Tag Archives: Teach Like A Writer

Teach Like A Poet

Extracts from the essay, “Teach Like A Poet” commissioned for Jennifer Webb‘s book “Teach Like A Writer” published by John Catt, 2020.

Poetry for the People.

On walks to school and nursery, my sons remind me that poetry is found everywhere and anywhere. Skipping from one gas, water, and electric plate to another they point out the poetry of drains; the rhythm of footsteps; a cluster of ladybirds huddled on a wall. Nonsense noises, babble, silly songs. Things my cynical adult eyes and ears would not normally be attuned to on my daily rush.

Wordplay, rhythm, and rhyme is innate. We learn language through poetic method – repetition, nursery rhymes, counting, song, play. It is perhaps only when going through Primary to High School to Higher Education that we become divorced from this initial fluid elemental learning and the emphasis switches to the rigidity of grades, correct answers, curriculum, examinations.

Engagements facilitating poetry workshops with a mental health arts charity1 also taught how those who have been stripped of the ‘mind-forged manacles’ can naturally produce poetry closer to raw unfiltered human expression. Re-membering and re-kindling this love of language and wordplay is at the root of my facilitation work. Reminding that poetry is not to be feared, that it is accessible, something we are born with, and that we have a right to claim it, mould it, adapt it to our tongue.

In one memorable commission at a hostel for homeless youth, the anticipation of poetry-phobia resulted in the dreaded P-word being omitted from any description of the advertised sessions. Instead, I was asked to deliver “lyric writing” workshops. However, when able to engage the young people with their own understanding of lyrics, we were soon able to gain an appreciation that the best lyric writers – whether they call themselves so or not – are in fact poets. Poetry was re-introduced back into the room and we could confidently affirm the backronym ‘RAP = Rhythm And Poetry’; that poetry is not just about pretty flowers or that, if it is, it can be about dusty discarded dandelions or, in Tupac’s poetry/lyrics, about “The Rose that Grew from Concrete”.

Poetry is an art form of and for the masses. As Audre Lorde recognised2, “poetry has been the major voice of poor, working class, and [women of colour]”:

Of all the art forms, poetry is the most economical. It is the one which is the most secret, which requires the least physical labor, the least material, and the one which can be done between shifts, in the hospital pantry, on the subway, and on scraps of surplus paper…

Or indeed on the school bus, on the walk home, on your phone, tablet, Android/IOS notes app, dictaphone, voice notes… In contrasting the accessibility of poetry with prose, Lorde develops Virginia Woolf’s arguments for gender equality to also include class and racial privilege:

A room of one’s own may be a necessity for writing prose, but so are reams of paper, a typewriter, and plenty of time.

Poet Gloria E. Anzaldúa similarly implores:

Forget the room of one’s own – write in the kitchen, lock yourself up in the bathroom. Write on the bus or the welfare line, on the job or during meals, between sleeping and waking. I write while sitting on the john.3

Poetry then is effective both in terms of being a ubiquitous natural communicator but also in being an immediate accessible art form. We can all do this. It is not something we are supposed to simply revere, study, and admire from afar.

Poetry for Change.

Poets (the unacknowledged legislators of the world4) have always been at the forefront of positive social change. Periods of upheaval and struggle always produce resistance. And flowerings of art. From Ancient Egypt to Greece to China; across Islam, Judaism, Christianity; through revolts, rebellion and revolutions; via the Harlem Renaissance, the Beats, the Caribbean Artists Movement; to Ken Saro Wiwa to Nawal El Saadawi, to us, today.

As we near an apex in human history with the prospect of planetary destruction having never been closer (nuclear war, pandemics, and not least environmental devastation) there is a need for poetry. Continue reading

Teach Like a Writer

I was recently asked to contribute to Jennifer Webb‘s new book Teach Like A Writer – a call to action for teaching students to write with purpose and integrity, to write themselves into this society, into history, and into their own futures.

I’ve worked with Jennifer on a number of educational projects and her enthusiasm and passion for all things pedagogical shines large, as well as her ability to transmit this enthusiasm to her students and fellow educators (check her website Funky Pedagogy for a treasure trove of FREE learning resources).

From the Introduction, Jennifer locates the book in her identity as a woman of mixed Carribean and Leeds heritage and coming from a low income, single parent household, Oxford-educated and with a decade teaching in a range of West Yorkshire schools. From experience, she speaks of the need for educators to acknowledge their own cultural bias, their priviledge, and to be conscious of other codes which exist outside of, and alongside, the supposed superiority of English.

“Our ambition must be to enable all students, regardless of background, to be the best academic writers and speakers they can possibly be, but this must be tempered with a mature understanding of our own cultural bias and the way we see our students… teachers should aim to teach the knowledge and skill students need to exist, write and succeed in the real world”.

In the spirit of acknowledging real world challenges, and not erasing labour, it should also be highlighted how Jennifer compiled this book during the months when she was heavily pregnant, and managed to deliver on schedule before the birth of her second child.

Jennifer has roots in Chapeltown so it was a joy to also be featured in a book that compiles thought from CPT-residents Jacob Ross, Zodwa Nyoni and Saju Ahmed. Jacob (the Don) has been one of my key writing mentors over the years and his workshops on narrative craft are renowned for developing many a prize-winning writer (as well as being renowned also for his strictness and adherence to discipline). A published collection of Jacob’s unique insight into storying will be welcome indeed but for now, it is great to see some of his story philosophy reproduced in these pages.

Extracts from my essay are here and the full list of contributors, together with the mission for the book is below:

All resources from ‘Teach Like A Writer’ are available to download for FREE from here and you can purchase a copy (from places that pay tax, do not exploit their workers & which aren’t Amazon…) direct from the publisher John Catt.