I’ve been trying out new things both on a personal level (poetry) and a professional level (teaching); mainly I’ve been looking at creating StoryCube through the excellent Bookleteer site. It’s quite a fun visual way of publishing material & I’d like to start getting children’s stories and poems printed as StoryCubes to display in class. Here’s one I created for my poem ‘X': X Poem_cube_portrait_1pp_A4

Check it out & have fun!


Walking Down Roald Dahl’s Garden

I think I’ll take a walk down the garden path
to find myself a shed behind the weeds and grasses
and glowing in the window the light of a paraffin lamp
and crackling in the corner the embers in the old stove.

And in that hut I’ll sit and while away the night sky,
burning the stars in their sockets through to morning,
writing the words that of this mind make a code
and of this night make a new poem, a love poem for you.

Burn the seats: What education can learn from Punchdrunk

Punchdrunk is an immersive theatre company responsible for shows like ‘Sleep no More’ and ‘The Drowned Man’, which place audiences at the centre of a vast set through which they can wander at will, interacting with actors and exploring for themselves. As a model for theatre it has been hugely successful as it provides audiences with the freedom to move and the element of choice. Combine this with stunning design and creepy masks (all audience members wear a spooky white mask, thus rendering them anonymous) and you have the allure of Punchdrunk. 

So what can education learn from this? Well, I’m not suggesting we spend huge amounts of time and money creating interactive history or geography sets, but there are a few small, cheap things we can do to change things round and excite children: 

1. Teacher-in-role: taking a topic that has been studied, the teacher steps into a role opens the lesson in a way that promotes discussion and argument. My favourite is the spin doctor for Macbeth & Lady Macbeth. Act as if you’ve been sent to deal with the press and start brushing off accusations about the king and queen and see how long it takes students to cotton on and join in. 

2. Burn the seats, burn the desks: Not literally! You’ll have the bursar and health & safety down on you before you can say ‘risk assessment’. Basically, push them all to the sides. You can either set up hot-desks with different activities on for children to work on, or leave the desks entirely and start off some drama games in a circle before dividing them up into groups to role play. Watch all the results at the end. 

3. Sensory appeal: Blindfold them and give them different smells to describe. Link this in to a creative writing exercise or a moment in a book you are studying.  Make sure that you push them to identify the subtleties of smell. Avoid nuts, and check the medical register for allergies before you begin. 

4. Go on a scavenger hunt: The maths teacher at our school is great at this & often sends pupils searching for pre-planted notes & equations to solve in a set amount of time. Works well when you trust the children. Not so well if they’re a little older and likely to ‘get lost’ along the way. As a simpler variation, in English I send them with a list of things to find and collect in poetic form as the basis for a descriptive poem. Or send them out looking for passives when studying active & passive voice. There’s more around than you think & it can lead to an interesting discussion about why we use passives (the key question is ‘why is the object of the sentence being left out?’)

5. Dance: Put on some lively music & get them to dance. Amazing to watch children really letting go. They love it & sets a creative mood for whatever comes next. Good as a warm up to drama. Works well with classes from Y7 down. The teenagers are often a little shy or too cool to dance! 

6. Field-trip: Age old but totally inspiring. A big problem with creative writing & one that (perhaps surprisingly) it took me a while to figure out, is that children can only write about what they’ve experienced. Great if they’ve been diving with sharks on the Gold Coast for the holidays, but for the less fortunate who have spent the half-term in Hounslow, essential for stimulation.  In other words, they will write a much better story about a tiger after a trip to Whipsnade Zoo. 

7. Dress the room up: Full on trenches can be hard to recreate in the classroom, but a few black drapes and some handmade props work well when you have sound effects. Get them all to huddle down and experience the wait before the whistle to go ‘over the top’. Soldiers diaries will be something else after this! 

All of these work better if there’s some input from children in planning & designing them. It’s just a matter of how much time you have. And, of course, the essential plenary afterwards exploring what has been learnt. Anyway, that’s all for now. Have to get back to my own planning. 

Watch Felix Barrett talk about Punchdrunk here for more ideas. 

Review of ‘Shill’ – Richard Osmond

I first came across Richard Osmond in The Salt Book of Younger Poets and struggled a little with the disjointed, cryptic lines. There was an obvious talent, but I wasn’t sure it was for me and moved on to other poetry.

Then, just the other week, I came across him again in the form of the recent Happenstance pamphlet, Shill. Intriguingly, this is one of two Osmond pamphlets published simultaneously by Happenstance (the other being Variant Air, which ‘revisits the mode and style of Gerard Manley Hopkins’). Even more interesting is that Happenstance has never before published two pamphlets by the same poet at the same time. For a small, independent publisher, that is quite a lot riding on one poet.

The first thing that struck me about Shill was how funny it was – there’s a dry wit to this poetry that is only improved and honed by the new pared-down style that Osmond seems to have adopted since his Salt days. The brevity of the lines make it more readable and allow you to enjoy the, sometimes surreal, associations without getting stuck trying to make links. ‘Aesthetics’ for example, works on different levels, making us first laugh, then reflect:

A poem should be both
the can of Monster Energy™
and the dead mouse,
half-dissolved inside it.

The advice, though bizarre, isn’t half-bad. It’s as good as any when it comes to poetry. Moreover, the little trademark does stop us for a moment. It isn’t accidental (of course) and has something to say about the value of poetry, and what it becomes when you relinquish the rights to the work.

Elsewhere Osmond plays on this relationship between the writer and publisher in ‘If my instructions have been carried out,’ by suggesting that an elaborate hunting scene should have been depicted on the page. There is nothing below but empty paper, a droll reference, perhaps, to the writer’s own impotence when it comes to decisions about publishing and printing.

Of course the joke is not at Happenstance’s expense – an excellent press that produces beautiful editions of top-quality poetry. And once again they have made a sound decision in printing Richard Osmond. I liked almost all the poems in Shill, enjoyed it for its freshness and humour but also for it’s slightly dark and tender moments.

Definitely buy it and maybe get a copy of Variant Air too – I haven’t read that but Happenstance are offering a deal if you get both. His website, which is as sparse and shaped as his poetry, tells us that he is working on his first book. Let’s hope it comes out soon – I’ll be in line waiting to get a copy.

Sounds I

In the noise of everyday things, comes speech
of the kind that tries to talk in repeated motion;
mulch to the grounds of thought, 
the grist and grind of machines on the whir.

They whisper in your dreams and, when you wake,
have cleaned the dishes, washed the clothes,
carried you down past canal boats and cars,
past mechanism, into a digital age.

Where things hum an alien, unknowable language
of binary and buzz.