9th July 2021
Well, what a year! When we officially launched the 2020-21 competition on National Poetry Day in October, we’d all been through lockdown one, we still had national finalists from the 2020 competition to publicly celebrate and it was always, obviously, going to be a challenge to run a competition in the ongoing pandemic. It sure was. But for all the twists and turns of local lockdowns, firebreaks and then another national lockdown, the 2020-21 Poetry By Heart competition kept going because enough schools willed it to. Our enormous thanks to everyone for that.
The competition format – a live, in-person, in-school competition – was severely tested by the pandemic. Schools adapted in really creative ways that we loved, though we also had a flurry of emails in early March from teachers absolutely determined to stick with the live format. We feel confident that whatever Covid-19 throws at us next year, we now have a range of formats that work.
Some schools held virtual live competitions on Zoom and other platforms. These sometimes also involved virtual meetings to share poems and rehearse performances. Teachers told us about how much pupils valued these times where they could come and hang out together, and work on their performances through sharing, talk and supportive feedback. The togetherness and the talk were as important as the competition, if not more so.
To support virtual competitions we created a set of virtual backgrounds for download – from a bare-boards theatre stage to a field of flowers and fairytale castle. We designed these so that no-one had to have other people peering into their home environment, and we certainly found them useful for that as the Poetry By Heart team adapted to home working. But some 2021 finalists have taken the idea further and used the virtual backgrounds for their performance videos. Their videos look great and they’re automatically badged as Poetry By Heart – we’d love it if more people used them like this next year!
Other schools had young people being filmed speaking their poems at home and this worked well too. Pupils sent in their videos to their teacher who then judged them and selected the national competition entrants. Not as interactive but it made for a nice home learning challenge that was do-able. And it had some extra benefits too. We noticed that where students filmed themselves at home, their performances were often in a quieter, more reflective mode than the live in-person performance mode affords. These performances were also different from those where a parent filmed the pupil. They were more intimate and perhaps a little more personally expressive. That gave us food for thought about what we’re doing and whether offering students alternative performance modes might give a space for students who might not otherwise take part.
We had a few reservations about videos made at home. There were a few videos where it was unclear whether the student was speaking the poem from memory or not. Not so much a question of ‘cheating’ as perhaps using a copy of the poem as a self-prompt. We gave the benefit of the doubt in all cases but needing a prompt inevitably affected the quality of the performance. Students filming themselves usually did so by sitting down with a device in front of them and very close. This tended not to support the best performances – standing up, for most people, makes it easier to breathe and use your voice more effectively. Next year we’ll be more explicit in encouraging a standing performance, even if self-filmed.
Because of Covid-19 we were able to push back the competition deadline to the end of March in order to give schools a better chance of taking part. The finals event was also pushed right back to the end of the school year, on 18th and 19th July, to give it the maximum chance of happening. This pattern of two terms for school competitions and a term for judging all the entries, selecting finalists and hosting the finalists event worked well. It fits far better into the pattern of the school year, it gave us more time to support new schools in getting involved, and it gave us more flexibility to respond to the exigencies of the pandemic. We would very much like to repeat this pattern next year.
Number of competition entries
There was a clear sense this year that many teachers felt limited by the number of entries that could be made to the national competition. Many teachers wanted to send all their entries for us to select from, others wanted Celebration entries in each key stage, and others found workarounds to our upload system and they did what they wanted to anyway! This was not without its complications at our end but we hear you loud and clear and we’ll be revising the number of entries you can make in each category for next year.
Judging with feedback
The virtual judging of all the entries was developed last year in association with our consortium partners, The Poetry Society, Poetry Archive, CPLE, NATE, the English Association and Homerton College. We refined our processes for handling all the videos a little and the judging went very smoothly, with two people from these organisations and the Poetry By Heart team watching each batch of videos, scoring them according to the criteria, discussing them and writing two comments for each student, something to celebrate and something to improve. We then used these to create certificates and a record of achievement for every student who had a video submitted. Feedback from many teachers and parents, and school posts on Twitter, told us these were well received and we were pleased with this new development. As former teachers we know the value of assessment feedback but more than anything we really do love every video and we always want to honour the integrity and commitment of every performance. So, we’ll be doing that again next year!
We never know why young people choose the poems they do but we always love the variety of choices they make. Reflecting the increase this year in the number of key stage 2 and 3 entries, the most popular poems are those written for younger children. In first place in the popularity stakes was Robert Hull’s ‘Please do not feed the animals’, followed closely by Roald Dahl’s ‘Little Red Riding Hood and the Wolf’, Rachel Rooney’s ‘The Language of Cat’ and A.F. Harrold’s ‘In the Tree’s Defence’. Popular among the historic poets were Emily Dickinson’s ‘Hope is the thing with feathers’, William Wordsworth’s ‘Daffodils’ and Christina Rossetti’s ‘An emerald is as green as grass’. We were delighted to see some of the new poems we added by historic black poets amongst the most popular choices, including Georgia Douglas Johnson’s ‘I’ve learned to sing a song of hope’ and Paul Dunbar’s ‘We Wear the Mask’, along with poems by contemporary black poets Valerie Bloom with ‘Time’ and Eloise Greenfield’s ‘Harriet Tubman’. Poems commonly set for GCSE featured quite strongly too, with Wilfred Owen’s ‘Dulce et Decorum Est’ and William Blake’s ‘London’ popular choices. We wanted to make it possible for GCSE pupils to invest their energy in poems they have to study but we think better performances usually come when young people choose poems for themselves.
Less commonly chosen poems in the 2021 competition were also as intriguing as ever. Roy Fisher’s poem ‘Birmingham River’ has been on the 14+ timeline since the beginning of Poetry By Heart in 2021 but this is the first time we’ve seen a performance of it entered in the national finals of the competition. We also loved seeing poems performed that we added to the collections from new academic research into lost, neglected and forgotten children’s poetry. These poems include Margaret McBride Hoss’s ‘The Land Where The Taffy Birds Grow’, E. Pauline Johnson’s ‘Lullaby of the Iroquois’ and Carolyn Wells’ ‘A Bicycle Built for Two’. The poet Oliver Wendell Holmes said way back in 1881 that ‘When the school-children learn your voices they are good for another half century’ and we like to think we’re contributing to that kind of collective cultural memory.
The Classic competition was as breathtaking as ever, with spectacular performances by so many students that the judges had a difficult job selecting finalists. Key Stage 3 saw the most entries by far. We would love to see more key stage 2, 4 and 5 entries next year. We had some feedback that Poetry By Heart works well with younger pupils with a first round where everyone has a go at learning one poem, and then some children choosing to go on and learn a second one. Other feedback about key stage 4 and 5 suggested that pupils had too many worries about GCSE and A-Level assessments to be able to take on Poetry By Heart. We hope their lives are less stressful next year and they feel able to enjoy learning something a little off-piste again soon.
The Celebration competition was originally intended to be a route for maximum participation, an entry point to get started with Poetry By Heart, and to encourage creative freestyle performances. This year’s entries partly reflected that intention but it was also a default option for many schools in the circumstances of the pandemic, simpler to explain to students learning at home and to make happen remotely. Next year we will make a stronger distinction between the Classic and Celebration categories. We want to see more personal expressiveness in the Celebration category, more risk-taking with different performance styles, more creativity. The Classic can stay classic but let’s have a bit of fun with Celebration!
The Showcase was a new category, all about enabling schools and students to participate who want to do something else with poetry. We had a greater number of self-written poems this year, many of them heartfelt responses to being young in the pandemic. One school’s students chose to make creative videos of their poems being spoken and another had a poetry speaking occasion where students spoke poems in the modern foreign languages they are learning. The Showcase category was also used by pupils in Key Stage 1 who didn’t want to be left out and chose nursery rhymes and shorter poems to perform, and by pupils who wanted to perform a poem not included in our collections. We love this variety and will continue this category next year too.
Finalists’ Celebration Event
This will take place on 18th and 19th July 2021 at Shakespeare’s Globe theatre in London. It has been immensely difficult to organise a live event for 300 people in an ongoing pandemic. The breakthrough came when our poet advisor, Daljit Nagra, suggested doing it outdoors. We toyed with Wembley Stadium and then were delighted to find The Globe were keen to work with us on an this. It will be a different kind of finalists event than in previous years. Our poet judges Daljit Nagra, Valerie Bloom, Patience Agbabi, Jean Sprackland and Glyn Maxwell will be live-judging from videos that all of the finalists have had an opportunity to re-submit in the light of first round judging feedback. It has to be like this as not all finalists will be able to attend, given Covid rates and self-isolation requirements. This makes it fair for all the finalists whether they can be at the event or not. Every young person will still get to perform one of their poems on the Globe’s main stage and the day will focus on celebrating young people and their poems. You never know, we might even prefer it like this…