On the face of it, Highfield Primary in Winchmore Hill stands little chance of implementing poetry for EAL pupils in accordance with today’s English curriculum. No less than 58 different nationalities represented at the school and 52 languages spoken. It’s a tall order.
However, Cheryl Moskowitz’s ground breaking work with EAL pupils has put poetry firmly on the map at Highfield. As a translator, published poet and writer, she was Poet in Residence at Highfield for two years. She is still there, a valued presence dividing her time between the year groups, expertly spreading the word that poetry is not only a good idea, it’s essential.
It’s all incredibly inspiring. Pupils who arrive with little or no command of the English language are enabled to compose, understand, perform and translate poetry, nurturing a love of language and words.
But perhaps above all else, these skills provide them with the ultimate. A sense of belonging. And isn’t it our sense of belonging which is crucial to our self-confidence and self belief? Doesn’t our ability to learn absolutely depend on feeling included?
I was privileged to be invited to shadow Cheryl for a day, which proved quite mind-blowing. I learned so much just by watching her interact, listening to the way she spoke with the children, achieving results time and time again. Her method of teaching is quietly encouraging, enabling and supportive. Her calm and gentle manner feeds any creative atmosphere, so that pupils feel they are able to question anything. It was fascinating to watch. It wasn’t just what she did but how she did it.
Small groups are taken out of classes to work on various projects throughout the day. Pupils with the most limited English skills are firstly helped to understand the meaning of their names in English so the learning can begin in the most familiar and natural way possible.
Poetry is displayed on walls of classrooms, corridors, in anthologies. Poetry really is everywhere.
And there is no “Miss Cheryl.” Cheryl is “Poet Cheryl.” This evolved very early on from the children themselves. Cheryl just became “Poet Cheryl.” Naturally.
During the day, pupils would rush up to her to talk about poetry, ask when “their” time with her would be, to tell her they had written something new, as though it were the most natural thing in the world.
One of the groups I had the privilege of observing were “The Young Interpreters” working on their submissions for “The Steven Spender Prize” for the best translated poem. The Prize is much coveted, and certainly no mean feat, even for the most fluent of bilingual speakers. I googled it at lunch time. Let’s just say it is not for the faint hearted.
Even so, after watching the group in action, it came as no surprise to learn that Cheryl’s pupils at Highfield have enjoyed previous success with the Steven Spender Prize. Yes, really.
Nationalities within the group included Greek, Bulgarian, Polish, Russian, and Turkish. Pupils worked on chosen poems from their home countries to translate into English.
Thank heaven for Google Translate.
Hold on. Google Translate is a useful tool but cannot translate everything. It cannot do the work for you. It is limited to translating literal meaning and useful as it is, a literal meaning is often only a clue to the real one. It cannot possibly convey how a poet was feeling when they wrote the poem, their motivations, what was happening in their country around that time, the kind of life they were leading as they felt inspired to pick up the pen to compose. All this would give a suggestion as to which translated word/phrase/the writer would have used. The challenge calls for research and more research. The use of dictionaries and thesaurus, talking to people, discussions. Pupils are learning at every stage
Pupils share their own strategies too. One of the pupils suggested another pupil draw the word they were stuck on, then translate what they saw. Collaboration, even if they are each working on their own poem.
Submitting to the Steven Spender Prize involves much work. But, like eating an elephant, it’s tackled in bite size chunks.
At the start, pupils were encouraged to speak to family, including grandparents, to select a favourite poem. Cheryl suggested an “interview” with ie Grandma via Skype where they only talk about the poet and the poem, nothing else until afterwards. What did this poem mean to them, what can they remember about its relevance at the time of publication? What was happening in the country around then? What makes it so special to them? So the process becomes not simply a gathering of factual information but evolves into a truly inclusive and enriching experience.
This is just one of many exciting things happening around poetry at Highfield.
Cheryl conducts a poetry club for families as well as pupils. This is particularly beneficial for the families of EAL pupils who may experience feelings of isolation. The families and pupils wrote a Cinquain together, resulting in everyone asking to attend again the following week.
Pupils submit to the Poetry Zone website, enter competitions, (there have been winners from Highfield this year!) Cheryl often accompanies pupils on trips, encouraging them to take notes, honing their observational and descriptive skills. So on return to class they are able to create poems inspired by what they saw and experienced.
There is a whole school Anthology of Poetry. Ahem. Yes, I did say “whole school.” From Heads, teachers, parents, pupils, dinner ladies, cleaning staff, admin staff. Absolutely everyone and anyone involved at Highfield has collaborated in creating the anthology, aptly named “A Life in the Year of…Poetry at Highfield.” How special is that?
Another observation. Pupils immerse themselves and want to immerse themselves. Staff have commented on Cheryl’s work reigniting their own love for poetry too. There is a richness in the air and a real acceptance. And there are no wrong answers! Pupils are skilfully encouraged and supported, so every answer, whether on course or off course, becomes a discussion. Absolutely everything is a learning opportunity with Cheryl.
And Highfield Heads and staff certainly play their part. The trust between Poetry teacher and staff exists because both sides want it to. As with my own school, staff are helpful, encouraging, practical and resourceful. They are open to anything. Not only that, they offer a flexible timetable to make life easier and actively enable the process. It could not happen any other way and I am proud to be part of a school similar to Highfield in so many respects.
The day sadly came to an end. Cheryl thanked me for coming and asked me if I’d blog about it. She is a firm believer in sharing and delivering the message, believing that we can all do it. It is possible.
And it is. Absolutely anything is possible around poetry. That is the message I drove away with, echoing in my ear. There really are no barriers. And we have only ever reached the tip of the iceberg.
To quote my favourite poet Yevgeny Yevtushenko:
“Poetry is like a bird. It ignores all frontiers.” So true.