Poems about the experience of slavery
James Nash writes:
Year 5 at Weetwood Primary School have been learning about African life and culture, a display of the masks they have made lights up the classroom and they have already written quirky stories inspired by Alexander McCall Smith’s ‘Folktales from Africa: The Baboon Who Went this Way and That’. They have just been introduced by their teacher Joanne Parker to some of the troubling history of African slavery and are more than ready to talk about it to me.
After a few introductions, about my work as a writer, I show them a broken clay head of an African child [pictured] and we use it to sketch out some ideas about how it makes us feel in response to some very general questions from me. I encourage them to write in the first person as if they are they are the child experiencing the kidnapping and violence at the hands of the slavers. We talk about ‘empathy’ and what it means, and how using their five senses can bring writing to life for a listener or reader. After every question I invite the young people to share their answers with the rest of the class. It is extraordinary how in a very short time they become absorbed in their task and how imaginative and empathetic the writing they produce is.
The very next day I am in the classroom with them again. Our task today is to look at our notes and start thinking about how they might be transformed into something that looks and sounds more like a poem. I have brought in my second draft of a new poem written about the clay head. I talk about the importance of editing and redrafting, that they are in charge of their words and get them to think which are their favourite phrases and sentences from the previous day, and which order they might use them. We look at my second draft and talk about what my decisions were in setting my poem out. Then I set them off to writing a second draft themselves, punctuated by me sharing examples of their work. Concentration and application are very high. This second session ends with many of the children coming to the front of the class and reading what they have written.
On the third session we are unable to read our work out to a larger audience of parents and fellow pupils, but we are very excited to share both our folktales and the new poems on slavery with each other. Year 5 have shown incredible maturity in dealing with such an adult topic, and read their stories and poems with great confidence. Lines which stand out [amongst many] are,
‘The scars on the surface of my face show how broken I am’
‘My dream is to get out of this madness’
‘heavy shackles weigh me down’
‘my friends are fading from me’.
When I take feedback from Year 5, many say that they have learned the importance of drafting and redrafting, [ someone wrote a heartfelt, ’learning to be patient with my writing by doing lots of drafts’], they liked my open questions about what was happening to their character. They liked the experience of sharing their work with others in the class and many felt they had grown in confidence. One young person felt that the best thing about the project was ‘my development in the poetry industry’. Me too!
Joanne Parker said that working with me had inspired the children, ‘it upped their game, elevated their ideas and motivated them’.
As a lovely postscript the class presented me with a copy of McCall Smith’s book of African folktales.
15 June 2021