How long have you been working for Community Arts Partnership?
For quite some time now, almost a decade, I think. I remember doing a series of workshops in the Waterfront Hall, and one session was on poetry facilitation for schools, led by Chelley McLear. Until then, I had absolutely no idea what the role entailed but really enjoyed it. Shortly afterwards Chelley contacted me and asked if I’d be interested in joining the programme and that autumn I was trained and assigned to my first school. I have been involved in PIMS ever since. So, yes, Chelley was responsible for introducing me to facilitation.
How did you go about facilitating poetry classes for the Poetry In Motion project during Lockdown?
Initially I thought it might not happen. I think that there was a discussion about possibly going live into classrooms using Zoom, and I am not sure that approach would have worked for me as I’d never used it as a platform before. But eventually it was decided to pre-record the classes.
In my case, I recorded an introduction to let the class know a little about myself and what was going to be covered in the project. I then produced a PowerPoint presentation which would offer the students some direction.
What was the basis of your presentation?
Each morning during Lockdown I had been getting up early to go for a walk, during which I took lots of photographs and video footage of the beach and the countryside near my home in Warrenpoint. This formed the basis of the film that I would put together as visual inspiration for the students.
I mainly work using Japanese poetry forms, haiku and tanka in this case. First, I needed to explain these forms which I did using a slide presentation, to which I added illustrations and photographs as a starting point. I managed to capture a fair range of seasonal images during the walks, so there was a good variety of material that the students could work from.
How did you find working this way instead of being face to face in the classroom?
There were some aspects that I think were better. For example, by making a pre-recorded video I could explain the ideas clearly, give examples and prompts for the students and then it could all be replayed as necessary. And each school had access to all the facilitators’ workshops, rather than just the person allocated to that particular school. One of the teachers asked me if they could continue using the videos once the project had terminated, so they must have found that they worked well for the students.
I did enjoy not having to worry too much about the technical side of things in the classroom. I always have a fear of things going wrong on the day if I have to use technology, as I like to keep control of things when I am facilitating.
But there are aspects that you miss if you are not there to engage with the students directly. For me, the main one was the process of helping the pupils in the editing and polishing stage. This is always the focus of the final session which, of course, couldn’t take place this year.
How did you find working with teachers using this new approach?
I have been very fortunate as the teachers I have worked alongside have always been very involved and, in some cases, have helped me facilitate the classes. I don’t think that this can be replicated using filmed workshops, as you no longer have that collaboration or ability to guide how things go.
However, despite not being there at the editing stage my allocated school, the Abbey CBS in Newry, won this year’s schools’ section of the Seamus Heaney Award, so perhaps they were better off without me!
What do you think about the Poetry in Motion project?
I think it is brilliant. My whole family is probably sick hearing me talk about the Poetry in Motion Project but I think just to allow pupils to interact with poetry, and with a working poet in the classroom, is immensely important.
I enjoying using haiku and other Japanese forms of poetry in my workshops, and there are certain ways of teaching these that are not necessarily what is expected. For example, I don’t mention the number of syllables that should be in the poem (in Japanese, traditional haiku uses 5-7-5 syllables, which contemporary haiku tends to avoid) Instead, I encourage students to start by coming up with the images and thoughts they wish to express. That to me is vital—that you don’t concentrate initially on the form or structure of the writing, but focus more on the moment that the writer is trying to capture.
You have worked with winning schools a number of times. Do you think there is a reason for that success?
It’s difficult to pinpoint any one reason. As I said, I have been very fortunate that the teachers I have worked with have been so supportive, but beyond that, it is pretty much all down to the students. I’ve found that, given a little direction, they work incredibly hard to get their experiences and emotions into words. And of course, the great support provided by Conor Shields and his team at CAP makes a big difference to the facilitating work, particularly Shelly Tracey, who always seems to be available to answer any questions.
I also think that in a few cases I have been placed in areas where there are lots of interesting things to inspire the pupils. Haiku is primarily a nature-based poetry form, so if I am working in areas where young people are close to nature, this might just make it a little easier than those living in an urban environment. Although having said that, I did include images of streets and buildings in the videos for contrast.
In any case, I have found that all the students in the schools I have worked in to date have really enjoyed writing poetry, especially if they are given the freedom to express their thoughts.