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A Day Spent with Poet CHERYL MOSKOWITZ. How to make Poetry work for EAL Pupils.

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.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

Journey to Now.

Like many of my friends, I’m finding the older I get the more I look back.  And the more I look back, the more relevant to Now, the past becomes. It’s becoming increasingly poignant as my writing matures.

When I look back at my life as a writer, I have one particular vivid memory.  It was the day after Parents Evening.  I was 10. The English teacher had told Mum my writing was so good that he would share my stories around the staff room at break time. Having six children with a husband away for months at a time in the Navy, it hadn’t been noticed.

And so the following day after school, my wonderful writer Mum appeared at the door with a present.  It wasn’t even my birthday and she was known for watching the pennies. So this was special.  It was a blue Brother typewriter  “to type my stories on.”

It was more than a gift.  It was a confirmation, a symbol.  It gave permission.

As time went on, during visits to the library, I discovered the Writer and Artists Year Book.

It was from there I heard about Outpost Magazine run by Howard Sergeant MBE.  Aiming high (it was then the oldest poetry publication in the UK) I sent him some poems.  A week later, a hand written letter from the man himself arrived, asking to see more of my work.

So had that meant he hadn’t liked what I’d sent him? Instead of being overjoyed,  I took it as a rejection, and never did reply. I hoped he’d notice and write again, which of course, he didn’t.

Mum thought she and I should join the local writers circle. I was eleven.  It was run by the Editor of our local newspaper, so a man of some professional stature.

Mum read my stories aloud to the group, as I’d feigned a sore throat. He liked my stories so much, he asked to take them to a publisher he knew. The tension and excitement mounted.  We waited.  And waited. He chaired whole meetings for weeks with no reference at all to the stories. Being slightly overawed by him, it was awkward.

Then Mum plucked up courage to ask about them. Flustered, he said he’d lost them.  He hoped I’d kept copies and left the meeting early. I hadn’t.  So if you’ve ever read stories about a lonely pony called Deblin who glowed green when he was visited in the night by special powers…

There were more disappointments to come.

Being published in an anthology, then discovering Mum had to pay to have it included, like all the others. I was furious. She hadn’t told me because she knew I’d say no.  She desperately wanted her daughter to be published, bless her heart.  I hadn’t realised then what a wonderful thing that was to do.

Being told very definitely by a laughing careers officer at school that I would never be a writer.  A secretary, nurse or hairdresser like so many others in my year… but a writer?  Laudable professions as they were, they weren’t for me. This was the most damaging encounter of my writing life. It affected me for a very long time and I stopped writing completely because of it.

I realised many years later of course, that he was just someone brought in by the school.  Never had he read any of my work or spoken to teachers.

But, as with us all, the observing never stopped.  And the listening, the reading. All skills we naturally hone every day, all essential tools for our craft.

If you’ve ever had a period of not writing, for whatever reason, you’ll know what a desolate, cold, barren place it is to be.  But then the feeling you get when it whispers in your ear “I’m back” makes you the happiest person alive.  And thankfully, a few years later that’s what happened.

Looking back, it’s been a series of more downs than ups and these are just a few examples.  A few years ago, an acquaintance  begged to see a play I’d written as her son wanted to act. Flattered, (or stupidly!) I emailed it.  There has never been a word uttered or a response since, even on the occasions we bump into each other. And I can’t ask for it back either.  Lesson learned.

But then the ups are definitely off the scale.  Joining a script writing group at the local theatre and having a play chosen by the judges of their Writing Festival.  Having the whole family watching as well as a hundred or so in the audience, not all to see my work of course, but they were there nonetheless. Strangers listening to words I had written, laughing along to lines I’d written to be funny.

The children’s poetry chosen for anthologies by well respected Editors.

Joining The Society of Children’s Book Writers and Illustrators, such a wonderfully supportive group of writers. It is because of them I’m tackling the biggest challenge of a novel.  They didn’t have a poetry group, so my novel-writing began just so I could be part of it all.  The Critique groups have proved invaluable, not to mention meeting the wonderful people who attend them.

So there it is, my writing journey.

The poetry anthology, Spring Poets ’72 still sits on my bookshelf. I often wonder how many of those young people, like me, went on to write. The blue typewriter is sadly long gone now, discarded, no doubt during one of our many house moves. As is the letter from the wonderful Howard Sergeant.  And everyone knows if I only had one thing for Christmas, it has to be the Writer and Artists Year Book. Wrapped up and labelled every year,  lying conspicuously under the tree.

Experiences such as these shaped my writing life. And I’m reminded of them in particular whenever I meet a young person who wants to be a writer.  I tell them they can be and not to listen to anyone who says they can’t. But to embrace the downs as well as the ups.  And strive towards making their very own Now.

It doesn’t have to be like this…..

I finally seize a moment to sit at the lap top and as usual, the phone rings.  It’s Someone.  Asking me what I’m up to today. They don’t mention It. Although they know about It.  The Someones have always known about It. But It is for pleasure, isn’t it?  So It doesn’t count.

I’m not given chance to reply, because… They’ve just spent two hours on hands and knees cleaning their skirting boards from top to bottom.  An hour defrosting the freezer and getting soaked into the bargain. Then another hour risking life and limb up a ladder dusting the cornicing in the sitting room.  It was only done a week ago.  “It never stops! Where does it all come from?!” they shriek, sounding more threatening than rhetorical. Not forgetting heroic. Always heroic.

A lull.  My turn. Cue an intake of breath accompanied by a sharp wave of prickly heat to the face.

Only, of course, it took me three hours on hands and knees. Not only that but the have -done, going- to- do and going- to-do-after-that-list multiplies with each passing second.  Plus the basket of ironing is staring at me like a neglected pet, and threatening to take over the bedroom like a scene from The Day of The Triffids. That will take another three.  The cornices will have to wait until first light at this rate. And that’s only if I can jump from a stool up into the loft to retrieve the ladder without breaking a leg. But would risk it for the cornices.

“It never stops! Where does it all come from?” I shriek down the phone. I was good.

Of course, Someone could not know. That It and I had spent the whole morning together.  And it was bliss.  That the urge to be with It was uncontrollable.  And actually, if I had my way, every day would be like that. We understood each other, It and I.  It and I were in love. It and I.  I and It.  An item.

The pretence was fun. At first. Then everything changed. I got tired, felt unclean. And a word I never thought I would ever have to use began to haunt me.

Illicit.

Illicit because of the lies.  Lies that just rolled off the tongue.  Feigned excuses all so I could stay at home alone with It. Stolen moments in the study. Always with the door locked. It had to finish.

So I asked myself. Where had It come from?  Who had actually named It, ‘It?’

We talked, It and I. We had no future. There were tears, but It was let down gently.  It and I said goodbye.

Now It is work.  Work is allowed. And life is good. The  “Someones” of whom there are many, are happy.  Happy and sometimes a bit proud. Interested.  They ask about work. Ask about submissions. And they know that because I have worked and some lovely, kind and generous people whom I will thank until eternity, have liked my work, I am lucky enough to receive invitations to submit. I am given deadlines to complete the work.  Which I keep to, religiously because it’s my work and I want more of it.  Then, when the send button gets pressed, as every writer knows, work starts all over again.  Because it has to. We have to. Say goodbye to your It.  It is work.  And it’s allowed.