Welcome to The Writers’ Room.

As part of my performance management at work I’ve decided to get creative. I’m setting up an extra curricular writing club called the Writers’ Room. I thought I’d write a post about it just to try out some of my ideas as well as feeling hopeful that those who read might have a few ideas and tips of their own. Maybe writing a post about it might just make sure I keep up the momentum with the idea as well!

A writing club is something I’ve done before, but I have to admit, it’s never been particularly successful as a long term thing. In the short term I’ve got kids together to write poetry for competitions and it’s been really successful, producing some work of excellent quality. However, I’ve never really followed it up and kept a club going for any length of time. I’ve found that kids don’t stick with it either and that’s probably got a lot to do with my own lack of commitment and ideas in the past.

So the aim has to revolve around just that. I set up a group and keep giving them reasons to turn up and just enjoy writing. I’m keen not to get too far ahead of myself and want to just take simple baby steps, so that my students can enjoy what they’re doing, feel that their work is valued and realise that writing things and working through their ideas can be viewed as a far longer term process than it is in a lesson. I’d like students just to come to the club, relax and play around with words and ideas, regardless of how long it might take to complete a piece of work. I think sometimes English as a subject suffers from the fact that we’re pressed for time and writing for a particular all class purpose, so maybe if a group of students realise that they can write simply for pleasure, it might just work.

I have some ideas, both short term and long term. The first thing I’d like to do is give my students a note book and just stress the importance of always having it with them. I’d like them to get used to just writing things down. That might be thoughts, lines for a poem, observations about things around them, ideas for stories, poems etc or even just doodles. I have mine in my work bag, but sometimes, if I’m in class, I might just grab a scrap of paper and jot lines and ideas down. So my notebook is full of ideas, poems and stuff on its actual pages, but also full of scraps of paper, clippings from magazines and drawings I’ve done. I suppose I’ll have to stress to them that they can’t just whip notebooks out in lessons though. I don’t want them getting into trouble!

I’m keeping my eye out for interesting source material – objects that might make my students think or interesting stories from magazines and newspapers. I wrote a poem recently based around the story of Japanese women who were repatriated to Korea many years ago and it would never have entered my mind had I not read about them in a magazine.

I’m also on the lookout for images of landscapes, people and maybe just the types of things that they don’t often see to put together on a wall as some sort of collage, again just for some source of inspiration. I’ll be encouraging them to do the same and make collages that might just help inspire them. It’s an idea I’ve stolen and adapted from my daughter who’s currently working towards her Art GCSE and has lots of collages thrown together in her sketch books. Sometimes we’ll sit and talk through ideas for images to use and – this has only just occurred to me – it could be something I use for inspiration too.

I’ve put together a folder of writing prompts and ideas I’ve come up with and some gathered from the internet and other after school writing clubs too. I’m likely to focus on poetry but I’d like to see if we can write some short stories too. It’s not something I know a great deal about, but I’m hoping that some of my writers will.

I think my main goal – apart from longevity – is to create a place where kids want to be and where they feel comfortable writing and trying out ideas. I’m not looking to go full on modern teacher – you know the type; ‘Hey guys, just call me Graham in here. Mr. Crosby goes home at 2.45…’ – but I definitely want to have the emphasis on the idea of this being a club, rather than an after school lesson. Ideally, I’d love to get to a point where the students just come in and work on whatever it is they’ve been working on, rather than me prompting them and taking control week after week.

The Writers’ Room is something I’ve wanted to make a success of for years, but I’ve always found that teaching gets in the way. Now though, as a very experienced teacher, I feel like I have the time to make it work. And because of my experiences of writing my blog, especially with poetry, I feel like I know what I’m doing a little bit more.

The goal is to have the club up and running within the next month or so and by the end of the year I hope that we’ll be able to publish some sort of anthology so that the work produced can be celebrated in some way. I have to say, I’m really excited about how this could could go. For now though, I’ll try to keep you updated on our progress and hope to have some positive tales to tell. In the meantime, if you have any experience of this type of thing and any tips or ideas to share, I’d welcome the input so feel free to drop me a line in the Comments section below!

Poetry Blog: ‘In a Perfect World’

This is another poem inspired by my Year 11 group, who are definitely one of my favourite teaching groups in years. So, I suppose that helps explain why I end up writing about them so much.

They’re a lower ability set and are currently going through the exams and assessments that will form their GCSE grades after more Coronavirus disruption meant that this would be based around teacher assessment for this cohort. And I’m desperate for them to do well, in relative terms that is, as we’ve reached the stage of the year where there’s only so much that we can do for them now, which makes me feel almost helpless.

I wrote the poem after our latest assessment. I was reflecting on the hour long input lesson that I’d done with them beforehand. After that I had to let a number of them go off to other rooms to sit their assessment due to access arrangements, like students being given extra time or being allowed to work in a room on their own. It’s safe to say that they weren’t on their best behaviour and it was something that I couldn’t shake when I was driving home. So I wrote the following.

In a perfect world...

In a perfect world you'd be ready.
Focused, a look of steely eyed determination spread across your face.
Knowledge embedded and itching to read and write.
But, it's not a perfect world, as I have learnt many times before
and you will discover on too many occasions that are yet to come.
Instead today, you are giddy and focus is replaced by noises,
bad mannered interruptions and nervous giggles that make me fret,
not just for now and the next hour, but for what is to come in the years that will follow.
I want to do whatever it takes to let you know the positives I want for you,
how I'd love for you to breeze through this,
just to give yourself a leg up, a boost, a chance at a start in life.
And despite the mood, the lack of focus and the approach of a toddler at soft play,
I will attempt to ignore the signs and stand,
fingers crossed in hope while you write, dreading what seems almost unstoppable
in its inevitability.
In the corner of the room, a poster that should probably be front and centre
declares that you should 'Dream Big' and 'Always Challenge Yourself'.
Maybe not today.

As soon as I got home I grabbed my notebook and wrote my thoughts down. I’d stewed on their behaviour in the hour before the assessment. It’s a small group but about 8 out of the 13 of them were just behaving ridiculously – making stupid noises, rudely calling out and interrupting, complaining about what we were doing and so on.

It’s one of the worst things about my job when I feel that I’m working far, far harder than the students in my room. I imagine lots of teachers feel the same. But that’s just how I felt for that hour. We’d spoken about this assessment for weeks, prepared for it intensely both during school and after, but here were my class acting like it didn’t matter a jot.

I wish I could show them how hard life can be. I wish I could show them the awful flats I’ve lived in and the terrible jobs I’ve had to do while working my way up in life and still feeling that I’m doing a bang average job of it all. I wish I could wave a magic wand and make sure that they get that pass in English that gets them some kind of start. But, of course I can’t. And standing there invigilating for the few I had left in the room made me feel completely helpless and incredibly frustrated.

As many of us know, it’s not a perfect world. I just wish I could enlighten these students to that fact a little more!

I hope you enjoyed the poem and I hope that the fact that it’s the same subject matter as another one I wrote fairly recently, doesn’t put you off. Whatever way it makes you feel – even if it makes you feel nothing at all – I’d love to hear what you think, so as ever, feel free to leave a comment.

Poetry Blog: ‘On teaching those that aren’t really listening…’

I wrote this poem after a particularly trying lesson with one of my lower ability English groups. Please don’t get me wrong when you read the poem – I love teaching these groups and I certainly don’t mean to be disparaging in any way. It’s the students that are struggling, the ones who’ve been in and out of trouble for years, the ones that can’t stand the subject and the ones that want to push your buttons, that I enjoy teaching the most.

I seem to have become a bit of a specialist in this area of my job and I’ve lost count of the number of bottom set GCSE groups I’ve been handed over the years. It’s definitely an aquired taste, but I wouldn’t have it any other way.

So here’s my poem

On teaching those that aren't really listening...

On teaching those that aren't really listening,
the disengaged and disenfranchised and those who would, quite frankly, rather be anywhere but here 
you must make like a boy scout; be prepared.

Because, make no mistake; no task is ever simple.

Although each lesson will start the same for hundreds in a row, your simple instruction - 'Date, Title, Learning Purpose'
will still be met by at least one motionless student who may well imagine that the pen will write itself.
There will also be at least another who will ask, "Do we write the date?" and another who simply ignores what's on
not one board, but two to ask, "What's the title?"
You're allowed to sigh. It's fine to indulge in some eye-rolling. But.
Stay calm. Your sarcasm will fly through the nearest window, so be prepared to repeat
or at the very least, to point it out again.
Even your request to write even a bullet point list will be questioned.
"Do I need to use bullet points?" or "Can I do a Spider Diagram?"
Then, when you've spent the best part of an hour prepping them with every detail of every feature of how to write A REPORT,
showed them an example, got them to label the features and look for language examples, told them how to start,
told them how to finish and showed them the types of things to write in between, given them example sentences, 
and done everything you could apart from write the actual thing yourself...
you walk around the room, peeping over shoulders to see one will not start because, in their words, "Eh, what we supposed to be doing?" 
and, I'm not exaggerating, when I say that
32 out of the 14 in the class will not have written anywhere near enough
and that still half of the class are writing A F***ING LETTER. 
 

I’ve taught many of the members of this particular group for a number of years now. Some of them for every year of their high school careers. So it’s safe to say that I know what to expect and that nothing at all will come as a surprise. But I have to admit that the lesson that inspired this poem was a particularly trying one. Any copying out was met with at least one, ‘Do we copy that?’, any task was met with at least one, ‘So are we (and then they’d either repeat the task back at you or just ask if we were writing a letter!) and almost every period of silence was punctuated by a silly noise and a fit of giggles.

It didn’t make me angry at all. Well, not particularly. I’d like to think I have some patience in these scenarios. I certainly should do as I’ve taught these groups for over twenty years now. But the fact that it still left me a bit exasperated gave me the idea for the poem.

It was an unusual process for me in terms of how I wrote the poem in that I just sat down at the computer and wrote. Or typed. Where usually I’ll sit and write notes and maybe even the odd few lines that might pop into my head and then knit them all together later, this was pretty much a stream of consciousness. There were one or two bits of re-ordering made, but this poem was pretty much just written as I thought of it (and I’m not very sure of it as a result.)

As ever, I’m genuinely interested in opinions, so let me know what you think in the comments.

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