Some of the poets in the Archive make visits to schools, to work with pupils and teachers. This can be as simple as a one-day visit to read poems and lead a writing workshop, or as ambitious as a long-term residency over a week, a term or even longer. Projects like these can bring poetry alive for young people; learning how poems are made makes them better readers as well as writers. A visit or residency can boost creativity, improve literacy, raise confidence, support the curriculum? and act as a celebration, a day of sheer delight in words.
If you're interested in making this happen in your school, these notes will help you take the first steps. For a comprehensive guide to working with a poet or writer, invest in a copy of Our thoughts are bees: Writers Working with Schools by Mandy Coe and Jean Sprackland.
Exploring the Archive is a very good way of learning who's who in contemporary poetry, and helping you to find a poet who will be right for your school. This is not something to be rushed, so start your research well in advance. Enjoy dipping into the Archive, listening to the work of as many poets as you can, reading the background information on their individual pages. Consider their preoccupations and themes, choices of form and style, and delivery. Look at their track record: books published, prizes won. (Be warned, though: not all poets make visits to schools, and very well-known poets are likely to need long advance notice and may ask higher fees.)
At the same time, remember that there is another side to the equation: the poet's personality, skills and experience in working with groups of young people. This is something you may discover through word of mouth, by talking to colleagues in other schools. You can also call on the expertise of the Poetry Society, whose education department has long experience in matching schools with poets and will be able to advise and support you in other ways too. You can find other useful organisations on our Links page.
Think about the needs of your pupils and the sort of visit you have in mind. Poets all work in different ways. Some will offer a reading with questions and answers; others run workshops and encourage pupils to write themselves. A poet who uses humour and performance might entertain the whole school in the hall; another will prefer to read to a class. A poet who is wonderful with older pupils can be utterly lost in a Reception class, while others are in their element in this environment but a bag of nerves with teenagers. Some poets are specialists in certain kinds of schools work: with 'excluded' young people, for instance, or using more than one language. Again, the Poetry Society will advise you.
It's important to make contact with the poet well in advance; some are fully committed many months ahead. If you can be flexible about dates, this will help. You can contact poets through their own websites, if they have them ? some are linked to the poets? pages here in the Archive. Alternatively, write to them c/o their publishers.
Here are some basic points to discuss with the poet right at the start:
- What is the project all about? Is it a day visit, or a residency? Will there be workshops, performance, Q and A? Is it part of a Book Week, or a National Poetry Day celebration? Is there a specific theme or curriculum focus?
- Group sizes and timetables: your poet may have his or her own preferred way of working. As a general rule, think of the day in two two-hour blocks, and negotiate within that structure. Remember to build in breaks for the poet to catch a breath and have a cup of tea!
- Which pupils? if you have a specific group in mind - perhaps a 'gifted and talented' group - do talk this through with the poet. Some poets prefer to work with mixed ability groups. Explore ways of fulfilling your school's specific requirements while making sure that the visit has an impact on all the pupils in the school.
- Fees and payments: However these are negotiated, you need to be aware of a 'ballpark' figure. The Poetry Society recommends a minimum fee of £250 per day. Be aware that some poets are in great demand and will ask a higher fee. Travel expenses and overnight accommodation (if required) need to be paid on top of the fee.
- Materials and equipment: what do you need, and who will provide it?
- Books: ask your poet to advise you on ordering these in advance so that you can introduce your students to the work.
- Where? Provide your poet with maps and directions.
Your school may be able to raise the money from its own internal sources: school budget, Standards Fund, PTA or through a fund-raising event.
If you're thinking of applying for funding from an external source, you can find clear and comprehensive information on funders by visiting www.readingconnects.org.uk and clicking on Funding.
Create a sense of occasion! Put up a 'project poster' in strategic places around school (including the staff room), with a picture of the writer and details of the visit. Introducing the poet in this way ensures that everyone knows the day is special.
Nominate one teacher to take responsibility for looking after the poet throughout the day. This includes:
- greeting the poet on arrival and offering a cup of tea;
- introducing the poet to all the teachers he or she will be working with;
- escorting the poet from class to class;
- offering lunch or directing the poet to the nearest sandwich shop;
- thanking the poet at the end of the day and showing him or her out of the building.
The workshop is central to many school visits. Teachers may be unsure what role to play during a poet's workshop; try and give this some thought beforehand. For many poets, the ideal is to have the teacher join in, writing with the students and reading back to the group what they have written. This can be a nervous prospect for some teachers, but the courage of those who are prepared to do it demonstrates to young people that writing is valued, that it is something everyone can enjoy doing, and that it is equally challenging for all.
You may prefer to observe the workshop and make notes for professional development purposes, or the poet may ask you to act as an assistant, encouraging and supporting pupils as they write. All these approaches make for a good partnership between teacher and poet? but whatever you do, please don't sit at the back of the room marking books! Remember: for legal, insurance and child protection reasons, a teacher must be present at all times while the poet is with pupils.
If possible, build in a workshop for teachers; it will dramatically increase the value of the poet's visit. Not every poet will offer INSET; the best route is to contact the Poetry Society, which runs a training programme for teachers called poetryclass. Find out more at www.poetryclass.net
, or by ringing 020 7420 9880.
If you're planning a longer project, consider an end product. A performance, anthology or display can be a good way of celebrating a special relationship and highlighting the achievements of pupils. Set aside a chunk of time and money to make your end product look fantastic, and invite parents in to share some of the glory!
As veterans of the poetry reading, Archive poets have been asked to contribute their thoughts on what makes a good reading. If you're an organiser, these notes are for you.