IN THE CLASSROOM... by Áine Ní Ghlinn
(Poetry Ireland News May/June 2002)
There once was a hen
who used to drink gin.
One day someone put a pin
into the gin.
The hen drank the gin
and swallowed the pin
and she never drank gin again.
His little gem is not, by any means, the best poem I have ever heard – but in terms of creative writing sessions in the classroom, the memory of it never fails to give me a lift. Written several years ago by a child who was, at the time, having difficulties with reading and writing, it was a greater achievement than all other wonderful poems produced by that particular group. It was also my first real lesson in the importance of process over product.
Like many others who attended the recent Writers in Schools Writers’ Forum, I came away with a sense of a rather bleak overall picture. However, individual classroom visits I have had since then had revived my drooping spirits and for the time being at least, perhaps the best I can do is to focus on the smaller picture.
As writers, we have little chance of overhauling the whole educational system overnight. But, with planning, preparation and co-operation with classroom teachers, each of us can bring about some change, however small. To this end teacher/writer co-operation is crucial so that each is clear – in advance – on what the visit might achieve.
By achievement, I don’t mean a glossy anthology or indeed any tangible product. There are undoubtedly times, particularly in a residence situation, where students need to see the fruits of their labour. But product shouldn’t be the main focus. And what of the average one-day visit? What can we realistically expect to achieve in an afternoon?
Those of us who write as Gaeilge are affected by one aspect of this in that frequently we are the product – the live poet who can “explain” the poem on the Leaving Certificate Course. Although I still harbour some resentment towards the student who once asked me if I had “any notes on the poem”, I believe, nevertheless, that this type of visit has a certain validity. Bringing the poem out of the textbook should be inspiring in itself – as long as it does not become a substitute grind!
Given the choice, I prefer working with younger children where I can make some attempt at encouraging them to view their world through the proverbial súil eile. This may or may not result in a visible product. If is does – great! But my real interest is not in the budding poet or novelist who will blossom without help. I am happy with the child who writes, perhaps, the first poem he/she has ever written outside of the textbook Write a poem about…I am equally happy if a student goes home and reads a book that he or she might not have looked at before.
Sometimes, so that younger children can actually see their own success, I use Doodle poems, where several pages wander around the classroom during a session. Each has a title – ranging from Monsters to Light or even a simple question Why? Each student can add a line or more. The results can be quite stunning and the anonymity of the exercise can give greater freedom to the more self-conscious child. In such a case product and process become one.
At other times, I feel I have succeeded if the students are interested enough to ask their own questions, however basic. My favourite of all time was a young teenager who asked me to explain poetic licence. I did so in – I thought – great detail and asked him if it was clear. “Yeah,” he replied, “but how long would you have to be writing poetry before you’d get your poetic licence?”
No doubt about it – classroom visits are a learning curve for us all!