Natasha Ryan: Turning Stem into Steam

About Us – turning STEM into STEAM

Join us on an exciting journey through poetry, science and technology, spanning 13.8 billion years!

My name’s Natasha and I’m an Education Officer at The Poetry Society. We’ve launched a new poetry and coding competition for young people aged 4-18 and based in the UK. The theme is ‘connectivity and the universe’ and the deadline is Sunday 19 December 2021. Enter at aboutus.earth

The competition is part of a project called About Us, commissioned for UNBOXED: Creativity in the UK. Developed in collaboration with poets and scientists in England, Northern Ireland, Scotland and Wales, About Us features a large programme of community engagement and learning opportunities for schools, culminating in a major show that will tour five locations. The show will use projection-mapping technology to explore the many ways life is connected across the universe, from the Big Bang to the present day. Starting with the idea that all the elements we’re made of came from stars, we’ll touch on cellular networks, ecosystems, evolution, linguistic and musical connectivity, technology, and the climate.

The concept of About Us was developed during an extensive R&D phase, in which we were excited to partner with two fantastic organisations: design studio 59 Productions, who created the breath-taking video design for the London Olympic Opening Ceremony; and Stemettes, an organisation that brings young women and non-binary folk into careers in science, technology, engineering and maths.

That collaborative approach drives the project. My last job was in university outreach, focussing on modern languages. I lost count of the number of times secondary school students expressed their anxiety over having to choose between Arts/ Humanities and STEM subjects. For too long, the two disciplines have been siloed. In About Us, we’ve paired up with organisations that have very different experiences and skill sets from us to create a deliberately interdisciplinary project, demonstrating that poetry and science are not mutually exclusive. We’ll show young people that STEM subjects are creative, and that poetry can address a wide variety of themes.

We’re producing free resources for schools, full of poetry and coding activities for all key stages. These resources use poetry to understand scientific topics like cell tissue or symbiosis, and use scientific topics to understand poetry – how can mycelium and language be mutually metaphorical? What’s the relationship between enjambment and epithelium?

The resources get young people reading and writing poetry and creating animations, which they can enter into the national competition we’re running. In line with the show, the competition invites young people to reflect on the infinite ways in which we are connected to the universe, the natural world, and one another. It’s really important to us that young people have a voice in the final show: the competition winners will have the chance to see their work featured in the show – a once-in-a-lifetime opportunity – as well as receiving talent development opportunities and goodies.

Alongside the competition, we’ll deliver poetry and coding workshops in primary schools in each of the towns the show will visit. The work the children create will also feature in the final show, so they play a role in ensuring each event is shaped by the community, for the community. Parallel to this, there will be a programme of adult engagement work, involving local choirs and creative workshops. The first of these events kicked off last week with an inflatable planetarium, stargazing events, a headdress-making workshop in Luton, and a parachuting dinosaur!

We hope there’ll be something for everyone in About Us, and we can’t wait to see the young people’s poems and Scratch projects. If you know a young person who would like to enter the competition or discover the resources, head to aboutus.earth

Natasha Ryan

Natasha Ryan is the Education Officer at The Poetry Society. She manages the Foyle Young Poets of the Year Award and supports the delivery of slam programmes and Artsmark at The Poetry Society. She has previously worked as an Outreach Officer for the Faculty of Medieval and Modern Languages, University of Oxford, and in 2017 she completed a doctorate on the representation of glass in nineteenth-century French and Belgian poetry.

Helen Bowell: 10 Years of Young Poets Network & Beyond

10 Years of Young Poets Network & Beyond

Cesare de Giglio for The Poetry Society

The Poetry Society’s Foyle Young Poets of the Year Award is the world’s biggest competition for 11-17 year old poets in the world, and it’s changed hundreds of lives – including mine! After I was commended in the competition as a teenager, I got to meet other young writers at the Foyle Young Poets winners’ ceremony, take part in a young people’s reading at The Poetry Café, and even interview Imtiaz Dharker the day before sitting an English GCSE exam. Those encouraging initial experiences with poetry are partly why I am a poet today, and why I work for The Poetry Society, championing its programmes for young people.

Nowadays, I run Young Poets Network (YPN), The Poetry Society’s free online platform for writers aged 25 and younger worldwide. We run regular writing ‘challenges’ and publish the winners’ work, and help young people to discover new authors, techniques and ideas for writing. We also keep an up-to-date Poetry Opportunities page for young poets. And by publishing young people’s work and running events and workshops, we do our best to foster a global community.

Cesare de Giglio for The Poetry Society

In April 2021, we celebrated Young Poets Network’s tenth anniversary. In the midst of the pandemic, working on these celebrations was so uplifting. Since 2011, YPN has been visited over two million times, and received poems from young people in every single county in England and 88 countries worldwide, from Cyprus to Hong Kong, Mauritius to North Sudan. We’ve published 813 poems and five special edition anthologies, and sent young people to perform at the House of Lords, the National Maritime Museum, UniSlam, professional recording studios and to explore the Bloodaxe Archives in Newcastle. If you’d like a cheering read, you can browse the fond memories and generous reflections of a number of Young Poets Networkers who have grown, gained self-belief and found their tribe with us over the past decade. Here’s what one of those young people, Ellora Sutton, says: “What does YPN mean to me? Friendship. Encouragement. Warmth. Opportunities. And, of course, poetry. I will never not be grateful for it.”

Though I got into poetry as a teenager, there’s no lower age limit for Young Poets Network. Some of the most brilliant poems we receive are by children under 10 who manage to see the world more clearly than the rest of us. A 2019 challenge inspired by the 50th anniversary of the moon landings attracted hundreds of entries; and two of the nine winning poets were young children. Sophie Orman’s poem ‘Moon Watching’ was written when she was 7, and Max Dixon (whose poem ‘Christmas Moon’ won third prize) was just 6 at the time. I love receiving poems by young children, and I hope that as parents, teachers and poets you’ll find our resources helpful in inspiring people of all ages to write.

As I am now officially no longer a ‘young poet’, where possible, I invite young writers to write for the website. Every August, we commission four Foyle Young Poets to set writing challenges, keeping people busy over the summer holidays. This year, Sinéad O’Reilly, Mukisa Verrall, Euan Sinclair and Anisha Minocha will be challenging young people to explore conversations, the absurd, objects and letter-writing. You can check out their resources and submit by 12 September 2021, and join our worldwide community as it embarks on its second decade.

Find the latest Young Poets Network challenges here.

Helen Bowell

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.

Natasha Ryan: Charlotte Brontë Knows How to Do the Worm

Charlotte Brontë Knows How to Do the Worm

I joined The Poetry Society as Education Officer in April as a maternity cover. My main role is organising the Foyle Young Poets of the Year Award, which has just opened for entries again – visit foyleyoungpoets.org to learn more.

When I took the job, I was especially looking forward to attending poetry readings in the Poetry Café in London, as well as young poets’ showcases in schools and arts venues. Hindsight is, as they say, 20/20.

Like many arts organisations over the last year, The Poetry Society has moved much of its live activity online: from the recent bicentennial Keats celebrations to launches of our quarterly Poetry Review, Zoom has become the dominant mode of interaction with our audiences, an ill-fitting peg in a Betterton Street-shaped hole. The same is true of our work with young people, where we’ve had to adapt to variables like students’ learning from home, increased teacher workload, different safeguarding concerns, and an awareness of new pressures on young people’s mental health.

One of the most rewarding aspects of our young people’s work is the strong sense of community our young poets form, whether through shared activities as winners of the Foyle Young Poets of the Year Award, or through Young Poets Network. We were especially keen not to lose this.

Mindful that social distancing is not optimal for forging such connections, it would have been easy to be all zoom and gloom. However, the new structures imposed on us revealed a surprising silver lining. For instance, at the last Foyle Young Poets awards ceremony, we were not only joined by more international winners than usual, but also by large school groups whom we could not normally host at an in-person event. In one case, an entire year group joined the event to support their peers.

Last month, we ran an online writing course for the 15 top winners of the award. Over the course of two days, the young poets participated in eleven hours of workshops and sharing sessions to encourage them to develop their craft, build confidence, and support one another.

Undeniably, it was a lot of screen time. But despite the Zoom fatigue, the technology also offered certain advantages: written responses to prompts could be shared instantly and simultaneously using the chat function; for young people sharing their work for the first time, being in the comfort of their own homes reduced anxiety; and the resources we shared onscreen could be edited in real time, giving the participants agency in shaping the material. What’s more, although the nerve-wracking moment when the participants had to unmute themselves before voicing an idea introduced delays into discussions, it was also an important process – the technology forced them actively to give themselves permission to be heard. Once they relaxed into this, they embraced the surreal nature of some of the tasks, so that an ideas-generating exercise prompted unexpected phrases like “Charlotte Brontë knows how to do the worm”, while one participant wrote a villanelle about sweet potatoes that very afternoon.

I’d be lying if I said I’m not looking forward to in-person events again, but I hope we retain some of the benefits of the online format and use it to reach audiences further afield. The paradox of this age of social distancing is that although we feel further apart from friends and family, we can be in the same Zoom room as someone thousands of miles away. When you think about it, that’s an even more extraordinary notion than, say, Charlotte Brontë doing the worm.

The Foyle Young Poets of the Year Award is free to enter and is open to poets aged 11-17 anywhere in the world. Enter online at foyleyoungpoets.org by 31 July 2021.

Natasha Ryan

Natasha Ryan is the Education Officer at The Poetry Society. She manages the Foyle Young Poets of the Year Award and supports the delivery of slam programmes and Artsmark at The Poetry Society. She has previously worked as an Outreach Officer for the Faculty of Medieval and Modern Languages, University of Oxford, and in 2017 she completed a doctorate on the representation of glass in nineteenth-century French and Belgian poetry.