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Tuesday, 11 March 2014

Writing Poems About School

Along with fellow poets Sarah Perry and Belinda Zhawi, I am currently working one day a week in an inner-city London secondary school. The placement is part of my course at Goldsmiths, where I am focusing on 'Spoken Word Education'. The aim is to place poets in schools, with the purpose, essentially, of giving pupils a voice and helping them see that their viewpoints, experiences and imaginations are of value.

Yesterday I was at the school, and read over some poems that the students had been writing. The particular poems I read expressed their views on school life, and I was shocked and saddened by the low estimation in which the overwhelming majority of the pupils held school. I'm not sure whether they would have had similar things to say no matter which school they'd been at, or whether their vitriol was exacerbated by the idiosyncracies of their particular school (I suspect a bit of both), but the general disdain and anger was intense. A recurring metaphor was that of school as a prison, and teachers as hypocritical, sinister prison wardens. School was at best seen as a place of utter tedium and pointlessness, and at worst as a place of outright torture and enslavement. I did not come away feeling happy or uplifted, especially with respect to the pupils' views of their teachers. My experience inside staffrooms tells me that teachers are almost all admirable people who are passionate about doing right by their pupils. I've even written a poem to that effect.

But we are giving pupils a voice, and this is that they have said, and I think we need therefore to accept it as valid. I don't think this means that the views must go totally unchallenged - presenting opposing viewpoints and flipsides of arguments seems to me to be a good thing - but this should not occur in the context of attempting to show that pupils' views are mistaken or wrong. This is how they feel and we need to work with it.

Given this, reflecting on the pupils' poems has provided me with a couple of insights. Firstly, their dissatisfaction with school is evidence of the potential of the Spoken Word Education programme to make a real difference in their lives. Not only has it given them an outlet to voice grievances that might well otherwise have stayed bottled up, it has also shown them they can use those grievances creatively, to produce art.

Secondly, the notion of grievances about school that are voiced within the context of school reveals what seems to me to be something of a tension. Is there the risk that, through the mere act of running a lesson, the educator becomes part of the 'system', and therefore part of the very grievance itself? This is at least prima facie problematic, and I think it is incumbent upon the educator to find a way of running sessions within the school, and very much as part of the school, but in a way that is nonetheless different to what the students are used to, so that they don't just become yet another thing about school to hate. If this is done skillfully and delicately then school might become less of an oppressive place, and the grievance will hopefully start to dissipate.