Fay Lant: Celebration is Essential

23rd March 2020 should have been a day of celebration for the Young City Poets project. Instead, it went into the history books for a different reason.

At the National Literacy Trust we are on a mission to get children writing poetry. We work with brilliant teachers and poets across the country to demystify the writing process and encourage children and young people to express their thoughts, creativity and experiences through poetry.

Crucially, we always celebrate the children’s poems.

In previous years we have loved hosting performance events for our young poets and their parents at the end of each project. One memorable afternoon in Bradford in 2018 we heard poems that covered everything from outer space (“yet another standard spiral galaxy”) to a dog named Spike, and a broad range of experiences from panic attacks to ballet dancing “Carve each chord into the air”. Nothing could have demonstrated more clearly that poetry is for everyone and everyone has a poem to share.

In particular, the poem We Live in a Modern World written and performed by pupils at Dixons Cottingley Academy sparked that special tingly feeling for everyone in the audience that is only possible from live performance.

Yorkshire family portrait photographer

But there’s more to performance than just a ‘feelgood’ moment. Through our project evaluations we have consistently seen that the opportunity to publish children’s poems in an anthology or to perform at a live event improves their confidence and motivation to write, and helps them to feel more proud of their work. With children’s enjoyment of writing at the lowest level for a decade, opportunities to share and celebrate writing can no longer be viewed as a ‘nice to have’.

Over the last year we have continued to deliver our poetry programme, working with 77 schools and 22 poets across the country. Along with the whole world, we were faced with choices about which elements of the programme could be delivered digitally. From the beginning we knew that we would celebrate the poetry of our participants. We are about to begin the very serious business of hosting virtual celebration events for schools in Birmingham, Bradford, London and Nottingham and supporting them to perform for parents in the playground where possible. Children and young people’s performances will be MC’ed, and in some cases serenaded, by some of the stonking poets who have inspired their writing: Laila Sumpton, Antosh Wojcik, Paul Cree, Lexia Tomlinson, Simon Mole and Gecko. And the best bit is that all this fun will have an impact on pupils’ literacy outcomes.

We can’t wait!

We live in a modern world

We live in a modern world

There’s encouragement of expression and freedom

       “Express yourself!”

       “The right of free speech!”

What an achievement!

Yet

We’re told to – hold ourselves back

We’re told to – act like we’re old

We’re told to – wear uniforms

We’re told to – do what we’re told

We live in a modern world.

Yet

Our society is set back

Every message we send

On-line makes us feel connected

But each friend we add

Loses our friendship with reality.

We live in a modern world

There’s encouragement of expression and freedom

But

       “You won’t be loved looking like that”

       “How many names can we call her today?”

Failed by our society

We live in a modern world.

Open your eyes to the world around you

Don’t look through a screen

Look with your eyes

See the people talked about daily

See they’re not just a headline

They’re lives

Being lived

People that are real

We live in a modern world

Some have no voice and no freedom

A story briefly flashed across a screen

Condolences and prayers mean nothing

If not backed up by actions

Empty words

Help no one.

We live in a modern world.

Pupils at Dixons Cottingley Academy

Fay Lant

Fay Lant is Head of Schools Programmes at the National Literacy Trust and was previously a secondary English teacher.

Jonathan Douglas: A Smile That Can Never Fade

Every week at the National Literacy Trust I look forward to our ‘poem of the week’ – a poem shared by a colleague that they like or that means something to them. We’ve had everything from Keats to Stormzy via Imtiaz Dharker and Dr Seuss. In one particularly memorable poem of the week, our website manager Greg shared Hello Mr Python by Spike Milligan for Reptile Awareness Day (21st October, in case you’re wondering). It was the first piece of writing he memorised as a 7 year old and he took great pleasure in reciting it to anyone who’d listen. He loved that a grown-up had taken time out of their busy adult life to write a collection of poems for children like him and how daft and irreverent the poem was – coupled with some excellent python facts. It was a brilliant reminder that the poems children enjoy can stay with them well into their adult life. Even if we don’t remember every single word, the memory of the joy it brought us doesn’t fade.

Over the last year the poems colleagues have shared have included messages of hope and positivity. Last week our brilliant knowledge manager (and unofficial poem of the week champion) Emily shared Samuel Beckett’s earliest known poem, written when he was aged between 14 and 16 and found in his friend’s school album:

When a bit of sunshine hits you

After passing of a cloud

And a bit of laughter gets you

And your spine is feeling proud

Don’t forget to up and fling it

At a soul that’s feeling blue

For the moment that you sling it

It’s a boomerang to you.

This one particularly resonated because I think we could all use ‘a bit of sunshine’ in the current circumstances.

As a form poetry connects us with our emotions perhaps more than any other. Our research into children’s writing during the first lockdown showed us that this is true for children too. We saw that for children who wrote more in their spare time during that period, they did so because it made them feel creative and it helped their wellbeing. For children who told us that writing makes them feel better – poetry was the most popular form. In many ways it was not surprising that poetry was more popular than diaries, fiction or song lyrics. Poetry distils creativity and emotions on a page, no matter what age we are.

I’m next on our poem of the week rota and it’s usually a challenging job to pick the right poem but this week I’m going to stay on theme and share a bit of sunshine. The Store Full of Magical Things by Rutendo Tavengerai is included in The Book of Hopes anthology and I hope it will bring a smile to the faces of my National Literacy Trust colleagues.

Over the next half term we’re thrilled to be working with BUPA to produce wellbeing resources on Zone In, our website for young people aged 13 and over; rest assured there will be lots of poetry.

Jonathan Douglas

Jonathan Douglas CBE is Chief Executive of the National Literacy Trust. Previously he was Head of Policy Development at the Museums, Libraries and Archives Council, where he also worked as Head of Learning and Access. Prior to that, he was Professional Adviser for Youth and School Libraries at the Chartered Institute of Library and Information Professionals. He has also worked as a librarian and in children’s services for Westminster Libraries. Jonathan is on the Advisory Committee of The Booker Prize, a trustee for World Book Day and The Philosophy Foundation, and Chair of Governors at his local primary school. In 2020 Jonathan was awarded a CBE for services to education.