Poets in Schools During a Pandemic
Here at The Poetry Society, we have been placing poets in schools for over 50 years. And never once did we think to prepare for a global pandemic.
When the UK went into lockdown in March, schools were forced to cancel their Poets in Schools bookings. There was nothing either schools or poets could do about it, but it marked the start of a significant loss of income for freelancers who depended on working in schools.
So the Education Team hurriedly donned their sparkly thinking caps. We were able to pay the five poets who had last-minute cancellations what they would have earned, commissioning new resources to help teachers keep teaching poetry from home. Joseph Coelho had great suggestions for poetic forms and Michelle Madsen helped us to imagine ourselves elsewhere, while Joelle Taylor addressed the Covid-19 pandemic directly. One teacher even asked us for a volcanic poetry resource, and Justin Coe provided!
These resources kick-started what would become a major project for us in the Spring and Summer terms – our new Learning from Home section, chock-full of responsive lesson plans, writing prompts and reading suggestions. We asked teachers what they wanted from us, and did our best to provide it, putting together ideas for addressing racism and mental health through poetry, and directing them to the wealth of resources that already existed on Poetryclass.
Meanwhile, we surveyed poets we’d sent into schools in the last two years, asking them what they felt safe doing and about their ideas for digital versions of Poets in Schools. PiS regular Cheryl Moskowitz had been independently visiting schools all through lockdown to put together The Corona Collectionand was helping to steer our thinking. Cheryl also wrote us some ace notes for teachers on how poetry can help students process the pandemic.
By the summer, we were finding that less than a fifth of teachers wanted a Poets in Schools visit that looked exactly as in the past. Poets were agreed that the pandemic presented a chance to do things differently, and that a digital ‘visit’ to a school could be as valuable as an in-person day of workshops and performances. Mandy Coe pointed out that there was fun to be had with the tech, like being carried around a classroom on an iPad, and many poets were already running online workshops for families.
One of our highlights of the summer was Zooming with twenty-odd wonderful Poets in Schools to share questions and findings, and work on creative solutions together. As a result of that consultation, we put together some guidance for poet facilitators in the time of coronavirus, shared some updated safeguarding notes, amended our terms of agreement to include digital visits and made sure to ask important Covid/software related questions at point of enquiry.
Digital workshops and performances are, of course, not perfect. It can be harder to excite students and make sure nobody’s left out when the poet’s not physically in the room, and we know there is disparity in access to technology, both among students and schools. But there are advantages, too –we can now beam in poets to rural schools without adding a big train fare to the bill, and save the poet an early start. There are creative solutions to be had, and we are excited to discover more.
We are very lucky to work with brilliant poet educators who are passionate about inspiring young people. They have been able to adapt to and even embrace the changing circumstances in ways we could never have predicted. As for us at The Poetry Society – we will keep supporting poets and schools, and championing poetry, whatever happens next.
Helen Bowell is The Poetry Society’s Education Co-ordinator, and runs both Young Poets Network and Poets in Schools. In her spare time, she is a co-director of Dead [Women] Poets Society, resurrecting women writers of the past.