Poetry in Adversity
by Manu Maunganidze - Global Goals Centre Education Lead
The best place to hear poetry is in music. It is definitely it’s most accessible form. And, just by sheer reach and influence, it is possibly its most powerful incarnation. There is in many ways as much poetry in the words of Stormzy or Adele as there is in Shakespeare or Maya Angelou. It just depends where you’re standing and how you’re looking (or listening). It also depends in some measure (forgive the pun) on how you were raised and “educated”. This is always my starting point when trying to inspire young people to write their own poetry, to find a well of emotion and expression that will translate into beautifully structured words, lines and stanzas of honesty and depth. Occasionally some of them will end up reading Shakespeare or Maya Angelou or even learning what iambic pentameter means. But that is not the goal. The real goal is to realise why poetic expression and creativity, whether in a quickfire Grime rap or the sober tones of Philip Larkin, is such a powerful way of expressing our individual and collective truths and vulnerabilities.
For a few weeks before Windrush day (22 June) a small team of us worked to bring the story of Britain’s post-war Afro-Caribbean immigrants to life. Working alongside My Future My Choice, historian and social commentator Roger Griffiths, and social film maker Michael Jenkins of 8th Sense Media, I devised a series of poetry workshops to help the young people of Oasis John Williams and Trinity schools (Bristol) express their emotional responses to what they would learn about the Windrush. We were mainly interested in giving them the tools to respond creatively to something that they had not personally experienced. Most of the young people did not have immediate Afro-Caribbean connections or relations, and so had not had the chance to engage on a personal with the story of the Windrush. Despite this, they were all so responsive and produced heartfelt, well thought-out pieces. I was inspired, pleased and proud of them all. But definitely not surprised. I have been teaching long enough to know that when given the chance, most people are volcanoes of creativity. In any case some of the most important poetry in this country’s history has often been written by young people. Both Percy Shelley as well as Dizzy Rascal were teenagers when they came up with some of their most original ideas.
I am lucky enough to be able to work adjacent to the school system (rather than in it) and spend time coming up with what I imagine will be useful ways of inspiring young people to engage emotionally and intellectually with the confusing, beautiful and sometimes depressing world around them. Unfortunately, the vast majority of teachers in this country do not get given the time and space to do so. The rates at which teachers have been leaving the profession due to stress, low pay, insufficient support, and lack of creative freedom are am obvious clue. I know a lot of teachers. Many of them would do a better job of inspiring their students than I ever could. They know them better than I ever will and for the most part have more experience of working with a diversity of students in often high pressure, unpredictable environments. And so it is sad that they are often left without the resources to educate in a way that would be responsive to their students and to the world around them.
If this time and resourcing was given to the teachers of Bristol and further afield to respond to history, the environmental crisis, the mental health crisis, and the creativity deficit in our schools, I might be out of a job, and projects like the Global Goals Centre might not need to be as ambitious as they are. But in the grand scheme of things that would be a net positive. The reason these crises require outside input is because it looks like a very long wait before our schools are tooled up, our teachers empowered and freed enough, to respond to the major issues of our time. The reinvigorated call to decolonise the curriculum in the wake of racial justice protests is a clear sign of how big the deficit is between what our society and environment needs and what our teachers are currently allowed and encouraged to deliver to young people. While the wait continues, seemingly indefinitely, creative projects that speak to the real needs of our times will remain ever-important, and championing the work of those delivering them should be integral to what education should and can be in our world.