23rd September 2015
This year 15 Poetry By Heart county competitions will be organised by much admired library services in association with Poetry By Heart. Our second September Blog is provided by not one but two librarians who talk about their experiences of Poetry By Heart
Libraries By Heart 1 by Gareth Ellis (Library Manager Whitley Bay High School)
It was the delicious simplicity of the idea that first struck us: memorise a poem by heart. The process, long abandoned by schools as a routine method of teaching, suddenly seemed both a new concept and a tradition worth saving. Using it as a means of exploring the depths and breadths of a poem, of building confidence in students and, ultimately, of having fun, made it irresistible. For us, the prospect of learning and competing within a school context, a county environment and maybe even on a national level breathed fresh air into this most fundamental – and actually rather ancient – activity.
Whitley Bay High School, a large state comprehensive of over 1600 students in North Tyneside, first took part in Poetry by Heart in 2014 and then again in 2015. In 2014 we were lucky enough to see our hugely talented student Matilda Neill go on to win the competition and our competitor in 2015 also got to the finals, so we’ve been privileged to see how Poetry by Heart works from the beginning right through to the end! But ultimately the real reward has been the opportunity to work with young people and watch as they choose, inhabit and possess their poems and how they draw an audience into their reading of the piece through their own unique interpretation of it.
The process is very straight-forward and the Poetry by Heart team are always on hand to assist. In Whitley Bay High School the competition is run as a joint venture between the Library and the Drama Department, with help from English teachers too. We advertise the opportunity to all students in Years 10 – 13, meet with keen and interested competitors to delve into Poetry by Heart’s incredible online poetry timeline and then offer students times to come along and rehearse their poems, if they want to. We found that all our competitors were keen to come and practise regularly and these meetings turned into treasured lunchtimes during which we heard their performances and fellow competitors supported each other, offering feedback and constructive criticism. Then we launch our school event, inviting staff and students to watch and witness the announcement of our winner who then gets the privilege of performing at a county level.
We’ve found Poetry by Heart to be a hugely positive experience and the competition has become an annual expectation within school, with staff and students eagerly anticipating it. Furthermore, it’s raised the profile of poetry within the school community, generated an excited discussion around literature and given students the chance to explore and develop their own communication and literacy skills. It’s also opened doors into poetry rooms our students might not have otherwise found the key to. They’ve discovered poems and poets they might not have normally encountered, have been exposed to movements and styles, genres and modes and have been (thanks to the online timeline) able to place these within the wider, greater tradition of poetry in English. When students memorise a poem they’re possessing something that will stay with them forever and as their lives develop, take shape, shift and change, so too will their understanding and interpretation of the poem. The poet Don Paterson often describes a poem as ‘a little machine for remembering itself’. Poetry by Heart oils the cogs of that machine, and our students who have been involved in the competition have come away all the richer for it.
About the Author: Gareth Ellis is a Chartered Librarian and has been the Library Manager at Whitley Bay High School for over a decade. He has an interest in and a passion for poetry and has an MA in Modern & Contemporary Poetry from the University of Bristol. Gareth runs a variety of reading and poetry initiatives at Whitley Bay High School, including school visits from the likes of Carol Ann Duffy and Simon Armitage, and an annual Literature & Performing Arts Festival. He has recently been designated a Specialist Leader in Education.
Libraries By Heart 2 by Ian Anstice (Locality Librarian for Cheshire West and Chester Council)
Much to my shame, I had not heard about Poetry By Heart before being told it was one of my duties to arrange the Cheshire judging. This pained me as I’m both a full time librarian and responsible for Public Libraries News so most of my time is spent in public libraries one way or another and I should have known about it, especially as I was to discover how great it was. Thankfully, my very helpful colleague Debbie Owen had arranged the competition the year before and ensured I did everything necessary.
The first thing I learnt was that, and this was quite a surprise to me being used to local council finances, the whole thing was fully funded. Yes indeed, money was attached. This meant that we could book a great venue (the very impressive Chester Town Hall) and arrange a Master of Ceremonies for the evening (the no less impressive – but a lot more fun, sorry Chester Town Hall – performance poet Dominic Berry). There was even (whisper it) something left over for refreshments, a photographer and presents for the judges.
Yes, judges. This is a proper thing. There’s not just one judge. Oh no. There’s at least two main judges (we kept the Cheshire poet Gill McEvoy and newspaper reporter Carmella De Lucia from the year before) who judge how good the poem readings are and also an accuracy judge who checks basic things like words, or even whole lines, being missed. Not wanting to pass everything off on others, I got to be technical judge that evening.
The actual schools are contacted by the Poetry By Heart regional co-ordinator and do all the preparatory work themselves so for me I could concentrate just on the judging event. The co-ordinator just let me know how many schools were attending and the names of the students so that was pretty easy as well, especially as I quite enjoy producing programmes. So the big day came and everything was ready and I was quietly confident the day before
And then it started snowing. Not just a little snow, oh no. Big snow. And although I got to work OK, it was clear that the east of the county was getting far more. When I phoned one of the schools to see if their students were still on for that evening, I could tell that the school secretary (while polite) clearly thought I was stark, raving insane. Panic stations. Thankfully, ten phone calls later we had got agreement from Chester Town Hall to reschedule at no extra charge and contacted everyone to let them know it was not happening. Except, sadly, one judge who we simply could not get hold of who turned up in the evening. I am so glad to say that Gill took it in great part, and happily turned up for the rearranged evening.
And, my, was I blown away. You hear a lot about how terrible teenagers are. You know, slouching around, growing their hair long, listening to loud music (or was that the 60s?) but, my goodness, all of the contestants were beyond good. These were teenagers who not only had memorised whole poems but could speak them clearly and also put emotion into it. Their teachers came too and there was a lot of pride in the air for all their performances. And, quite right too, because every single one was impressive. The talent clearly showed what a good idea the whole competition was, with the students doubtless about to go on to do wonderful things and this experience will help to give them confidence to do it. Frankly, also, it will instil in them something better: a love for poetry that will be of uncountable benefit.
For public libraries, the Poetry By Heart competition gives us entry into that most difficult of markets, that of the teenager. Although junior schools are a prime source of readers for us, all that changes when the kids go to Big School. Often we don’t see them again until they come back again while they’re studying at University or when they have kids themselves. The competition gives libraries a chance to remind students of our existence and how we can help them. It also hits the spot when it comes to poetry, which again, is not an easy sell. I would also suggest that for those authorities who have school library services, running the competition could strengthen a natural connection between schools and libraries.
So, librarians, if someone tells you it’s your chance to run a competition by these people, grasp the opportunity in both hands. You never know, you may even learn some poetry in the process yourself.
About the Author: Ian Anstice is proud to have been a librarian in Cheshire since 1994 and now works as Locality Librarian for Cheshire West and Chester Council. He is responsible for reader development and children’s stock as well as other things like the Summer Reading Challenge. In his spare time, he created the Public Libraries News blog which is now a main source of information in the sector, regularly used and quoted by library users, campaigners, the media and politicians. He was named IWR Information Professional of the Year in 2011 and has won two Winsford Town Oscars for customer service in 2012 and 2014.