Michaela Morgan: Elite? Effete? Irrelevant?

Elite? Effete? Irrelevant?

There was a time when poetry was put on a pedestal and regarded as either ‘special’ and ‘magical’ or somewhat elite and effete. It’s two sides of the same cliché of course and it’s an attitude that still lingers somewhat – despite poetry slams, raps and the tendency of Building Societies and Insurance Companies to use a TV version of poetry to boost their sales impact.

But poetry has always seemed normal and essential to me. It’s in my blood stream.

 I come from a very un-booky childhood home – a household without books, with never a bedtime story for me. Yet I grew up immersed in words and the music of words.  Educated in an era when religion involved chanting in Latin, one of my early intros to poetry was listening and joining in with the Call and Response of the catechism. Then listening or joining in with chants and incantations –in mystical Latin. There were also oral stories, tongue twisters, songs and jokes – word play.

I loved words. At primary school and later at convent school I went under the radar, doing things just the way I wanted to but never being suspected of being a rebel because I was just so very small and quiet. Like a Very Bad Mouse. So if a lesson was boring (and they so frequently were) I read a book secretly. I know nothing of primary school maths because I spent my time with the Walrus and the Carpenter and the Jabberwock with eyes of flame.

I got through secondary school without playing any of their team games. I spent those sessions hiding behind heaps of other people’s clothes keeping company with Charles Causley and Mr Shakespeare and his sonnets.  I never did learn to throw a ball but I loved to juggle words.

My credo is that everybody loves poetry – they just don’t always know it. There were a few raised eyebrows when I turned up at prison gates… to bring poetry to prisoners. But, with the judicious addition of chocolate hob nobs, my poetry sessions were always hugely popular.

At the same time as I was working in prisons, I was also making author visits to schools – sometimes running the same or similar poetry workshops with sticky infants and tattooed felons. Re-working Nursery Rhymes produced:

Humpty Dumpty sat on a wall

He fell off and cracked up after all.

All the psychiatrists, psychologists too

Sectioned him off under the Mental Health Act (subsection 2)

In both settings I celebrated National Poetry Day by using Poem a Day collections and distributing poems by birthdates or special days. This provoked much reading aloud, discussion, display, sharing and some illicit trading.

In schools I work to promote reading, performing, creating, illustrating, discussing – and learning about the magic and power of language. I urge schools to read a poem a day for delight – and also to provide models and springboards to enable children to take steps to writing their own poems. In my poetry workshop manuals I provide poems as models so children (and their teachers) share a wide range of poetry and are provided with encouragement and starting points to write their own. 

Teachers need to be captivated by poetry too. They may be intimidated by it or think it’s irrelevant – doesn’t fit their targets. Or it can become reduced to something to fit in at the end of term or on National Poetry Day.

We need MORE poetry in schools, in bookshops, on TV, on posters – everywhere.

At times of anxiety, celebration or grief- at each important stage of our life – we reach for a poem. It is essential. Why?

Because poetry packs a punch and poetry leaves an echo.

Michaela writes poetry, picture books, fiction and non-fiction. Her poetry is widely anthologised and she is responsible as writer, editor or co-contributor for:  

Words to Whisper Words to Shout (shortlisted for BBC Blue Peter Award), 

Wonderland: Alice in Poetry (shortlisted for CLPE’s CLiPPA Award)  

Reaching the Stars  – Poems about Extraordinary Women and Girls (winner of the North Somerset Teachers’ Award) with Jan Dean and Liz Brownlee  

For teaching, she has also written the popular Poetry Writing Workshops (ages 5 to 9 and 8 to 13) published by David Fulton Books/Routledge and recently reissued in a revised and extended third edition.  

Laura Mucha: What Makes for a Happy Life?

WHAT MAKES FOR A HAPPY LIFE?

Just before the pandemic, the Office for National Statistics asked young people across the country what makes for a happy life. The answer? Having positive, supportive relationships and feeling loved.

Little did they know that a global killer virus was about to lock them away from friends, family and teachers, leaving them more susceptible to the health and happiness of their relationships at home. One year on, what do we know about how happy and healthy those relationships are?

People living with children are more anxious and depressed than those who aren’t, according to the Covid-19 Social Study. Unsurprising given parents are more likely to be struggling financially right now, which in turn can be difficult for children. “Finance is really stressful… it can stress the family out and then that can have an effect on the child,” said one young person to the ONS, long before the world ended.

Source: UCL Covid-19 Social Study
Source: UCL Covid-19 Social Study

Many parents are also struggling to balance holding down a full-time job with homeschooling – and it’s not going very well. A significant proportion think homeschooling is having a negative impact on their kids’ behaviour (24%), wellbeing (43%), their own wellbeing (28%) and their job (30%). Perhaps that’s why the current main causes of arguments among couples are children and finances.

Court applications relating to domestic abuse have reached record levels, so for a horrifying number of children, being stuck at home will mean being trapped in an abusive or neglectful situation. Not only is witnessing violence a form of emotional abuse, but those living with parental violence are also more likely to be abused themselves.

If the pandemic follows the trend of other disasters, we’re likely to see a spike in divorces, as well as marriages and births. While some of these will be for the better (e.g. ending an abusive relationship), for other children it will mean yet more transitions in a world that has already been turned upside down and inside out.

Let’s not forget bereavement. Many children have lost people they love – as well the ability to comfort or say goodbye to them, attend the funeral, or get support from friends, family or teachers. Bereavements may also impact their parents or caregivers, who may be overwhelmed as it is. 

If a happy life means feeling loved and having positive, supportive relationships, some children will be living pretty unhappy lives right now. The stats back that up: 75% of teens believe their mental health is worse thanks to Covid. Jennie Hudson of Black Dog, Australia, explains, “All of the factors that we know contribute to children’s poor mental health have been exacerbated by COVID: an increase in poverty, parent mental health problems, overcrowding and/or violence at home, parental substance abuse, and social isolation.”

Of course for some, spending more time with parents or caregivers will be hugely positive – and by having to homeschool their kids, many will get a better understanding of their child’s education and ability. But that’s unlikely to be the case for families under extreme pressure. There’s been a 107% increase in food parcels given to children and 40% of low-income families lack at least one of the resources they need to homeschool. We were one of the most unequal countries in the world before the pandemic – Covid is only making this worse.

Thankfully there is some hope (if you look hard enough). Another ingredient for a happy life, according to the ONS research, is living in a country where children are given a say, a country where their needs are considered by people in power. “They should listen to children,” one young person explained, “because sometimes the children are right.”

Source: The Guardian 

We may not be the people in power, but as children’s poets, teachers, academics and organisations, we’re in a unique position to help children’s voices be heard. And that will only become more important as we start to understand the long-term impact of Covid, both on young people themselves, and the people they love.

Laura Mucha

Laura Mucha is an ex-lawyer turned award-winning poet, author and children’s advocate. Her debut poetry collection, Dear Ugly Sisters was one of the Independent’s top ten poetry books for children and BookTrust described it as “stunningly original”.  She also writes for adults. As well as writing, Laura also works with organisations around the world (including the National Literacy TrustRoyal Society of Medicine and UNICEF) to try to improve the lives of children. lauramucha.com @lauramucha