I naively and accidentally decided to design, organise and run two large events back to back. On 3rd November we had the first ever #TMNewham event and then from the 7th to the 10th November, we had our first ETSA Newham Y5 Poetry Retreat. Truth told, I had crippling anxiety all the way through half term, BUT thankfully both things ran beautifully and almost eerily smoothly, and when it got to the final evening of the Poetry Retreat, as we all sat around the fire in the New Forest, I felt the anxiety leave me there and then.
The Poetry Retreat, which was the joint project of Adisa the Verbaliser and myself, was designed to get our East London kids way off into a place of natural beauty, giving them the perfect environment in which to dedicate their energies to expression, reflection and poetry.
It was very much a retreat rather than a school trip. For one thing, the children and staff did not know each other; our group was made up of children and teachers from four different schools. This disrupted social groupings but also gave everybody, from the 9 year olds to the adults, the chance to suspend their typical ways of being; nobody needed to ‘play up’ to the way they normally are. So long as Adisa was able to create an open space where people felt confident enough to share their work and their ideas, nobody needed to feel held back by their sense that their thinking, their expression was ‘not good enough’.
It was a simple visit, in many ways. There was no need for high-ropes and explicit ‘team building’ activities; we simply headed off into the forest, on routes that I had planned and that Adisa had built into his teaching, and gave the children the opportunity to set their imaginations alight.
So we walked into the forests and over the hills, and found things. A gigantic tree had fallen, creating a clearing. We stood around it, imagining what could have taken it down. A rush of beasts? Some tempestuous giant? A wrathful god? We imagined this tree as a dismembered hand of the forest, twitching as the flows of life ebbed out of it. As we walked alongside a stream, the setting sun hit against some small object on the floor, way in the distance; what was this? Was it enchanted? Had we stumbled across some extra-terrestrial event? Was it some kind of message?
At all times of the retreat, all children carried with them their Scrapbooks. Into these, they wrote down all of their thoughts and ideas. The books were private to them, and this was important; I made it clear to them that they would regularly be invited to share, but their work was private and they didn’t have to. Of course, they all did, even those who were initially very reluctant. Some children said a lot more, and wanted to share everything, and this was no problem. Those who were a bit more introverted or who wanted to spend more time on their words could do so. The children did know, though, that at the end of the week, they would need to submit their three favourite pieces of work to be included in an Anthology.
It was fascinating to see those children’s books who wanted to share. Some of them were beautifully well-organised, tidy and systematic. They had drawn lines onto the blank squares of card in order to scribe neatly. Others had clearly used their book like a graffiti wall; legible but with a focus on rapid expression rather than pristine presentation. Some children had doodled. Some had created shape poems out of our guided tasks. Some had jotted down a spontaneous little Haiku, riffing off a poem that had been shared with them. Some had stuck things down that they found on the forest floor, like a particularly interesting leaf.
There was a tight structure to the whole week, and this was integral to its success. The existence of a firm structure, with planned tasks and activities throughout, was what allowed us to give off the impression of complete freedom whilst ensuring we had the children working fruitfully, diligently and effectively. As far as the pupils experienced it, we may have been randomly walking off into the forest and stumbling across a particularly violent looking bush, considering what may have happened to it to cause it to be so untrusting of the world, but actually, I had visited that very same bush five weeks ago, risk assessed that violent bush and spoken to Adisa about it, who had planned a lesson around that bush.
The landscape itself was stunning, and for us – as a group of pupils and teachers so used to being in a particularly grey part of a global city – it yielded happiness in and of itself. Just stepping out into the forest was a beneficial thing to do. There was a feeling of wellbeing. We spent all of our time either creating poetry, exploring, or doing both. The teachers all adapted really naturalistically to the environment, supporting and facilitating, whilst also getting fully involved and taking the opportunity to do their own poems. Behaviour was almost suspiciously perfect; as we teachers reflected on the week on the final evening, after the kids had gone to bed (at 20:30!!), we realised we actually hadn’t even needed to raise our voice. Despite the excitement of the week, the freedom from schoolish constraints and the disruptive rite of passage of being away from home for most of the kids, there were no tears, tantrums or tearaways.
Adisa had planned roughly 12 tasks for the week which would yield 12 poems, but as we went about the week, we were very responsive to the unpredictable, and ended up writing many more than this. Most children also added their own, and it is was only when they chose to share their books with us at the end of the week that we realised they were taking their books to bed and writing before lights out. They were sneaking in a cinquain during the lunch break.
The poetic tasks we had planned were on a general theme of the natural world and our response to it, though each day had an individual theme: Rhythm, Movement and Space. Through space we looked at the idea of perspective – being big and being small, feeling free and constrained, as well as doing some stargazing. Through movement, we focused on our own movement through the different vistas of the landscape, whilst also exploring the four elements – through battle rap no less – and migration.
Donald Trump found his way into the forest. The children were livid. The majority of the children on the visit were Muslim and knew all too well the views Trump has on Islam. I had a reflux of revulsion when I woke early on Wednesday to grab a tea before the kids were up, switched on the TV in the kitchen, and saw his victorious grimace. I went to wake the boys whose sleeping pods were beside mine. From their deep sleep, I roused them with the news of President Trump, and they – like many of us – pulled their blankets over their heads in disbelief. This turned to anger quickly, as they staged a mini protest on the lawn, stomping into the soil shouting ‘Dump Trump, Dump Trump’.
Their anger and incomprehension suffused their poetry on Wednesday. Hillary became a metaphor for lost hope. That evening, as I was delivering my bedtime stories (I prefer to storyteller without a book) I retold them the Myth of Sisyphus, the cunning mortal who always got what he wanted through a mix of trickery, deception and manipulation. The boys nodded with wide eyes, soaking up the story. I didn’t draw a direct parallel but I don’t think I needed to. I then went on, since they asked me to carry on ‘reading’, about the importance of questioning authority. With authority being what it is in America, it is obscene to consider preaching to pupils that obedience is, in itself, a virtue.
So I told them my own story of childhood, when a teacher for some reason told me quite forcefully and with unironically that there existed a kind of monkey that had a tree growing out of its own head, and that it could survive on its own head-fruit. Blindly accepting this and with a skip in my step, my world was improved knowing that these beautiful and incredible creatures existed. I loved all monkeys, but these tree-headed Onklids, as they were called, immediately became my favourite. Only it was bollocks, of course. Dad told me that when I started going on about them when he got back from work that day. I told this to the kids by torchlight. I told them my dilemma – someone was lying, my parents or my teachers. I trusted and loved both, how could I decide? The moral of the story here is that sometimes the children need to be the ones asking questions, adjudicating truth and evaluating things on their own veracity and merit. They need to check themselves when they are being persuaded, or when something is told as fact without anything behind it.
They looked thoughtful but were very quiet.
“Do you know what I’m going on about?” I chanced.
One of the boys – the one who is often the most reluctant to contribute his ideas and who has one of the most divergent and eccentric minds I have ever had the privilege of encountering – blinked up at me from his pillow and said.
“Donald Trump is a tank, smashing through the wall of the castle to get at the princess.”
I said “See you in the morning” and left, feeling as though despite the seemingly interminable greyness of 2016, there were seeds of hope in the minds of these cheeky little inquisitive characters.
On Thursday, we had the morning to reflect on the week and to share our poems. It was only really at this point that the pupils and teachers realised quite how much we had done. In a very organic and unforced way, the children had all filled their books with thoughts, metaphors, dreams, rages, regrets and hopes. In the technical sense, there were some incredibly accomplished poems there in their scrapbooks. There were metaphors that even as adults made us stop and think. There were tautologies and riddles. There was joyful wordplay.
“Why is a ceiling called a ceiling if its already sealed?”
For the children who were introverted, it gave them the space to be pensive and productive. For the children who were extroverted, it gave them the chance to share their ideas, work on them and reflect on them. They supported each other, and neither had primacy.
For me, as a person, I find myself currently fighting an ongoing battle for optimism and hope. I try to keep in mind an idea I found in the writings of Herbert Kohl.
Teaching has to be considered an absurd activity, a joyful foolishness. No evidence of the sense, no social, political, or economic condition, no current state is adequate to cause one to abandon hope for what a young person might become…
As I worked with these passionate teachers, the inimitable Adisa and heard the words of the kids, I genuinely find reasons to be cheerful. There remains this space for creative expression as a form of defiance. Perhaps, on some level, that is what our teaching needs to be. Defiant in its appreciation for what is good in the world, whilst defiantly critical of that which is bad – allies of critical optimism for our pupils.