Young poets' society
Esther Oxford visits a tiny rural school whose pupils have an astonishing talent
Friday 08 December 1995
What sets them apart is that they also win poetry prizes at an astonishing rate. Three children have won top awards in the recent National Trust centenary competition, entered by 14,000 children; another pupil has just won a WH Smith and another a Times Educational Supplement poetry prize.
The question presents itself: how can one of the tiniest schools in Britain have become a hotbed for alliteration, imagery, tone, irony and rhyme? Is it the beauty of the countryside that inspires them - that Wuthering Heights rawness - or perhaps the sheep?
Inside Kell Bank, the artistry of the place jumps out at you. Models cover every surface; paintings, weavings and batik cover every wall. The children are all occupied, each following a different timetable. They are divided (like all schools) into "year groups". But in this school one "year group" can have one person in it.
Sheila Wilkins is the headteacher, though perhaps muse would be a better term for the woman who inspires this endeavour. Before she became a teacher Mrs Wilkins wrote radio plays for the BBC. Then she did an MA degree at York University on how children should be taught to respond to art. Eventually she decided that teaching was the right path to take, so she looked round for a job as headteacher at a primary school. "I wanted to build on my own philosophy," she says.
This philosophy is about imbuing her pupils with a love of art and culture and developing their creativity. She treads carefully: "I try not to foist my own enjoyment on them - it can ruin their experience." Instead she tries to introduce them to "our heritage and cultural traditions. I see myself as a purveyor of culture, a counterbalance to the more banal influences of television or video".
Art, she believes, helps people to express themselves and live a reflective life. "And that," she says, "is crucial because it gives young people the ability to assess the morals and values of complex situations."
Mrs Wilkins describes her regime: "I try to give them a rich diet of language. Nursery rhymes and fairy stories for the young ones; quality fiction, mythology and poetry, including lyrics, haikus and performance poetry for the older children." There is a link, says Mrs Wilkins, between mythology and creativity: "When children are exposed to myth they produce very imaginative work in the wake of it. Chords are struck. Ideas are triggered. Strings are touched."
Jessica Goodacre, 10, shyly approaches with her poem, then becomes less shy as her enthusiasm takes over. Her poem is called "The Hedaby Man". "Couched in peat, / Preserved, the body lies / As though asleep, / Fingers clenched in pain / Like old birds' claws, / Skull cracked like a chipped cup, / The stomach shrunken to a purse of seeds, / Spine twisted / Into a hank of rope, / Wrist like a / Frail glass stalk, / Mouth lipped / As brittle bark, / Couched in peat, / Preserved, the body lies, / As though asleep."
How does she learn to write poetry? "We sit together," Jessica says. "We think of good words. Then we work out the structure." She uses her poem to explain. "First we listed all the parts of the dead man that might have been preserved, such as the fingers or the wrist or the spine. Then we thought about what his feet or hands might have been like. Then we put the sentences into order."
Jessica stops talking. Her classmates are ready to eat. There isn't a dining room so lunch is served in stainless steel pots at their desks. But before they are allowed to tuck in there are a few rituals to be enacted. First a classical music record is put on; the children are asked to identify the composer and the name of the piece. Then there is a Thanks Be To God. Then there is the rule of silence: no talking until pudding. No one rebels.
After lunch, while the children are being given an assembly by an outside speaker, Mrs Wilkins talks about her teaching methods. Poetry, she tells her pupils, is about imagery. "I tell them that poetry is all about making pictures in the readers' minds." Once the images have been collected, a possible structure to the poem is suggested.
As the children become more experienced they are given less support. "I suggest looser structures - such as a spring-themes verse to start, followed by a summer, autumn and winter verse," Mrs Wilkins says. The older children are also encouraged to play with punctuation. "We might make up some sentences then cut them in half. We then rearrange them to see which startling images come up."
Edward Goodacre, eight, a winner in the National Trust competition, shows me a poem called "The Magic Apple Tree". He says he was inspired by a painting of a tree. "Magic above me; / Darkness and thunder in the sky, / Clouds taking over the blue. / Sheep sleeping on the fallen leaves, / Sheaves in fields. / Leaves scattering around me; / Blossom creeping, / Apples falling. / Darkness falls."
James Stanton seems to be the only one in the class interested in a career in poetry. What does he like writing about? "Peaceful subjects," he replies, "not violent ones." His uncle recently asked him to write a poem about daffodils because they had just come back from Lake District. James did - by composing a pastiche of one of Wordsworth's poems and calling it "Daffs?" He gets it out of his tray to show me. "I wandered lonely as a cloud / Upon deserted peaks, / There were no daffys to surround / The view was rather bleak."
It is time for a brainstorming poetry session. Ten children gather round a low table. "Give me some Viking nouns", says Mrs Wilkins. The list surfaces: "Plunder, Gods, helmet, axe, fjord". They are asked for some strong verbs. "To charge, to plunder, to slaughter, to bite, to invade", they suggest.
As I creep out, the children are settling down on the carpet for the storytelling moment of the day. Even as they negotiate for a space they are quiet and civilised. Mrs Wilkins has taught them to value silence. "Use it well", she instructs. "Reflect."
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