Poetry By Heart Blog

Libraries at the Heart of Communities

23rd September 2015

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PBH 2014 Champion Matilda Neill of Whitley Bay High School receiving her trophy from Sir Andrew Motion

This year 15 Poetry By Heart county competitions will be organised by much admired library services in association with Poetry By Heart. Our second September Blog is provided by not one but two librarians who talk about their experiences of Poetry By Heart

 

Libraries By Heart 1   by Gareth Ellis (Library Manager Whitley Bay High School)

 

It was the delicious simplicity of the idea that first struck us: memorise a poem by heart. The process, long abandoned by schools as a routine method of teaching, suddenly seemed both a new concept and a tradition worth saving. Using it as a means of exploring the depths and breadths of a poem, of building confidence in students and, ultimately, of having fun, made it irresistible. For us, the prospect of learning and competing within a school context, a county environment and maybe even on a national level breathed fresh air into this most fundamental – and actually rather ancient – activity.

Whitley Bay High School, a large state comprehensive of over 1600 students in North Tyneside, first took part in Poetry by Heart in 2014 and then again in 2015. In 2014 we were lucky enough to see our hugely talented student Matilda Neill go on to win the competition and our competitor in 2015 also got to the finals, so we’ve been privileged to see how Poetry by Heart works from the beginning right through to the end! But ultimately the real reward has been the opportunity to work with young people and watch as they choose, inhabit and possess their poems and how they draw an audience into their reading of the piece through their own unique interpretation of it.

The process is very straight-forward and the Poetry by Heart team are always on hand to assist. In Whitley Bay High School the competition is run as a joint venture between the Library and the Drama Department, with help from English teachers too. We advertise the opportunity to all students in Years 10 – 13, meet with keen and interested competitors to delve into Poetry by Heart’s incredible online poetry timeline and then offer students times to come along and rehearse their poems, if they want to. We found that all our competitors were keen to come and practise regularly and these meetings turned into treasured lunchtimes during which we heard their performances and fellow competitors supported each other, offering feedback and constructive criticism. Then we launch our school event, inviting staff and students to watch and witness the announcement of our winner who then gets the privilege of performing at a county level.

We’ve found Poetry by Heart to be a hugely positive experience and the competition has become an annual expectation within school, with staff and students eagerly anticipating it. Furthermore, it’s raised the profile of poetry within the school community, generated an excited discussion around literature and given students the chance to explore and develop their own communication and literacy skills. It’s also opened doors into poetry rooms our students might not have otherwise found the key to. They’ve discovered poems and poets they might not have normally encountered, have been exposed to movements and styles, genres and modes and have been (thanks to the online timeline) able to place these within the wider, greater tradition of poetry in English.  When students memorise a poem they’re possessing something that will stay with them forever and as their lives develop, take shape, shift and change, so too will their understanding and interpretation of the poem. The poet Don Paterson often describes a poem as ‘a little machine for remembering itself’. Poetry by Heart oils the cogs of that machine, and our students who have been involved in the competition have come away all the richer for it.

Ellis, Gareth GJE copyAbout the Author: Gareth Ellis is a Chartered Librarian and has been the Library Manager at Whitley Bay High School for over a decade. He has an interest in and a passion for poetry and has an MA in Modern & Contemporary Poetry from the University of Bristol. Gareth runs a variety of reading and poetry initiatives at Whitley Bay High School, including school visits from the likes of Carol Ann Duffy and Simon Armitage, and an annual Literature & Performing Arts Festival. He has recently been designated a Specialist Leader in Education.  

 

 

Libraries By Heart 2  by Ian Anstice (Locality Librarian for Cheshire West and Chester Council)

Poetry By Heart 2015 The Cheshire County Contest at Chester Town Hall

Poetry By Heart 2015 The Cheshire County Contest at Chester Town Hall

Much to my shame, I had not heard about Poetry By Heart before being told it was one of my duties to arrange the Cheshire judging.  This pained me as I’m both a full time librarian and responsible for Public Libraries News so most of my time is spent in public libraries one way or another and I should have known about it, especially as I was to discover how great it was.  Thankfully, my very helpful colleague Debbie Owen had arranged the competition the year before and ensured I did everything necessary.

The first thing I learnt was that, and this was quite a surprise to me being used to local council finances, the whole thing was fully funded. Yes indeed, money was attached.  This meant that we could book a great venue (the very impressive Chester Town Hall)  and arrange a Master of Ceremonies for the evening (the no less impressive – but a lot more fun, sorry Chester Town Hall – performance poet Dominic Berry). There was even (whisper it) something left over for refreshments, a photographer and presents for the judges.

Yes, judges.  This is a proper thing. There’s not just one judge.  Oh no. There’s at least two main judges (we kept the Cheshire poet Gill McEvoy and newspaper reporter Carmella De Lucia from the year before) who judge how good the poem readings are and also an accuracy judge who checks basic things like words, or even whole lines, being missed. Not wanting to pass everything off on others, I got to be technical judge that evening.

The actual schools are contacted by the Poetry By Heart regional co-ordinator and do all the preparatory work themselves so for me I could concentrate just on the judging event. The co-ordinator just let me know how many schools were attending and the names of the students so that was pretty easy as well, especially as I quite enjoy producing programmes. So the big day came and everything was ready and I was quietly confident the day before

And then it started snowing. Not just a little snow, oh no.  Big snow. And although I got to work OK, it was clear that the east of the county was getting far more. When I phoned one of the schools to see if their students were still on for that evening, I could tell that the school secretary (while polite) clearly thought I was stark, raving insane.  Panic stations. Thankfully, ten phone calls later we had got agreement from Chester Town Hall to reschedule at no extra charge and contacted everyone to let them know it was not happening.  Except, sadly, one judge who we simply could not get hold of who turned up in the evening. I am so glad to say that Gill took it in great part, and happily turned up for the rearranged evening.

And, my, was I blown away. You hear a lot about how terrible teenagers are.  You know, slouching around, growing their hair long, listening to loud music (or was that the 60s?) but, my goodness, all of the contestants were beyond good.  These were teenagers who not only had memorised whole poems but could speak them clearly and also put emotion into it. Their teachers came too and there was a lot of pride in the air for all their performances.  And, quite right too, because every single one was impressive. The talent clearly showed what a good idea the whole competition was, with the students doubtless about to go on to do wonderful things and this experience will help to give them confidence to do it. Frankly, also, it will  instil in them something better: a love for poetry that will be of uncountable benefit.

For public libraries, the Poetry By Heart competition gives us entry into that most difficult of markets, that of the teenager.  Although junior schools are a prime source of readers for us, all that changes when the kids go to Big School. Often we don’t see them again until they come back again while they’re studying at University or when they have kids themselves.  The competition gives libraries a chance to remind students of our existence and how we can help them.  It also hits the spot when it comes to poetry, which again, is not an easy sell. I would also suggest that for those authorities who have school library services, running the competition could strengthen a natural connection between schools and libraries.

So, librarians, if someone tells you it’s your chance to run a competition by these people, grasp the opportunity in both hands.  You never know, you may even learn some poetry in the process yourself.

Ian AnsticeAbout the Author: Ian Anstice is proud to have been a librarian in Cheshire since 1994 and now works as Locality Librarian for Cheshire West and Chester Council. He is responsible for reader development and children’s stock as well as other things like the Summer Reading Challenge.  In his spare time, he created the Public Libraries News blog which is now a main source of information in the sector, regularly used and quoted by library users, campaigners, the media and politicians.  He was named IWR Information Professional of the Year in 2011 and has won two Winsford Town Oscars for customer service in 2012 and 2014.

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Organising a Competition

7th September 2015

Photo: courtesy qthomasbower ‘Big Heart of Art’ Creative Commons

Firstly, let’s get something clear: I am a busy, but essentially, pretty lazy teacher.  I’m the Head of A Level English Literature in a large sixth form college with over 200 students and several members of staff to manage.  So when I first heard about Poetry by Heart my initial reaction, like it is to so many other initiatives, was “No, I just don’t have the time.”  But this initiative was giving me  the chance to be involved in something that had made me want to become an English teacher in the first place: Poetry!

 

So what do I do to make it manageable?  I begin by using the website, www.poetrybyheart.org.uk as a learning resource.  When our AS students return for a fortnight of A2 and HE research one of the tasks they have to undertake is to explore the timeline, find a poem they love and then share it with the rest of the class; just a lovely thing to do.

I also use a drip, drip effect throughout the year.  All my AS classes learned ‘The Second Coming’ and ‘The Cold Heaven’ (actions included) as preparation for their exam in May, “See – you can all learn a poem off by heart.”  Then in September I start to advertise the competition and hold my first meetings.  I’m always surprised by who turns up, often some of my ‘quietest’ students want to take part.

I hold my comp just before Christmas, an entire evening given over to poetry, live music and wine.  I’m lazy but I also like to show off my students so I host the night too, inviting a panel of judges made up of local heads, the Editor of the Northern Echo and, last year, Matilda Neil who gave a stunning performance (another advantage of living in the north east.) Each year I offer the audience the chance to vote for their favourite performance and the winner receives a small prize; this generates a lot of buzz during the interval.  Teachers perform poems towards the end as the judges deliberate and the winner comes back on stage for a final recital.  As the audience leave they each receive a handwritten poem in an envelope, each chosen by my  students and copied out in their best handwriting.

But you don’t need to go to so much fuss,  just a lunchtime with the librarian and a few other judges will suffice, because what I really love about PBH are the conversations and preparations that take place along the way.  Asking students why they chose a particular poem is so enlightening. Often they find it difficult to articulate beyond “I just like how it sounds” but that’s a wonderful starting point for discussions on tone, meaning, and emotions.  Listen to competitors at Cambridge meeting for the first time and they’ll spend ages discussing their poetry choices like freshers discussing their A Level results.

Note from the editor: We might need to consult the OED on the definition of ‘lazy’ as reading the above we think it might mean creative, industrious and imaginative!

We are very grateful to one of Julie’s students who writes below about her participation in the Poetry By Heart project:

What Poetry by Heart meant to me by Emily Popple

“Last December I took part in the Poetry by Heart competition at my college, thanks to a lot of encouragement from my English Literature teacher because, for a drama student, I was very reluctant to take part. That sounds stupid, but I was not fond of poetry and I did not like public speaking – at least not when I wasn’t playing a character. But, with Julie’s help I eventually picked out two poems and learned how much I actually love reading and performing poetry. The first poem was a no brainer for me, ‘Ae Fond Kiss’ by Robert Burns. Burns’ poetry has always been a huge part of my life, my mum is from Ayr and so I’ve always had that connection to it. My brother and I used to have Burns’ poems and songs as lullabies, including this one, so it was an easy choice.

The more modern poem was more difficult as, like I said, I was not a poetry fan. I ended up with ‘Two Pages’ by Choman Hardi, which I just thought was so interesting. And it’s Poetry by Heart I have to thank for my new found love for poetry, I think that some people would find not winning discouraging and maybe that would reinforce a dislike for poetry, however, in my case it has just made me more determined to enjoy poetry and take part again next year. I can now say, with confidence, that I like poetry and that is all down to Julie Ashmore and the Poetry by Heart competition.”

Julie Ashmore (right) pictured with Poetry By Heart Regional Development Co-ordinator for the North East, Griselda Goldsbrough

 

About Julie Ashmore

Started teaching in 1999 and has been Head of A Level English Literature at Queen Elizabeth Sixth Form College in Darlington for the last 10 years. Julie also teaches creative writing to adults and always includes poetry activities. She is passionate about Shakespeare, poetry, running and her two gorgeous daughters. 

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