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Poetry By Heart Blog

‘Togetherness and Unity’ – the Unsworth Academy Showcase poem

13th May 2021

At the end of the first lockdown in 2020, the young people of Unsworth Academy worked with poet Oliver James Lomax to co-create a poem and video. Oliver helped scaffold the poem and his friend, the musician Damien Riley, wrote the music. The whole thing was edited and put together by keen amateurs in school. Teacher Sarah Leech tells us it came about when as a school they noticed that some learners had really struggled with the challenges of lockdown and they wanted to help them. She says “It is no secret that poetry, both the writing and reading, is very therapeutic so we decided to use the combination of poetry and lockdown challenges to produce the poem”. In this week’s blogpost you can watch Unsworth Academy’s video-poem ‘Togetherness and Unity’ and learn more about how it was created and what it has meant from the poet Oliver James Lomax. ‘Togetherness and Unity’ was an entry in the Showcase category of the 2020 Poetry By Heart competition.   

‘We look at the world once in childhood, the rest is memory.’ – Louise Glück

This quote is scribbled on the front page of my poetry work diary and I have had a heightened sensitivity around it since lockdown began; finding myself deeply concerned for the emotional wellbeing of young people, their lack of connection and the impact of isolation on their mental health. To me, it has been vital to try to connect with them through creativity and poetry at every possible opportunity. I do not believe that any of us are going to come out of this experience unchanged and we have a responsibility to understand how the youngest and most vulnerable in our society have been affected.

Over the last twelve months, I have been incredibly privileged to work in partnership with The Working Class Movement Library in Salford. Delivering poetry workshops to schools, in some of the poorest communities across the North West, I have used the Library’s rich and diverse archive as a resource to inspire students to write. It has been a challenging experience, but truly inspirational to see young people respond creatively, sensitively and with dignity to the difficult issues facing them today. Using language and poetry to make the case for free school meals and the Black Lives Matter protests, was humbling as many of the students had personal experience of the issues.

I have witnessed an honesty and purity that I believe we can all learn from; they have taught me about our capacity to understand each other and have inspired me to try and ‘get young again’ before embarking on a new poem of my own. I see my younger self in many of these students and I am passionate about connecting with children from working-class backgrounds through poetry because I identify as a working-class writer… although I am still trying to unpick what this actually means.

My understanding that I was working-class came to me a lot later in life, I never knew we were poor until I grew up and met people from other backgrounds. My experience was the only world I knew and for most of my childhood I was incredibly happy. I find that offering shared experiences and reading personal poems about my childhood can open a beautiful and emotional dialogue with young people. This personal experience has provided me with a rich resource as a writer and it has become a vessel for others to start talking openly and honestly in the development of their writing.

I often have it said to me that it must be ‘very therapeutic for the students’ or ‘it’s cathartic’ which is all true, but for me that is simply not enough. I love to see young people become empowered by language, developing their own voice, proudly embracing their local accents, and I believe they deserve a greater outlet to share their unique and amazing work. Over the recent months, I have been developing a young person’s Working Class Movement Library poetry prize, hoping to create further opportunity for students work to reach a wider audience, for publication, and acknowledgement of their achievements. Fundamentally, I want all young people to have a greater confidence in themselves to write and the opportunity to do so- long after they leave school.

Working with Unsworth Academy in Bury and English teacher Sarah Leech on the Lockdown Poetry Film was a life affirming experience for me. Writing alongside a group of children, from such diverse cultural back grounds, some in care, and some learners for which English is not a first language, was a huge honour. This microcosm of British society is often unheard or unrepresented and being part of this creative process was deeply touching.

Some students used sign language to communicate their poetry, some translated it from other languages, some rapped their contributions, and some simply spoke their words, it was a wondrous scene of togetherness and unity that was moving to watch unfold. As their ideas married together, in a powerful singular voice, we heard the truth and raw honesty of their experiences. The poem is underwritten by unique ideocracies that can only come from working- class life.

Seeing the writers begin to acknowledge that they were the only people capable of writing this poem was so powerful. I saw them grow in confidence and self- esteem over the course of the project, confronting their fears through language and expressing themselves in new ways. Many have continued to send me their new poems since the close of the workshops, which aside from the wonderful group poem, has been the greatest achievement of the project. The response to the poem by the press and local community has given these young people the respect they deserve, something to be proud of and given us all real hope. This project was the perfect protest during these difficult times.

 

Oliver James Lomax was born in Little Lever, Bolton in 1983. Last year he had two collections of poetry published, A Portrait Of The Artist As A Young Nan (a collaboration with Age UK Oxfordshire) and his first full collection The Dandelion Clock described as “Poems that dance with originality and are tenderly unafraid of love and belonging.” – Mark Thomas

Oliver has written poetry for film and television, his work has been performed by Maxine Peake and during lockdown he worked with BBC Newsround to film poetry writing tips for children, his poems are now taught in Manchester schools. In 2020 he released his first spoken word single Don’t Laugh At My Astro Turf Diane, hailed by BBC 6 Music’s Tom Robinson as “An unholy hybrid of John Cooper Clarke and Mark E. Smith.”

Oliver writes between his home in Hale and his adopted office of the Working-Class Movement Library in Salford; he is currently working on his new collection God Missed The Last Bus And Walked Home publishing in May 2021.

“Tidy boy. Tidy poems. Spend your filthy lucre on this book!” – Cerys Matthews

For or more information please visit    Oliver James Lomax • Home

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Low cost, high impact – why we took part in Poetry By Heart

13th May 2021

Rowena Kaminski – Head of School at Tilstock Church of England Primary School – writes about about how taking part in Poetry By Heart has helped Tilstock’s children and their families, including children in Key Stage 1. We love all your stories about how Poetry By Heart has made a difference for your pupils and welcome more contributions to the blog if you’d like to write about your experience. Talk to us at info@poetrybyheart.org.uk for the guidelines.

 

We have a high rate of SEN – about 36% – and a high rate of pupil premium children at Tilstock Church of England Primary School. We are a lovely small school (81 pupils) in a beautiful rural area, but rural deprivation is a real thing. Our children do not have access to theatres, youth clubs, museums and if parents do not drive, how likely is it that they’re going to get to a library over 20 miles away?

Our children generally come into school with low starting points and, consequently, have very low self-esteem. To ask them to get up and speak in front of an audience is a big ask. They may not have grown up with their opinions valued or maybe even as part of a meaningful conversation – often our children will go home and sit on their tablet or Xbox. Conversations are few and far between and as a result their spoken language is limited and undervalued.

Children’s literacy skills are a huge priority for us. We have spent considerable time and training on the teaching of high-quality phonics to support our lowest 20% of readers. We know that vocabulary and the spoken word has a huge impact on our children’s writing. We want our children to be confident to not only use language, but to understand it. One child did not know what the word ‘proud’ meant.

I did some research into how we can develop spoken language in a way that would support the English curriculum across the school (spoken language, listening and attention, vocabulary, drama). Poetry was identified as one of the ways that we could develop the importance of language in our children’s lives. I felt that poetry was really underused and not something that appeared on our regular CPD sessions. Poetry books were not the chosen texts for our pupils or staff.

I found the Poetry by Heart competition online. It is simple, no new resources needed, apart from the website and the children’s voices. This meant it was low cost and high impact – the benefits of poetry were obvious, so we knew that we were not taking any big risks. Children would be celebrated for their efforts and build their self-esteem. During lockdown, Poetry By Heart meant being part of a community event where the whole school could take part – this was very important to us – and it was easily accessible. The lifelong learning element was also important – how we visualise what we want for our children, not only when they leave us, but for life. Once the poem has been learned, it will not be easy to forget.

Introducing more poetry into our school day, has without a doubt, helped to develop early literacy skills. Poetry has also enabled conversations and confidence around terms such as similes and metaphors. It has enabled our children to develop a love for literacy.

Poetry is very manageable for our children, who are generally ‘put off’ by huge chunks of text. We have a lot of children for whom English is an Additional Language and children with speech and language difficulties, so being such a small amount of writing, poetry is less intimidating. It has been wonderful to see Polish children in our community recite poems in English that they have learnt by heart.  The classic poems have exposed our children to literature from our shared cultural heritage. There is also a safety with poetry – children feel safe that there are no right or wrong answers when discussing their responses to a poem. For emotional support, poetry has provided an opportunity for them to explore their personal experiences and to write about themselves and their feelings (this was important during lockdown).

But also, it is enjoyable. The national curriculum tells us that pupils should ‘establish an appreciation and love of reading’, and as a school we believe that, and poetry should be a big part of that. We have really enjoyed having fun with poems. The children have been very creative, adding their own actions and personality to them.

We have had a fantastic response to Poetry By Heart from the children, staff and parents. We have had children as young as 4 entering the competition, memorising a poem that took me ages to learn. We had children with SEN and EAL learning poems and performing them beautifully. For staff, using the Poetry By Heart website has made it simple to ‘drop’ poetry into the school day. We now have a selection of poetry books from the library to enhance our selection. Teachers and pupils are regularly dipping into these books now. We are using the speaking and listening curriculum to assess the children’s performances and having the recordings of their poetry performances also means that we can sort of baseline them. We can track where they are now and follow this journey not only through the year but through their whole time with us.


 

Rowena Kaminski is Head of School at Tilstock C of E Primary School, part of the Marches Academy Trust in Shropshire.

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