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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Elmhurst for Calais Refugees


At school, a good number of teachers set up a Global Issues Group. We discuss the Global Goals for development and consider how we can do something meaningful to alleviate the different problems. The plan was that each term we would approach, research, learn about and act upon a different goal. One of us teachers, Ruby, had recently been to the Calais Jungle distributing goods to the refugees there, and she suggested we could do something. It was agreed that our first Global Goal aim would be No Poverty.

We had some meetings and decided we could get a couple of cars together, collect a few donations and drive over to distribute either to the people or to the charities on the ground in Calais. We set a room aside in school, put a letter out to ask for donations and informed about the teachers heading over.


We know that our school community in Upton Park is generous but it is fair to say we underestimated the generosity. Children were bringing in tens of pounds as donations. One boy in Year 6 melted the hearts of the whole school community by asking for his birthday money to be instead spent on blankets – he came in on his birthday carrying these huge thick blankets. Nobody is ashamed to admit that we had a bit of a cry.

By 3:30, it became quite clear that we had a real job on our hands. Many parents had volunteered to start organising and sorting the donations from 13:30.

There was a lot of stuff. A lot.


  
  
  
 Some were still with us sorting, bagging and loading into cars at 7pm. We had a dinner in Vijay’s Chawalla to celebrate, and we all felt exhausted and emotionally moved.

Saturday came and we were all up and in our vans and cars at 6:30 ready for the drive to Calais. In the end, we had one massive van and three cars. Our team was made up of nine teachers, two family members and one friend. We arrived at Dover and had breakfast on board. On the ferry we bumped into a group of men who were also going to the camp.


  
We only needed to drive for about 5 minutes to get to the distribution warehouse that we decided to work with, called Care For Calais. We met with Claire, who we had spoken to about donating. There was a large team, the largest they had had so far, of volunteers. The volunteers came from all over – including from just around the corner from us in Newham, at Langdon School! – and it became clear that our issues in school were reflected here in the warehouse: a huge outpouring of donations but a limited number of bodies able to distribute, organise and systematise.

It was sad to see how much had been donated and was in the warehouse, but this is I suppose inescapable with so few volunteered. Nonetheless, the volunteers were working doggedly to sort, bag and distribute. We joined in, making gift bags containing socks, hats, gloves, scarves, underwear, a bag of sanitary products, and some t-shirts, whilst other volunteers sorted and grouped coats and jackets.


  
  

Half of us stayed in the warehouse and continued to bag things up ready for distribution whilst half drove in the Calais Jungle to distribute the packs we had already made up. There was no time, or impetus, to take photographs inside the Jungle.

The lasting sight for us was just as we left, seeing Sahel’s blankets being loaded into the back of a van ready to be distributed. His gesture, surrendering his birthday treat for these blankets, had a direct consequence – the day after he donated it, it was being given to families.

The need there is absolutely immense, and the presence of such abject misery is shameful in a wealthy country. There is a need for more donations, of very specific items, but more than anything, they need volunteers to help in the warehouse and to help distribute.

For us as a Global Issues Group, we have a lot of learning to take from this as our first social action. This whole thing came about through two half-hour chats over lunch in my classroom. We were unclear and relatively disorganised leading up to the collection, yet still managed to do this.

Next time, we will be better organised and more specific about who is doing what. We won’t underestimate the power of working alongside our vibrant parent community either, who were so giving of their time, donations and money.

Next week, we will select another Global Goal, this time by the random spinning of a wheel, and we will begin putting our heads together about something different.

I have never felt more proud of my school and those it serves.

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How the Kids See East London

On Friday, I took my intrepid urban explorers from Year 4 on a tour of East London. It is my favourite school visit, and I have mapped out a great route that allows us to explore the features of urban settlements, taking in the towering skyscrapers of Liverpool Street and the City of London, before we move into Spitalfields and explore the rich history of immigration and refugees in the area. We explore the market, which has been there in some form since the 1600s, and then through the old Huguenot houses where the French Protestants settled when fleeing persecution. On then to Brick Lane where we could see how 20th Century migration has transformed the community; it became a place of refuge and settlement for economic migrants from Ireland who worked alongwide the Huguenot weavers, for Jews fleeing persecution in Europe and more recently since the 1960s, a home for the large community of migrants and refugees from Bangladesh/East Pakistan.

The visit also gave us ample opportunity to explore our art topic, which we are teaching separately to our Geography, but with good quality links being made. In art, we are looking at graffiti and the question of whether it is art, vandalism, neither or both. The kids were wowed by the quality of the urban artwork which can be found all over Brick Lane – political, eyecatching, bold and for the kids, very cool and exciting.

The new addition to the visit this year was that I encouraged as many children as possible to bring a camera of some sort. I always love seeing how the kids see the world differently to how we do, and having cameras really complemented the work we were doing on Sensory Mapping. These photos on this blog here were taken by the children in my group, to whom I trustingly gave my iPhone. I cannot wait to see the photos that all the other 26 kids took, and if I get more as good as these ones – skewiff, often blurred but focused right on what the kids find interesting – I shall have more fascinating things to share.

Enjoy the kids pics, and in the spirit of generosity, here are all of my documents I used to plan and teach the visit, including the Activity Pack I made for the kids. If you want guidance about doing this visit (or heck, if you want to bring your kids and allow me to lead it, maybe?!) message me on here or on Twitter (@jonnywalker_edu)

Urban Walk Visit Lesson Plan

Urban Walk Pupil Activity Pack

Urban Walk Route Map

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