Category Archives: Schools

Primary Four’s Edinburgh

As last year, this spring I led another project at Leith Primary School with Lorna Irvine and Suzanne Butler, and supported by the church of St James the Less, Leith. We worked with the two P4 classes on poetry, drama and song, focussing on their impressions of Edinburgh, and keeping fit and healthy. My group wrote about the games and sports they play, visiting Holyrood Palace, and the food they like to eat, as well as saying hello and goodbye in several languages. They also created a series of individual letters, which I collaged together to create ‘headings’ which were projected during the performance.

My thanks to the school, and especially the class teachers, Mrs McDonald and Mrs Kinneil. Here are some extracts from the script.

Hi – sup – heya – yo –
Bonjour — Salaam aalekum – Nihau – Priviet –
In other words… Hello!

*

We’re going on the bus to Holyrood Palace.

Outside the palace we looked around and saw
a tower that was 500 years old,
shields that had a unicorn and an eagle,
a bath house and a flower garden,
the learning centre and Arthur’s Seat.

Inside the palace we saw
the room with all the jewelry,
the king’s gorgeous jewels and golden swords –
some swords had diamonds in the middle.

We went into the gallery with 96 paintings
but barely any furniture
and our challenge was
to find a sword slash in one of the paintings
and a secret door that leads to the kitchen
and to count all the paintings

and we had to do all of that in 2 minutes!

*

In the evening we go home,
We’re hungry and want some food.
My mum’s banana split and coffee –
That sounds really good!

And when we go to the café
What we want to eat
Is toast or macaroni cheese –
What a delicious treat!

*

We hope you have enjoyed
Spending the day with us
In our Edinburgh.

Au revoir – Gudafis – Zytien – Papa –
So long – See you later – Cheerio – Missing you already –
In other words… goodbye!

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StAnza schools

In February and March I ran schools workshops for StAnza, Scotland’s International Poetry Festival. I worked with lower secondary pupils at Madras Academy, Waid Academy and St Leonard’s School, as well as with a group of home-schooled pupils from Lothian and Borders.

We looked at three poems as starting points: Zbigniew Herbert’s ‘Journey to Kraków’ (which I’d used with Edinburgh secondary schools last autumn), and two poems about birds – Alastair Reid’s ‘Daedalus’ and Alexander Hutchison’s ‘Gavia Stellata’. ‘Journey to Krakow’, written in the 1950s, describes a scene on a train in which ‘a boy / with a book on his knees’ responds to a stranger’s interest in his reading with brief comments on books he’s read, expressing both ‘rapture and condemnation’. I asked the pupils to reflect on their own reading – and watching and listening – preferences, and to present their work as bookmarks. The voice of ‘Daedalus’ is a father describing his son who ‘has birds in his head’, while ‘Gavia Stellata’ describes the red-throated diver by way of elaborate questions and simple answers. I used both poems to suggest ways the pupils could write about birds using both knowledge and imagination.

The sessions with the Madras pupils took place before StAnza, which took place in St Andrews from 6 to 10 March. During the festival their poems were displayed inside and outside the Byre Theatre, as well as in the garden of the Preservation Trust Museum.

I worked with the home-schooled group in the Japanese garden at Lauriston Castle. We read some haiku and mesostics, went for a walk, wrote poems on labels and made a temporary anthology on a small pine.

My thanks to all the teachers and pupils involved, and to StAnza for making the sessions possible.

Trees for Life at Dundreggan

Dundreggan Jack Heath

Meet me,
On the slopes of Binnlidh Mhor.
Meet me,
Where the shielings were before.

Meet me,
By the bushy juniper.
Meet me,
Where the pinewoods once were.

Hamish Read, after Robin Robertson’s poem ‘Trysts’

DSC08216

The landscapes we see around us today are simply a snapshot in time; they were, and will be, different from this. As part of the Trees for Life project Rewilding the Highlands, in June 2017 I ran walking and writing sessions for two groups of S3 pupils from Glen Urquhart High School in Drumnadrochit. We spent one day at the TfL estate at Dundreggan, and the following day at school. The aim was to teach pupils something about local habitats, especially in terms of flora and place-names, and to give them opportunities to respond to these landscapes.

At Dundreggan we followed the route of the Juniper Walk, stopping by the waterfall (loud and midgey); the drystone walls (lichen and wildflowers), and the burn (gorse, thistles, nettles and raspberry). After a break for lunch at the Lodge, we climbed the track towards Binnlidh Beag as far as the lazybeds, again stopping to reflect on what we noticed (sounds, creatures, vegetation) as we progressed. There were some complaints as we climbed, but they were soon overcome by a general euphoria when we reached our destination, beyond the current edge of the forest, as views south and west over Glenmoriston opened up.

The next day at school I led the pupils in a series of writing exercises drawing on their experiences of the previous day, extending that by looking at a selection of Gaelic place-names from across the Highlands (drawn from a larger collection made by Alec Finlay).

Gaelic Couplets Alistair Nicholson

The names referred to flora and fauna, once there, now absent, but which might return: rustling leaves at Leitir Beithe, Birch Face; or rooting trotters at Sgùrr an Tuirc, Boar Peak. Pupils wrote circle poems, acrostics and mesostics, simple walking narratives (comprising short verses about each stop we made on the hill-climb), and poems drawing on real and made-up place names.

From their feedback, what they most enjoyed was walking up the hill, and seeing the creatures we came across, especially a couple of slow-worms.

They appreciated how walking helped them write: “it gave us a lot more ideas and a varied vocabulary… it helped me describe what was there better.”

Through the place-names they glimpsed something of the history of the place: “Gaelic place-names tell us about what was there before and things that aren’t there any more.”

And they were pleased to discover that the name Drumnadrochit comes from Druim na Drochaid, meaning ridge of the bridge.

When asked if they’d like to return to Dundreggan, most said yes, and several had a specific aim in mind: “to climb up the higher hill”.

Teachers also saw benefits for the pupils: “the workshop was really effective in inspiring the majority of the pupils and they really enjoyed learning outdoors for a change.  It made many of them much more aware of what we have on our door step.”

 

Primary Four’s Doors


Over the past few years I’ve been involved with a performance project with Leith Primary School.

Organised by the church of St James the Less, Leith, this year Suzanne Butler, Lorna Irvine and I worked on the theme of ‘building’ with three classes.

Suzanne (of Fischy Music) wrote a song with P4/3, Lorna and P4B made a drama piece, ‘The Three Wee Leithers’ (based on the fable of ‘The Three Little Pigs’), while I helped P4A to write about life in Leith, and also in a realm of the imagination which they named ‘Minecraft Pugs’.

One of the poems I’d read to kick the project off was Holub’s ‘The Door’. During one of our sessions, I asked the pupils to imagine and draw their own door.

The plan was to show these during today’s performance, but we were in the brand new school hall, and no-one knew how to get the brand new projector to talk to a laptop.

I thought the doors deserved some sort of public display, so here they are, in ascending numerical order, from 3 to 1,000,000.

Thanks again to all the pupils for their imagination and enthusiasm!

Buson by the Firth of Forth

HarbourOn a grey September morning, I walked to Newhaven harbour with the P5 class from Edinburgh’s Victoria Primary School. The earlier rain had stopped, and the tide was out, beaching the small boats moored there. We walked out to the lighthouse at the harbour mouth, and looked upriver to the three Forth bridges, and north over to Fife. The walk was a preliminary to reading and writing haiku, and looking at the work of Yosa Buson (1716–1783), one of the great haiku poets of Japan who was also a painter. As with last summer’s workshop at Jedburgh Grammar School I wanted the pupils to think about combining visual and verbal elements in their work.

Back at school we read these haiku by Buson (all taken from Collected Haiku of Yosa Buson, trans. Merwin & Lento, 2013).

Half a day to myself
by the nettle tree
listening to the cicadas

Summer afternoon downpour
a flock of sparrows
hanging on the grass

There’s silver grass
I expect to find bush clover
not far away

We used some as models to write from. I retained their structure, and asked the pupils to fill them with their own content. We made some together, as I wrote down their suggestions, and then I asked them to write some on their own.

Buson VPS 02 Buson VPS 01

A couple of days later I did a second session. This time I asked them to choose one of their verses, and to present this on a postcard, together with a drawing of their choice. I showed them examples of other postcards which used text and image in different ways – sometimes as separate blocks, sometimes completely integrated.

Buson VPS 04 Buson VPS 05 Buson VPS 06
Buson VPS 08 Buson VPS 16 Buson VPS 17
Buson VPS 09 Buson VPS 20

Buson VPS 19  Buson VPS 18  Buson VPS 10

I also asked them to made folding cards, again thinking about the relationship between their words and images (though we didn’t have time to explore this fully).

Buson VPS 13 Buson VPS 11

With thanks to the teachers Mrs Gorrie, Miss Blyth and Mrs Sim at Victoria Primary School, and to the GB Sasakawa Foundation for funding the work.

Buson VPS 21 Buson VPS 15 Buson VPS 03

Buson 2016 : Jedburgh

Snowclad_houses_in_the_nightI’m running several events this year under the heading ‘Buson 2016’, celebrating the birth 300 years ago of the great Japanese painter and haiku master Yosa Buson (1716–1783).

This week Andrew Mackenzie and I visited Jedburgh Grammar School, where we worked with S5 and S6 pupils. Andrew and I collaborated on Into Ettrick a couple of years ago, but this is the first time we’ve worked together with a school group. The idea was to create a piece which integrated image and text, as Buson did in many of his works.

We sketched and took notes at two spots by the Jed Water, near the Abbey Bridge opposite the abbey, and by the Canongate Bridge. Andrew showed them how to sketch with pencil and charcoal, while I encouraged them to be attentive to what has happening as we were there, using Norman MacCaig’s poem ‘Notations of Ten Summer Minutes’ as a model.

Back in school I guided the pupils into writing haiku based on their notes – snapshots capturing when, where and what happened – while Andrew led them in working with watercolour and pen-and-ink to develop sketches made earlier. Then we put the two together – some of the results are below.

David Blake, PT English who organised the school’s side of the session, commented:

Blank space! If there is one thing which I will always remember from the Yosa Buson workshop which I took part in, along with 35 Higher and Advanced Higher English pupils, it is the importance of blank space. As both artist and poet Buson would have instinctively understood the relationship between the visual and the written – something that we often forget.

Our day began somewhat greyer than I had hoped and the pupils’ initial enthusiasm reflected that sombre sky but as the first part of the day proceeded they quickly began to respond to what they saw in both visual and written mediums. Pupils who claimed that they could not draw were working hard to create images of what they saw, within minutes of being given a writing task they were enthusiastically coming up with ideas that I would struggle to draw out of them in the classroom. By the afternoon, armed with the sketchbooks in which we had drawn what we had seen and written down our thoughts, we were ready to embark on the production of ink illustrations and haiku poems. The quality of some of the work that the pupils produced was well beyond their expectations and despite their many claims that their work was rubbish you could see they were secretly pleased with how well their paintings and poems had turned out; one or two even confided that they had gone home that night and made further use of their sketchbooks!

This was one of the most enjoyable workshops that I have experienced in my teaching career and one which I believe that, as well as the wonderful creative experience of producing the visual art, the pupils got a lot out of in terms of their understanding of how to write effectively: in writing, as in art, it is as much about what you leave out as that which you put in – blank space.

With thanks to Jedburgh Grammar School, and to the GB Sasakawa Foundation for funding the work.

Falkland Labyrinth

Labyrinth symbol

In 2014 I was asked to write a poem for the orchard at Falkland Palace in Fife. Sonia, the palace’s head gardener, had just planted a willow labyrinth, with a circular area at its centre. There she planned to install a circular bench, with on it a poem.

Over the summer I ran various events in and around the palace, working with local residents, pupils from the village primary school and from Falkland School, as well as kids from the nursery just up the road. We explored the orchard in blossom time, and again when the branches were heavy with fruit; and a group of us did a circuit up Maspie Den, following the “Yad’s single thread” upstream. I climbed East Lomond, or Falkland Hill, which I’d last done as a teenager, and also West Lomond, a bit further out from the village, which I’d last done more recently as part of The Road North.

Pictish bull stone NMS

I read about the village’s history: the obscure origin of the name ‘Falkland’; the Pictish stone featuring the image of a bull, “spirited and naturalistically rendered”; the development of the palace as a hunting lodge with an enclosed park around it for the ‘sport’ of the Scottish royals; the locally grown flax which was woven into linen; the now ruined Temple of Decision; and the local flora and fauna, from white ramping fumitory to the soprano pipistrelle.

I was also thinking about the ‘release – receive – return’ principle of the labyrinth: you release what’s you’re carrying with you on the way in; at the centre, the point of stillness, you receive what’s there for you to receive; and as you return, you think how what you’ve received will impact on your life in the future. I knew readers would encounter the poem at the mid-point of their experience of the labyrinth, and at what feels like a central point within Falkland, from that part of the orchard you can see the palace, the town hall, the church and East Lomond.

And I’d to fit all that into a poem which, given the dimensions of the bench and the need to have legible letters, was limited to 185 characters – slightly longer than a single tweet.

Now your steps to here have led
sit within the woven shade

Just outside this pliant wall
crowstep clocktower steeple hill

In the future bear in mind
the twists of labyrinthine time

Willow leaves

Mine, Mayfield, Midlothian

Mine was a recent commission from Melville Housing Association for a new housing development at Langlaw Road, Mayfield, Midlothian. I worked on it with sculptor Susheila Jamieson, and P7 pupils from Lawfield Primary School. (This is a new building – the housing development is on the site of the old school.) The work was to be on the theme of mining, once the main industry in the area, and back in May Susheila and I visited the Scottish Mining Museum at nearby Newtongrange with the pupils.

Back at school we worked with the kids on drawings and texts, based on what they’d seen at the museum, especially some of the big pieces of equipment.

Stone : Four Elements (detail)

For the works, Susheila settled on five works in stone featuring texts I’d written, along with details from the drawings.

The texts were based either on work by the pupils, or on historical sources. Four of these were made using Caithness flagstone; three of these are laid flat on the ground, and one is a letter-day standing stone. ‘The wisp’ was a piece of lit straw, which at one time was the simplest way of letting those down below know their shift was over.

The fifth uses a boulder found on site, the top of which has been smoothed flat. It sits in an as yet unfinished playpark, with views across the estate to the Pentland Hills in the distance.


Susheila also made large metal panels to be hung on walls either side of the main entrance, and smaller panels for walls inside the estate, based on drawings of machine parts the kids had made at the museum.

Mine was opened on Tuesday 18 September by Margaret Burgess MSP, Minister for Housing and Welfare.

Bydand


I ran some workshops for P7 classes at the Gordon Highlanders Museum in Aberdeen last month. We gave the kids a tour of the museum, then I set them to writing about artefacts they’d been struck by. The Riverbank PS poem is a collective effort by the pupils of said school. ‘Bydand’ – staying or remaining, or ‘Perseverance’ as they have it in Leith – was the regimental motto, hence the evergreen ivy around the stag.

Miłosz 2011


30 June 2011 was the centenary of the birth of Czesław Miłosz. He’s a poet I’ve begun to read just in the past year, after the Krakow visit. I returned with a copy of his New & Collected Poems, bought on the last morning of the trip with the spare zlotys, and begun on the bus out to the airport.

Thumbing its pages, I made a couple of immediate connections: his appreciation of the Japanese haiku masters – Issa, rather than Basho, perhaps simply because he liked the coincidental link with the Issa Valley in his native Lithuania – and his ‘Notes’, a series of single sentences each under a short heading (‘The Perfect Republic’, ‘Epitaph’, ‘Mountains’), which are reminiscent of Ian Hamilton Finlay’s one-word-poems and monostichs, and Günter Eich’s (even briefer) ’17 Formeln’. Neither ‘Reading the Japanese Poet Issa (1762-1826)’ nor ‘Notes’ are entirely typical of his work, but they were useful landmarks I could start to navigate by.

I read him over the winter (in English, having no Polish). I read him aloud while sitting for my portrait, when Angus and I enjoyed enjoyed the discursive prose of ‘La Belle Epoque’, especially its closing section, ‘The Titanic’. When I proposed running sessions on his work for secondary schools, it became one of those rare and serendipitous projects everyone says ‘yes’ to.

In the summer term I visited schools in Edinburgh, East Lothian, Fife, Highland and South Lanarkshire, and will visit several more schools over the coming weeks. The poem I’ve come to focus on most is ‘The Dining Room’ (‘Jadalnia’) from the sequence ‘The World’ (‘Świat’), a seemingly straightforward description of an interior whose place and date of composition – Warsaw 1943 – soon open up deeper, darker layers of resonance.

The Scottish Poetry Library has produced a Miłosz 2011 poster, featuring the poem ‘Song on the End of the World’ (‘Piosenka o Końcu Świata’) in English and Polish, along with background information, weblinks, and a couple of photos of the poet in later life, craggy and bushy-eyebrowed.

There is also a series of Polish Poems on the Underground at the moment, including Miłosz’s ‘And Yet the Books’ and ‘Blacksmith Shop’, as well as poems by Zbiginiew Herbert, Wisława Symborska and Adam Zagajeweski.
I’m also running an event on Saturday 10 September at Macdonald Road Library, Edinburgh, for the Polish book group Zielony Balonik, focussing on Miłosz’s poems.