Poetry, and poetry with a distinct whiff of metaphysics no less, might not be the first choice of most teachers of Year 10 for engaging their students' interest. As adults we know that overactive hormones and poetry can go well together, though not usually in a public place. Poetry, in the middle of your teenage years, is not something to share with the wider world, unless you are a graffiti artist-cum-poet perhaps.
Having an intermediary might make a difference: someone or something else to deflect the intensity of the gaze of poetry into the soul. Now, I’m guessing here, but that might have been why bands of students aged between 15 and 17 became so closely identified with a poetry project as to surprise their very experienced teachers. The project was simple enough, but the results exceeded expectations.
It has long been established that there is an analogous relationship between film and poetry in that "the idea of poetry [is] seen as a fruitful model for the creative process of the more lyrical side of experimental film practices" (Fil Ieropoulos). There have been a number of recent experiments of using poetry as the inspiration for animated film: for example Comma Press Films and their exploitation for language classroom use and recently the use of flash animation has played its part in making the medium more widely available. A notable set of short flash poetry animations was made by the British Council in collaboration with the poetry publishers, Bloodaxe Books with Poetry Quartets. We wanted to see what would happen when we asked English language students in schools to make flash animations based on poetry. Including a poet in the discussion might also add another dimension.
Moniza Alvi, a British born poet of Pakistani parents, was asked if she would join the project, which would include a visit to the pilot project schools as well as being available for on-line consultation by students, teachers and the project coordinator.
Two secondary schools were chosen from different cities. They had experienced teachers neither of whom knew much, if anything, about flash poetry, but who would be able to manage the knowledge that their students probably did. This ensured that the project started off on the right foot, with the students able to bring something to the party, supplying their collective skills and expertise to join with those other skills of the teacher and, later, the poet. The 25 or so students from one school were mainly Arts students, aged approximately 17, while the larger group of 60 from the other school were of very mixed ability and aged between 15 and 16.
As project coordinator, I chose a wide selection of poems from two of Moniza's collections, 'Split World' and 'Europa', as a starting point. The poems were chosen for their potential for visual imagery but the schools were not restricted to using poems from those selected and could look elsewhere in Moniza's collections. The students were encouraged to be the ones to make the choice. By pure coincidence students at both schools chose to work on the same two poems: 'Whatever the Weather' and 'Fish Swimming'. We decided that this was a good thing, as we would be able to directly compare the two approaches.
In terms of language use and development these first stages were the most important of the project. Having made their various selections in small groups, the students had to defend their choices and then come to some kind of consensus. Once this was achieved, the more complex process of interpreting the poetry into visual imagery and agreeing a final version or versions was undertaken. Defying the traditional teaching parameters of going from the concrete to abstract concepts, the students were attempting to argue their way from complex abstract processes to physical manifestation and visual interpretation, using the English language as the medium. To do this the teachers introduced a number of aids to thought and discussion:
- turning the poems into prose poetry; students used their own words to retell the poem (they were allowed to 'borrow' some of the poet's words)
- using shape poems - the actual words of the poem were written in the style of a shape or pattern which depicted an interpretation of their meaning (i.e. 'Fish Swimming' might appear as an outline of a fish, using the words of the poem as the lines to 'draw' it)
- storyboarding the sequences in the poem: much as a filmmaker will use caricatures or models to depict the sequence of events to film is to follow.
The students also researched the work and life of Moniza in preparation for her visit to their school. They prepared questions to ask her and made written statements about their hopes and expectations of the visit.
School visits and final products
The visits to the schools occurred over two days. The smaller group of older students conducted a fairly informal interview with the poet, and went to a great deal of trouble to explain the thinking behind their interpretations of the poems and what they planned in the way of videos, and gave demonstrations of work in progress. There was a useful exchange of ideas and the students appeared to be very engaged in the project and quite passionate about what they were doing.
The bigger group of younger students needed to be structured differently and the meeting occurred in a large room with a more formal arrangement of furniture and thus the way the event unfolded was more formal. The students had prepared the event carefully, and made a series of presentations and the whole event was carefully stage managed and hosted by the students themselves, with two teachers taking a largely silent, supervisory role. Undoubtedly the whole exercise was a major undertaking in using English in a direct and very real way as it was the only language available to everyone in the room. Nevertheless, the vast majority of students took an active and interested role in the proceedings. Their teacher later admitted that the degree of involvement of this potentially difficult group of students had been unprecedented, and she was surprised, and delighted.
Five finished 'products' were available a few weeks after Moniza's visit. The older students had produced two animated films based on 'Fish Swimming' and a third on 'Whatever the Weather' - using computer generated flash movie techniques. The two productions from the other school were of a different genre. The students had taken the decision not to work with animation but to film themselves in straight video. Using white masks in 'Fish Swimming', with the narrator sitting in front, and using a relay system of handing the microphone on for 'Whatever the Weather', the students performed to camera. The effect was very different from the animated movies, and less convincing in terms of presentation and getting the message over. In analysis later, after the films had been shown to a group of teachers at a conference, some of those in the audience said that the students themselves appeared uneasy and self conscious in front of the camera and this might have acted as a barrier to convincing performances. It was agreed that videoing the students as actors had not provided the intermediary that animation would have done and was thus less effective as a medium.
The poet's response
Moniza reported her excitement at finding groups of young people, whose first language was not English, becoming so emotionally enthralled in her work. The poems chosen by the pupils were far more metaphysical, more 'mature' than she would have expected school students of that age group to appreciate. In discussions with the teachers following the two school visits, and after showing the films to a wider audience, we attributed this mainly to the active role the students had played in the project: they were being asked to interpret freely and develop their own ideas, then plan and create the final productions. They were also being allowed to use a variety of means for interpretation and were not just relying on language skills and it might be said that a 'multiple intelligences approach' had been evident. The visual and audio elements of the films provided some students with the props they required to communicate and achieve more than they had ever done before. We referred at the time to the process as one of 'creative ownership' for both the process and the language, a description that holds true after the event.
Moniza had spent a number of years as a teacher of English in the UK, and she considered this project to be one of the most exciting and deeply reflective approaches to poetry she had come across in the classroom. For me the satisfaction came from watching students with a wide range of language skills come together to produce something that was unique, and which was a tangible result of their engagement with the English language.
Finally, a short teaching resource kit was produced, using the poem 'Fish Swimming' and the animations produced for it by the students, in the hope that it will inspire other teachers and other students to explore the rich sea of opportunity where the deep current of poetry meets the warmer water of film animation. You can find that resource kit here.