Sandra Stevens at English Heritage



One of the themes for English Heritage's Education Service workshops in the Southeast and London this year is creative writing. We hope to suport the current emphasis on literacy, by showing teachers that the historic environment that is all around them can be a fertile source of ideas for their pupils' wiritng. Many teachers use history as the main focus of a vist to an historic site such as a castle or abbey, yet creative writing and poetry can also be an excellent 'way in' to looking at an historical building.

This was a challenging placement, very stimulating, successful, satisfying!

I was appointed last autumn as the poet to work with English Heritage (Education, South East), one of the Poetry Society's selected Poetry Places. What English Heritage wanted was a series of on-site poetry workshops at Portchester Castle (Hants), Dover Castle (Kent), Kenwood House and Chiswick House (both in London), to be conducted for young people - mostly between 7 and 11 years old - and their teachers, to help them look at historic sites in an exciting and innovative way.

It's certainly true that only a poet could do this work, but I often found myself thinking "Just as well I've had plenty of experience of teaching, co-ordinating, and juggling!" The aims of the Poetry Places scheme as a whole, the requirements of English Heritage Education and of the various sites' custodians, the needs of the teachers, and the very diverse needs of the children, presented an intriguing assortment of considerations. A great deal of detailed preparations had to be done: and then flexibility and improvisation were the order of each day, to be responsive to the moment's needs at the drop of every hat, and to meet those involved wherever they were 'at' so as to communicate effectively and constructively. One day at Dover Castle, as well as the groups of children, teachers and helpers, the English Heritage Education Officer was with us, and the Times Education Supplement's journalist and photographer too, and then a group of teachers from Holland joined us and stayed on for discussion, as well!

The Day Workshops for Teachers were inset training days, one at each site, to encourage teachers to be more confident and adventurous in their teaching of poetry, to familiarise them with the sites and with the kinds of activities the children would be doing on their Days. They went very well, as comments on the evaluation forms returned to E.H. later also suggest: 'inspirational day'; 'great to work with a real poet'; 'have used the ideas in school'; 'the Information for Teachers notes were very useful, clear and concise'. There were talks, discussion, and a chance to share ideas and problems.

We explored the sites, making creative jottings along the way and then reading them out, We also all joined in some poetry games / exercises (the 'rules' were, for example, guidelines for perceptual approach, or for a particular kind of language use, or for a simple format), writing quick pieces of poetry in response to specific parts of the site. At Chiswick House, the teachers - some of whom had been very diffident at the start of the day - not only wrote a whole range of beautiful lines, but delivered them brilliantly, unashamedly, unpretentiously, one by one standing on the mosaic star at the centre of the marble floor in the octagonal saloon and reading out the 8 perceptions they had jotted. It was great! One of the Custodians was so delighted by it that he is still telling people how wonderful it was to see the 18th C. house brought to life like that. Nearly all the Custodians were amazed, and very helpful in one way or another, during the children's workshops.

The Pupils' Workshop Days were the most important part of the placement. I began each Day with an introductory session, talking with the children about poetry, live language, themselves, and the place we were going to make our own through the process of writing, and answering their questions. To get them going, we all wrote acrostics based on the place's name and first impressions, and read them out. I also read them various bits of poetry. By then, we'd got to know each other, and I'd guaged what they could handle, how the teachers could help, and what special needs there were (because of a range of learning difficulties, physical disabilities, behavioural problems, unfamiliarity with english).

The next step was to actually explore the site, making quick on-the-spot jottings, which we shared afterwards by reading aloud. Often the children would then compose a haiku. After lunch, I gave them a specific writing task to go off and do about the site, individually or in small groups, exploring some particular thing in more depth and detail, and expressing it in a short given format. Throughout, they used me as a sounding board. At the end of their Day, we all got together to read our poems out and get feedback.

Both for the morning explorations / jottings, and for the more extended afternoon writing experiments, I would give the group some simple instructions as guidelines, which they could then interpret to suit themselves.

At Portchester Castle - to march around the great Roman wall by the sea keeping their senses and wits alert, jotting three things that caught their interest; and again, as we explored the keep, its spiral stairway and the rooftop up the tower. Later, they were to return to something that had stuck in their mind, and write a poem of 7 lines, the first 3 and the last starting with the name of the thing they were focussing on, the middle 3 about something quite different that came to them when they turned away.

At Dover Castle in the medieval tunnels - to use all their senses and feelings, and jot down things they heard, smelt, felt, etc, and what it felt like; and by the Roman lighthouse to look and think, and jot a statement, a question, and a command.

In the afternoon we explored the keep; they were to choose one detail and write a poem about it in 2 parts, one communicating factual experience clearly, the other letting their imaginations run wild.

At Kenwood House - quietly and without touching, to take in and jot 3 things about the Orangerie, the Library, the Music Room and the Dining Room, and then outside to focus on what they could do and touch. After lunch, they were to return to one particular thing inside, and one outside, and write a poem with 2 equal stanzas, one about each thing.

At Chiswick House - to focus on and jot down facts and feelings inside the Palladian villa; and then outdoors in the Italian gardens, sense impressions and what things were doing. Later, they were to go back to something that had taken their fancy indoors (there were lots of intricate details symmetrically arranged), and in groups or individually to make up a suitable form for a poem about it, using their jottings and adjusting them to fit.

Some wonderful experiences and a lot of very individual poetry came out of all this. They got to know the places for themselves, and picked up bits of actual fact and history. They stretched their perceptions, and their understanding and use of language. They loved exercising the poet in themselves!

Over the weeks, a wide range of matters were considered (through experience and a bit of discussion), to do with poetry and the particular places. As they occur to me now, here are some of them:inside/outside, near/far, subjective/objective, seeing and other sensual experience, mood, detail, facts and feelings, fact and fantasy, regularity and surprises, presenting/explaining, expressing/communicating, clear communication/suggestive evocation, what adjectives can do, things doing stuff and nouns and verbs, various poetic devices and forms, imagery, sounds of language, voice, speech, colloquialisms, juxtaposition, contrasts, repitition, jottings, reading aloud, listening, redrafting... The list could go on and on.

Each week was different, partly because the workshops were site-specific and each Castle and each House had its particular characteristics; and partly of course because the catchment areas were intriguingly diverse geographically and sociologically. Moreover, each day was different because the schools were so various, including all sorts of state primary schools, some independent schools, a community school run by parents, and one secondary school, each having its own ethos and attitude to poetry, to children, to outings. Some teachers had an easy creativity, some a passionate familiarity with poetry, a few felt ignorance and terror, most of them had a positive and co-operative attitude. No matter what, they all went away excited and delighted for one reason or another. Can't be bad!

The children too, each day, loved it! They were all such individuals, as well as having different ages, abilities, and social and cultural backgrounds. One young class included about 30% recent immigrants whose knowledge of the language and culture here was minimal but who revelled in trying things out and coming to feel at home; another class of 8-9 year-olds had extraordinarily advanced vocabulary and articulation, and social graces, and their main learning-leap turned out to be freeing up their own selves through exploring the place with their instincts and senses - it was great to see them become children, writing their own individual poems. Another class was a group of dear 5-6 year-olds, only used to uncreative back-waters; yet another, an explosive mix of 11-12 year-olds from the local comprehensive where the day before I'd seen a couple of joy-riders in school uniform crash into a bollard, screech up to a tree on the pavement, dump the dented car, and leg it.

One endearing boy began the day with "Poetry's boring" but progressed; stroppily, to writing a lot and enjoying it despite himself... One lad spent half an hour at Kenwood earnestly trying to find out how the inside House made him feel, and finally said "I don't know. Strange. And calm." ... A girl of nine became fascinated by a chandelier; and then, after they'd been asked to think way indoors and outdoors related to each other and go into the garden and find something out there to focus on, I found her standing on her head by a star magnolia tree in full bloom - "a chandelier for the sky-people to dance under" apparently.... Magic!

Some groups arrived like so many blank sheets. A few cross-examined me about the nature of poetry, or about my poetry, or about working as a poet; one lot were fixated fame and poetry gossip; and they all loved hearing poems read aloud. I quickly realised it was not prescriptive to read aloud poems I'd already written on site, but was actually a great stimulus to their own writing.

I also found myself writing, and encouraging them to write, in ways I would normally avoid and strongly advise against - using lots of adjectives and similes, indulging in sound play and (particularly in the 18th century houses) using lot of regular rhymes and rhythms! At that age, it seems they love and need to become familiar with all the conventions and tricks of the trade, and to gather stock-piles of adjectives and other turns of phrase they may later see as poetic cliches, best avoided! All the children, and particularly the less able, just loved brainstorming for adjectives, and for rhymes...And some of them were so inventive!

And afterwards? Bundles of the children's poems and letters keep arriving from schools. They're all wonderful in their own ways. Clearly, the poetry work is going on!

Here is a poem written at Kenwood House.

The boy is holding the flower


'The lady is wearing a black

The boy is dressed in red.

The flower is pink and green.


It's cold and safe.

The air smells damp.


'Enormous orange walls,

I imagine the water trickling down the window.


'Crispy brown, old books

Poetry books fall apart if you're not careful

black, white, pink, red, and lots of blue

Walking through a green maze

Rubbery Ivy leaves

like a mouth trying to gobble you up'


And this anonymous fragment:


'Enormous orange walls,

Orange trees placed in pots all over the floor.

I imagine the water trickling down the window.

It's like a glide through thin air.'



And Lamyaa's poem:


Inside, Outside



'Crispy brown, old books

Hundreds and hundreds of years old

Poetry books fall apart if you're not careful

Multi colours mixing like spirals

black, white, pink, red, and lots of blue


Walking through a green maze

with leaves falling into Nothingness

Rubbery Ivy leaves

the Arch made out of wood and leaves

like a mouth trying to gobble you up'



Young Poets Network