Rather than going back to school last week, I was lucky enough to accompany (along with two other teachers) a group of twelve students on a residential creative writing course in Totleigh Barton, Devon. It was an inspirational week and something that was enriching not just for the students, but the teachers too.
The twelve students consisted of six from Charter Academy and six from Bedales, an independent school near Petersfield, with which my school has links. The Portsmouth pupils chosen were all identified as Gifted & Talented and selected on merit.
The purpose of the trip was primarily to serve as enrichment for the pupils; an opportunity for them to practise and sharpen their creative writing skills. But it was also a chance to live in the countryside for a week (middle of nowhere, patchy phone signal and no internet!), mix with children from different backgrounds to their own and learn some culinary skills too (groups of three pupils took it in turns to cook the evening meal.)
Students hard at work in the kitchen
The course was run by the charity, Arvon, and led by two professional writers who were our tutors for the week: Catherine Smith and Christopher Hill. Both of them had us in stitches with their jokes and impressions but more importantly, lapping up their literary expertise.
Mornings would consist of workshops in a converted barn with low hanging beams and comfy sofas. Catherine came up with imaginative ways of getting us to write different forms of poetry, from magical realism to character sketches. Chris brought out our inner playwrights by making us think about our own conversations and personalities in order to create believable characters and dialogue.
All of the children were engaged with the process and were not afraid to open up about their own perceived flaws and personal lives in order to stimulate their imaginations. For some of the Charter pupils especially, this trip was a once in a lifetime opportunity, and their hunger and eagerness to learn was impressive and rewarding to see.
After we had devoured the delicious home made lunches made by the Arvon staff, we would have the whole afternoon to develop the writing we had started in the workshop. However, if you were on cooking duty that evening, you had to be in the kitchen by 4.30 to get the meal on the table by 7.
Our home for the week
I think the cooking element of the week was really beneficial to the students. They had to work as a team to get the meal ready on time and it also taught them handy skills, such as how to use a can opener!
After the evening meal, a different group of students did the washing up and then we headed back to the barn for readings. On one night Christopher and Catherine read some of their published work and on another night we each read an extract from our favourite authors.
On Wednesday we were visited by Naomi Alderman. Author of three published novels, all which were influenced by her Jewish upbringing, she is also the lead writer on two video games: Perplex City and Zombies, Run, which, as you can imagine, particularly impressed some of the boys. What impressed me was that she was mentored by literature legend, Margaret Atwood, for a year….not bad!
Not only did Naomi read two extracts of her work, one breathtakingly traumatic, the other, a hilarious piece of magical realism, she offered some sage advice to the aspiring professional writers amongst the pupils, which was gold dust.
Naomi’s reading in the barn
On the final night, it was the pupils’ turn. One by one they read out their poetry, dialogue or prose they had been finessing all week. A range of themes and ideas were conveyed and each pupil’s artistic voice shone through. It was brilliant to see the progress the students had made in their own writing since the beginning of the course. One student from Bedales said, “I used to look at a blank piece of paper and be intimidated by it, but now I just see it as an opportunity.”
Personally, I took a huge amount away from the week. I was able to bond with the Charter students in a relaxed, creative environment and I was inspired by their desire to learn, so much so that I would like to start a creative writing club at school so that they can build on their experience in Devon and also enable other students to explore their creativity.
It was also fascinating to see how the students interacted. Taking a group of inner city school children with a group of public school children to a remote part of the Devonshire countryside sounds like some kind of social experiment, but the children seemed quite oblivious to any apparent class divisions and made some real bonds, and hopefully lasting friendships.
For the next three weeks, as part of my ARK teacher training programme, I am going to be on a placement in a contrasting school. And guess where I’m going? Bedales! It might take me a little while to get used to being called by my first name and wearing jeans to work, but I’ll be sure to let you know how it goes on here….