From The Raven to the Odyssey
So here we are, a new year and schools closed again.
As a poet writing for children, I want to know: what it is like to be a child at this time? What is most boring, most interesting, most concerning about the current situation from a child’s point of view? How are they spending their time? What games are they playing? What stories and poems are they reading, and what do they themselves most need to write?
When the first lockdown began in March 2020 I spoke to children directly about the pandemic, about not being able to go to school or see their friends. They talked about their worries and frustrations, their wishes and hopes, and their visions for a corona-free world. I wrote poems in response to those conversations to reflect their experience. Back then the coronavirus was new. Scary perhaps but also different, interesting and maybe even for some, exciting.
Since then we have been through many rule changes, loosening and tightening of restrictions and at the time of writing, we have just entered a new national lockdown and Covid-19 is no longer a novelty.
The pandemic is not the only thing going on in children’s lives – new things happen all the time. Fresh experiences that need processing. That’s why conversation is so important. To converse means literally to ‘live among’ or to be ‘familiar with’ and it is how we exchange important feelings and ideas. Social distancing puts up barriers to conversation, so we have had to find new ways to converse meaningfully, particularly with our children.
Last Autumn, when schools were in attendance, I was fortunate enough to take part in Pop Up’s SEND Festival, usually a hands-on literature programme for pupils in special schools. This time the ‘hands-on’ element needed to be virtual rather than actual but that was an exciting and interesting challenge.
My first task was to find a way to familiarise myself with the children and them with me, before my online visit. Key to this was talking to teachers about their pupils, finding out about individual quirks. I also made a video in which I introduced myself and set the pupils a task of making a ‘poetry passport’. They had to choose an alias instead of their name, identify a distinguishing characteristic, state a like and dislike, a dream, an ambition, and something they would never do.
This ‘sneak peek’ I had of the children’s personalities, dreams and dreads enabled me to write a riddle-type poem containing hints of all their identities and proved to be an engaging way to start the session. Having recognised themselves in the poem I’d written, they were much more willing to engage and write revealing and moving poems of their own, even though (or maybe because!) I was on one side of the screen and they on the other.
When we share a piece of writing or a favourite poem with one another this is also a form of conversation. During these past months I’ve been mentoring a 9-year-old girl and a 14-year-old boy in creative writing. It has been revelatory to let these young people set the agenda. The boy, who loves dystopian fiction, led me to ‘The Raven’ by Edgar Allan Poe which, with its powerful incantation Nevermore, is a poem about living with loss.
The girl has steered me towards Homer’s Odyssey and we are still puzzling together whether the eponymous hero should be held responsible for so many of his fellow men’s deaths. There could not be two better metaphors for our times. Schools may be closed but children’s minds are most certainly not.
Cheryl Moskowitz is a poet and educator. She writes for adults and children, runs workshops regularly in schools and is passionate about getting teachers and pupils to write their own poems. She runs writing projects in a wide variety of community settings often working with the most disadvantaged and vulnerable. She serves on the Creative Council for Create Arts and is working with Pop Up on a three-year project to develop creative resources for use in SEN schools across Kent.