We ran two retreats for children aged between nine and eleven this month, and each was fascinating in its own way. The first one was able to equip the children to express themselves particularly clearly – the poetry that the children have written is amongst the most fluid, idiosyncratic and expressive we have had. The second visit felt different right from the beginning. There was a different vibe; a kind of spikiness and urgency about everything. The writing was good but that was less interesting than the experience itself. What stood out was that several children found a way to dig deep, ask hard questions of themselves and face up to some experiences in their lives that bring them discomfort and unease.
Both were successful and both achieved – I think – what they ought to have achieved for the children taking part. The relationship between the academic and the therapeutic is what binds the retreat together, and it is worth exploring how each part works independently as well as in symbiosis with the other.
Developing as writers
When it comes to developing children as writers, the retreats set out to invite pupils to immerse themselves in poetry, to move past the idea that poetry is solely about rhyme and to engage as a writing community. This, we hope, will enable pupils to write poetry that means something to them and is coherent enough to communicate that meaning to other people.
In previous years, we have achieved this but have sacrificed too much of the children’s autonomy. Out of a desire to have good poetry to share, we perhaps held too tightly to the reins. This should not detract from the good memories we have of the earlier retreats. These pupils gained a lot from the visits, and we had the pleasure recently of hosting a reunion at Stratford Circus, at which some past participants shared about the ways it altered their approach to creative writing. The project is, I suppose, evolving.
In the most recent retreats, we have been guided by some of the principles of ‘Writing for Pleasure’ pedagogy. As a result, the poetry children write is more meaningful, grounded in their own experiences, and crafted through the social processes of reading, sharing, discussing and editing. Poetry is not some rarefied code which sits outside of children’s day-to-day lives. Poetry is a lucid expression of those lives.
We harness the beauty of the natural landscapes to provoke reflection. Some of these reflections are about the nature, and some use nature to think about our selves, our relationships and our lives. The fallen trees are seized by Adisa and rendered into imaginative narratives – for who would have the power to level such towering trees – and the childrne’s writing reflects this. Some of it is planned in this way, and other nature writing is spontaneous. The blanching of the sky before a crisp sunset could not be ignored. One child caught a n autumn leaf that fell from a tree. Through talk, we found the poetry in that act – catching the leaf as an interruption in the order of things.
The learning is slow, deliciously so. Without the pressure of a school bell, we can luxuriate in the moments that present themselves until we no longer wish to do so. If something is not working, we can stop, and the wander continues.
The writing and the notes which are put together on the walks is half of the story. Some of the most insightful poetry the children produced can trace its origins back to the kind of real, genuine, deep conversations that abound in the trip, and which are so hard to engender when we are in the classroom. The ticking of a clock and the foreboding shadow of curriculum coverage are both absent. We have time to talk and to really talk.
It is one of the most remarkable elements of the visit, and one of the most predictable. Adisa and I have started to notice particular points in the walks at which the mood tends to shift. Conversations tend to shift from the labours of ‘getting to know you’ and moaning requests for lunchtime ETAs, and suddenly a child who has previously said nothing to us will come up and ask us what we want to do before we die. It takes very little prompting for them to go to that place. So many teachers talk about how these kinds of conversations mean so much – that they are integral to the way many teachers see themselves as educators. It is in these conversations that children may articulate their private passion for a subject to their teacher. It is here that they share about aspects of their thinking which normally they would never share. These conversations are relatively rare, but are abundant in this setting. You have a lot of time to think and talk on a five hour walk, whether you are 9 or 49.
Children bring their lives with them to the retreat. They are not retreating from life, they are retreating with life. Their words attest to this.
This time around, using the startlingly brilliant new anthology ‘Midnight Feasts’, edited by AF Harrold and illustrated by Katy Riddell, we provided a special space to talk about food. Everyone has something to say about food. When we talk about food, we talk about food and everything else in our lives. We began by sharing stories. Not modelled poems, pre-planned and deeply considered. Just anecdotes of ways in which foods make us think of significant people and events in our lives. We didn’t need to start them off. Stories trickled out, but quickly burst their banks.
We heard about how curries only taste perfect when holding mother’s hand. We heard about rebellious consumption of butter, despite explicitly being told to stop eating all the butter. We learnt about the rituals of watching a father prepare Saturday soup, and how this is the closest we’ve ever felt to our father. Food as story. Food as sharing. Food as fuel. Food as intimacy.
The children read poems about food from Midnight Feasts, as well as from other collections like Masala and Pumpkin Grumpkin. Adisa shared his own writing on the topic. They hear poems about the foods that they actually eat, these children raised on taste, for whom a plain plate of unseasoned flavourless beige is a vision of actual hell. And the writing they produce is a fusion of all of these things.
Their feelings after a day of walking, with a head full of thoughts, combines with an evening spent together, sharing stories, poems, reflections and jokes. Together, these inspirations guide pupils to attribute worth to their own ideas, enough that they feel confident to just go with it, and try things out.
They write poems about their ambivalent relationship with soup and about the fact that we all need sweetness in our lives. They glorify their mother’s biryani. And with every poem, we learn more about them.
The experience at the end of the week is profound in itself. The children, who have the right to keep their notebooks completely private, select three or four poems to give in for our anthology. They know that from the start, this is the one condition and expectation. Some children have, of course, been brandishing their emerging thoughts at everyone with a pulse since we got on the coach in London. Others, though, have quietly been writing their worlds in secret, and then – as we all sit together, just people and our books – they share a glimpse of what they’ve been thinking. And it’s beautiful.
Taken together, the anthologies of children’s writing form a great tapestry. There are enough bruising metaphors and memorable lines that the poems have an effect on those who read them, but for those who know the children too, the meaning is far more profound. A haiku consisting of simple monosyllabic words may leave an outsider feeling a little unfulfilled, but for those who know the writer, who remember the mood at that time and who saw their friend etching these words, for them… the meaning is there. And it is for them.
This is not writing to please an imagined audience of grammarians (though they would have little about which to moan). This is not writing to satisfy some arbitrary success criteria, or to please their teacher. The writing is a reflection on the experience that they had, written by them and for them.
Developing as people
When we are writing for ourselves, we are not concerned about awarding ourselves two stars and a wish. When children consider themselves as the audience for their own writing – whether or not they are the only member of that audience – then they connect much more easily with the idea that writing does things way beyond the etchings on the page. They become attuned to the affective process of writing. They spot their hesitations when they hit upon an idea, and pause to consider whether they feel like they want to share that particular side of their life with the page. They toy with privacy and publicity, revealing snippets of their truths, then tearing them out after a change of heart.
It goes without saying, in the context of published adult writing, that we can identify the emotion in a text. Those poems that sear with pain or honesty or poignancy don’t need to broadcast that fact – we feel it when we read the words, and even more so, perhaps, when we read them aloud. It would be easy to presume that because children may lack some of the vocabulary of the adults, that they also lack the complex feelings that are expressed by the words. I don’t find that to be true, generally. Whilst their radius of love may not have strayed far from their families, they still feel it. The rejection of a spurned lover finds a compatriot in the rejection of a child whose friend has just broken up with them. And there is rage. There is rage in the angry child who shouts their words, just as there is rage in the silent child who sits with their back to everyone as they write whispers with handwriting almost impossibly small.
Writing gives the space over to children to articulate feelings that are true and real to them, but perhaps hard to express. One boy wrote a lilting poem about a little bird daydreaming about the future when looking at the fire. He wrote it the day after he dozed off, watching the embers tire themselves out in the lounge. When he shared the poem with me, he knew that he felt something strong when he wrote it. He said he felt proud of it. I suggested that I couldn’t help but wonder whether the little bird was a little like him? His eyes widened momentarily, as if he had surprised himself. He let out a quiet and tentative “that’s very interesting”, as he realised he had articulated more about himself than he had thought.
The writing itself is a catharsis. One of our most powerful activities allows children to write something with complete privacy, and they are given an opportunity to say what they want to say but never say. Whatever they write is folded up and we then place them all into the fire, and watch them burn.
It prompts different responses, and I always feel slightly like an accidental cult leader, since the reverence for the flame rouses them all. One girl wrote with frequent pauses. She kept seeking clarification that it was not a trick, and that these words would not be read. Even as it was in the heart of the fire, she begged me to prod it into the flame to guarantee it wouldn’t survive the inferno to be read by another soul. Particularly poignantly, I thought, as I sat stoking the logs, one boy tapped my shoulder and whispered something to me. I expected something confessional. He whispered that he was struggling because he feels he doesn’t need lots of private thoughts because he is lucky to have a good life. I work with plenty lovely kids, but very few are able to appreciate their lot with genuine gratitude. Few can look to classmates and recognise that they are lucky to not be facing some of the same tribulations as them.
The poetry that the children generated often came from this place of emotional honesty. This isn’t to say that all activities came from a place of therapeutic catharsis, such as in the fire activity. We felt strongly, and more so now, that this kind of space allows children to unburden themselves of some of the strain they carry. So many of them carry a lot on their shoulders; whilst we know this, it can still feel risky to take steps to help them address it. So whilst these activities do have their place, most activities don’t need to go quite so deep. Simply, we expect some honesty in their response.
The well-behaved child who never kicks up a fuss should have a space to say ‘This hill walk is ruining my life – please god let us just go back to the hostel.’ They should be able to write their friendship dramas into their creative writing. Why would we seek to force them to think and feel things they don’t actually feel, when their lives are already so filled with authentic feeling?
The symbiosis of the academic and the cathartic
The special dynamism of the completed anthologies is the fusion between the academic and the cathartic. We can recognise a subversive but effective simile, or an inspired grasp of the rhythm in a stanza. And we can recognise that beneath the beats and syllables, threaded between their burgeoning grasp of a range of devices, we find truths.
The happiness and the sadness can sit neatly and unproblematically together, in a spontaneous set of free verse expressions that captures the inconsistency with which children, just like adults, often experience the world. Our emotions don’t sit neatly together. Our guilt about not feeling homesick is the thing which then, funnily enough, makes us miss home. We marvel at how brave we were to walk into the forest in the pitch dark, despite our fears, whilst still knowing that we want the night light. We can feel ourselves becoming more confident as writers, enjoying playing around with pencils and paper in the fresh air, whilst knowing we will be back home in two days playing Fortnite and happily eating Pringles in our bedrooms.
And when they read their poems, they enjoy them, they remember the process of writing them, and the feeling that they had when they were there.
So whilst they bring their home lives with them to the forest, when they return to their families, they take something of the forest back as a souvenir.