What we did

We argue that emphasising place and ‘non-standard’ language in poetry writing workshops engages young
people with spoken and written English in a way that
gives them agency.

This approach not only develops young peoples’ understanding of self and place, but also enables them to be reflexive about standard speech and spelling in a practical and democratic manner.

  • Andrew McMillan is a poet and creative writing lecturer. Hugh Escott is a researcher with an interest in dialect writing

  • To encourage young people’s understanding of self and place we delivered poetry workshops for year 6 students in which the importance of local places and everyday language was emphasised

  • The writing process in these workshops involved focussing on how the students’ experiences of home and their local area could be poetic

  • Much of this process involved changing young people’s perceptions of poetry so that they could celebrate the everyday through writing
  • Aims

    The purposes of these activities was to engage young people with spoken and written English in a way that gave them agency, as well as encouraging them to be reflexive about standard speech and spelling in a practical and democratic manner.

    A Child’s Poem
    When the clouds faded in
    the sun rises out
    it is wonderful to see
    sat in the highest tree
    then everyone – everything – went
    and the day just became
    my mum came as well
    this was all about when the sun rises

    Andrew McMillan

    The word “poetry” is so often something ‘other’ to people’s own perceptions of the world around them. So poetry happens in ‘poetic’ places, it happens in places of wonder and Sublime, it happens somewhere else, somewhere other than the place in which you exist.

    Language as Talisman presented an opportunity to repudiate these ideas. Entering an institution as a creative practitioner you immediately have a greater freedom than contracted teaching staff have, to play around with language- to try things outside of the curriculum framework. However doing something purely for artistic ego and not to the benefit of the teaching staff at the schools involved with Language as Talisman would have been arrogant and impertinent to the highest degree. Thus, we devised a series of activities which would help the pupils to realise the importance and value of their own language.This was partly done simply by them writing about their own area, their own street or house or town; getting them to view their own immediate landscape as being worthy of poetry. Next, after seeing their local area as poetic, we had to get them to describe those environs using their everyday language; we collected slang, colloquial language and nicknames and then set about crafting poetry with them- again showing that their everyday speech had poetic potential- their language wasn’t something separate from literary discourse, it was part of it, it was talismanic, it could help them shape the world in their own image.

    As a practitioner in that space, it seemed the best thing to do, in the limited time in the classes, was to encourage the view that the local language of Rawmarsh was important enough to craft poetry out of and that that the local area of Rawmarsh, be it familial, pastoral or industrial, was worth narrating and worth recording. The process and not the product is what is important (though the product is shown here too); the consideration of their own language, the use of that language for something as “high art” as poetry and the celebration of local place are all designed to underpin and reinforce the talismanic properties of local dialect and language from a young age.

    Hugh Escott

    Participating in these poetry workshops as an academic researcher, undertaking ethnographic research, it was important for me to try and understand the difficult task that teachers are faced with when they teach ‘English’. Teaching English means giving young people an understanding of how to use standard spelling, how to write different types of text and what culturally it means to ‘speak properly’ whilst also getting them to engage with ‘Literature’. Many academic texts are concerned with the idea that in the promotion of ideas about ‘speaking correctly’ the way that people actually speak in their regional communities will not be valued, as well as tracing the history of spoken and written English.

    The schools that we worked with were conscious of showing Ofsted that their pupils had good communication and writing skills. One of the schools had been told by Ofsted that their students and teachers had ‘poor modelling’ because they were using regional speech instead of ‘standard English’. In engaging young people with their regional language in the “high art” form of poetry we aimed to highlight the importance of different types and styles of language as a way of engaging young people with standard and prestigious forms of English in both speech and writing. This was done in a way that placed value on the language that they used and cultivated an understanding of types of language use. In doing this we hoped to create a sense of fun around language and to promote engagement with writing and literature as well as to think about different ways of speaking. In asking young people to incorporate their local language and sense of place into poetry, a productive awareness of language was cultivated. Focussing on the local area and language in discussions concerning the uses of language in school highlights these regional forms as a valuable part of a pupil’s repertoire, rather than as an ‘incorrect’ use of English.