach with Year 5 pupils and heading out to the New Forest.

We’ve planned it through our Teaching School, so we have kids coming from four different schools. They will be meeting for the first time this Monday for our pre-retreat gathering. Our team will consist of 30 children from the four schools, a teacher from each school plus me overseeing it, and we have even secured the precious time of Adisa, a poet described by Benjamin Zephaniah as ‘the future’.

The trip is in the New Forest and it is joyously back to basics. Once the coach drops us off, that’s the last we will see of it until we come home. Every waking hour will be spent thinking, wandering, exploring the forest, feeding the poetic imagination and getting their ideas down.

Free-verse. Haiku. Long allegorical poems. Spoken word. Freestyle improvisation. Pantoums!

We are spending an entire day walking on a route that takes us through the forest, across the heaths and along the streams of the New Forest, writing as we go. We are spending hours watching the deer, until we can imagine ourselves as them. We are waking early to see the sunrise, and we will be out with our torches long after it has set. There will be campfires. There will be stargazing. There will music made in the forest.

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Rain or shine, we are out and about, among the wild horses, wild cows and the roaming pigs that the farmers put outdoor pannage, so that they can devour the acorns that are poisonous to the ponies but delicious for the pigs. This practice has happened every year and goes back to the days of William the Conqueror; an odd and brilliant spectacle of synchrony for the children to see.

We are spending four whole days there, and have three themes to our activities, devised by Adisa and myself; Space, Rhythm, Movement.

Space – We will explore the idea of perspective. Are we like the tiny ants creeping along the forest floor, or are we the towering beasts that trudge the plants into the dirt? We will be, at time, tightly enclosed – such as when we can walk into the hollowed-out roots of a fallen tree I found on the risk assessment. At other times, we can marvel at the width of the space in front of us – a full 360 degree panorama of sky, low ground and light.

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Movement – How does nature move, and how is it like the way we move? When we look at things for long enough, like the trunk of an old tree, does it take on new meaning, new significance and new shapes to us? How do the clouds pass through the sky? How do the flames move in the fire? How are things carried along by the stream? And what about the breeze and the way it mildly induces tremors in the ferns? What do we think of when we sit and stare at the interactions between the deer?

Rhythm – What are the rhythms of the different spaces we explore? Will we find anywhere filled only with silence? How does the forest tell us it is there? How can we create rhythms working in partnership with the trees, the leaves and the fallen twigs?

The overwhelming majority of children taking part have never left our little bit of East London. I cannot wait for them to experience the Forest, and I am fascinated to see how they do. I predict a combination of awe, fear and surreality. The sight of wild horses was strange to me, I admit, and made me reflect on the extent to which we forget that this is how all of these animals would be without human input.

They won’t ever have experienced dark like they will experience on our short night-walk. A dark so dark you can’t see your hands.

The purpose of the visit, for those children taking part, is to guide them to be moved by what they experience, and for them to record their thoughts poetically. For some of the children, this will also be their very first time away from home.

The ‘end-product’ is simply the experiences that we have together as a group, and the writing/films/sounds that come from these experiences. As an added motivation, and as a great record of the retreat, each child will spend further time on the final day looking through their personal poetry book – theirs to keep, and theirs to keep as private or as public as they wish – and re-crafting their favourite four poems. The teachers and Adisa will be doing the same. What will result is hopefully an evocative anthology containing 144 poems.

As we move closer to the date, I am increasingly excited at what this visit could become.

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