Sunday, 6 September 2015

All DAY on poetry? by Fran Hill

‘Before we get back to analysing Macbeth,’ I said to my Year 11 class of fifteen-year-olds at the start of the lesson, ‘guess where I taught yesterday on my day off.’

They listened. Put off analysing Macbeth? Yes, please!

‘Let me describe it to you,’ I said. ‘It was an all-day poetry workshop.’

‘All DAY on poetry?’ one said, as though this were the literary equivalent of being force-fed Brussels sprouts.

‘Hear me out,’ I said. ‘These particular students were attentive throughout. No one talked to their classmate, or put their head on the desk, or yawned or said they were so bored they could eat their own earwax.’

My class looked sceptical.

‘Also,’ I said. ‘When they’d written poems, they were all keen to read them out. So, everyone participated. They listened carefully to each other’s work, and made constructive, perceptive comments. No one complained at getting honest feedback.’

Year 11 eyebrows had never risen higher.

‘And,’ I said, ‘when they left, they shook my hand, thanked me, and said they had thoroughly enjoyed the day’s lessons. That evening, by email, I received a list of all their appreciative comments. Come on, then. Guess where I was teaching.’

‘Oxford University?’ one said.

‘Rugby School?’ said another.


‘In your dreams?’ said a boy hoping one day to rival Michael McIntyre.

‘None of those,’ I said. ‘I was teaching at a Category B prison, running poetry workshops for male prisoners.’

They laughed. ‘Yeah, right, Miss.’

‘It’s true,’ I said. ‘And I’ve never taught more enthusiastic, appreciative students.’

We didn’t get round to Macbeth that lesson. Year 11 were too keen to know what Category B meant and what kinds of crimes the men might have committed. I told them I’d taken most of the day’s sessions in a small room on the sex offenders’ wing, next door to a cell.

‘Weren’t you nervous, Miss?’

‘Less nervous than when Ofsted inspected this class,’ I said. ‘Anyway, I had a female guard with me.’

‘Did she have a gun?’

‘No,’ I said. ‘But she had a pager in case of trouble.’

‘Just a pager? And you did poems?’ they said, as though studying poetry itself would incite violence.

I explained that, at the jail, any ‘creative’ arts such as poetry or painting sessions could only be offered to the prisoners if volunteers ran them. ‘They can do qualifications, to better their education, but there’s no money in the system to do anything else.’

‘Could they all write?’ one said.

‘Some were doing degrees in prison,’ I said. ‘And some clearly had a real gift for writing, but hadn’t realised it.’

Year 11 wanted to know if attendance at the workshops had been compulsory.

‘They hadn’t been forced in under threat of death, if that’s what you mean,’ I said. ‘Many sign up for a class rather than being in a cell for a day. Wouldn’t you?’

'Er -'

‘Education looks different when your access to it is limited,’ I said, ‘or you realise you wasted your first chances.’

‘Hm,’ one girl said. ‘This sounds like a lecture coming.’

‘Not at all. I just thought I’d tell you about my day. Anyway, there’s the lunch bell. Go and get your gruel.’

As they went out, one boy said, ‘Thanks for the lesson, Miss,’ and winked.

Another time, I'll tell them where John Bunyan was when he wrote this.


  1. Great post, Fran. You intrigued me with the title and continued to with your storytelling ability. I love this glimpse into your working day and I wish I'd had a teacher like you! Who knows where the power of poetry can lead us? It's affects can be deep and mysterious. :) x

    1. Thank you, Joy. I wish I'd behaved better for my own teachers and appreciated them more!

  2. What a great post :) You inspired me let alone your Year 11s. I haven't written poetry since I fell in love with the man who is now my husband many years ago. He said he loved it did it mean?! Maybe I should have another go...

  3. Go for it/You know you can/Do not listen/To that man.

  4. Really interesting topic and presentation, Joy. I've heard ministers of religion (and lesser mortals in the religious sphere) say that working in prison is great because many prisoners recognise that they are at one of the lowest points in their lives and are receptive. I guess you experienced the same sort of phenomenon. Well done for a nice bit of prejudice-busting! Especially with teenagers who are often struggling with prejudices and trying to work out where they stand.

    1. I'm another Fran, actually, Fran B, not Joy, but thanks for your comment! And, yes, I think a few misconceptions were addressed in that lesson. In the same vein, I love teaching 'To Kill a Mockingbird' to kids that age because it teaches them so much about their own prejudices too - such a shame Michael Gove snatched it off the GCSE curriculum for not being written by a Brit!

  5. Brilliant way of putting it Fran. Loved this

  6. Utterly brill, Fran. You stymied them all right, and made them think!