Poets in Schools During a Pandemic

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.

Find out more about Poets in Schools and make an enquiry.

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.

Alice Watson: In Celebration of the Foyle Young Poets of the Year Award.

Image credit: Ben Rogers for The Poetry Society

In Celebration of the Foyle Young Poets of the Year Award

One of my first experiences of poetry was when I recited Edward Lear’s ‘The Owl and the Pussycat’ at my school eisteddfod.

This was a big deal. My headmistress was proudly Welsh, and despite my school being in Deal, Kent, the eisteddfod was a big calendar event. With two Welsh grandmothers, one of whom was a published poet in the local area, I was determined that I would perform my favourite poem with confidence and bring the house down.

Or at least, this is what I had dreamt in my bedroom, and not quite what happened on the day. In a state of stage fright, I caught the worst case of the giggles and was told to finish the line I was attempting and to “GET OFF THE STAGE!”

Despite this moment, my love for poetry and performance has never diminished and to work at The Poetry Society and deliver one of the biggest poetry competitions in the world, the Foyle Young Poets of the Year Award, is a dream come true.

Top 15 Foyle Young Poet winners and judges Caroline Bird and Daljit Nagra. Image credit Hayley Madden for The Poetry Society

The Foyle Young Poets of the Year Award is synonymous with excellence in poetry and has recognised, nurtured and supported some of the best known poets in the English-speaking world. However, the Award is not just about the excellent winning poems, it is also about the very act of a young person expressing themselves. There is a bravery with each poem that I wish I had known as a teenager. This year, the competition received over 11,000 poems from over 6,000 young people from across the world, and whilst it is exhausting to read that many poems (and to eat that many biscuits during the judging process) it is such a privilege to read poems by the young people who will shape our world.

Left to right, Kara Jackson Foyle Young Poet and Youth Poet Laureate Chicago, Patricia Frazier former Youth Poet Laureate Chicago, Em Power Foyle Young Poet winner 2017, 2018, Fiyinfoluwa Oladipo Foyle Young Poet winner 2018, Natalie Richardson Foyle Young Poet and former Youth Poet Laureate Chicago and poet Rachel Long. Image credit Helen Bowell for The Poetry Society.

The Foyle Award connects to so many more poetry activities outside of the competition itself. Some of this year’s highlights include sending poet Ryan van Winkle on an epic adventure to the Isle of Benbecula in the Outer Hebrides of Scotland, to run poetry workshops with 150 students across a week. We welcomed three youth poet laureates from Chicago, two of whom were Foyle Young Poets, to The Poetry Café to lead workshops for recent Foyle winners and entrants, and to share a stage with them at our free Young Poets Takeover. And we sent three-time Foyle winner Mukahang Limbu and 2019 judge Raymond Antrobus to Wogan House to catch up with Cerys Matthews on her BBC6 Music radio show.

Left to right, Mukahang Limbu Foyle Young Poet winner 2016. 2017 and 2018, Cerys Matthews and Foyle Young Poet judge Raymond Antrobus. Image credit Helen Bowell for The Poetry Society.

Last year we celebrated 20 years of the Foyle Award, and what really struck me was that approximately 100,000 young people in the last 20 years have shared their work with The Poetry Society, and whilst we celebrate 100 winners each year, I think it is also important to celebrate the very act of writing poetry itself. Like many of us, I was only taught to read and recite poetry at school, and I wish I had been given the tools and confidence to write poetry myself, and share in the power and freedom that it can give a young person. That is why, in celebration of the legacy of the Foyle Young Poets of the Year Award and its ongoing commitment to poetry, we will be launching a new teaching resource for teachers using Foyle Young Poets’ winning poems as inspiration for lesson plans that will enable young people to write poetry themselves in and out of the classroom.

Left to right Foyle Young Poet winner 2017, 2018 Suzanne Antelme and 5 time Foyle Young Poet winner and former judge Helen Mort. Image credit Hayley Madden for The Poetry Society.

On the 2nd October 2019 this year’s top 100 winners, selected by judges Raymond Antrobus and Jackie Kay, will be announced at the Southbank Centre and another 100 young people will join the Foyle Young Poets family.

Alice Watson

Alice Watson is the Education Officer at The Poetry Society. She manages the Foyle Young Poets of the Year Award and supports the delivery of SLAMbassadors, Look North More Often and Artsmark at The Poetry Society. She has previously worked at Lauderdale House and Shakespeare’s Globe and studied an MA at King’s College, University of London in Education in Arts and Cultural Settings. To get in touch please contact Alice Watson.