Some school visits are special. My visit to ISF Tervuren International School was very special. Very special indeed.
To start with, it was National Poetry Day. National Poetry Day is always special. People of all ages, all over the country, celebrating and sharing and finding solace in poetry.But ISF Tervuren school isn’t in Britain. It’s in Belgium. So I was taking National Poetry Day international this year.
And it really was international, as the children at this English-language school come from many different countries, and speak a total of 18 different mother tongues, including French, Italian, Czech, German, Lithuanian, Korean and several African languages.
Deputy-Head Caroline Gill, who had invited me to the school, had put in a lot of work to get the whole school excited about poetry before my visit. And that makes all the difference! Her daughter (on teaching practice there) had created a beautiful ‘Poetree’ that the teachers had adorned with their favourite poems.
All of which meant that the children were already buzzing with poetry excitement when I stepped into the hall to put on my Buzzing! + Flying High! show for them that morning (with poems specially selected for an audience who did not all have native-speaker English proficiency).
The weather was kind to us, which meant that we were able to be outside for two of my follow-on workshops. I went rhyme-time rambling round the grounds with the youngest children, who became spiders and butterflies and ants with great gusto!
And for the KS1 children I took this year’s National Poetry Day theme of ‘Change’ and applied it to the topic of ‘birds’, as requested by Caroline. These children hatched from eggs into birds, and created a beautiful poem about what it was like to enter the world as a bird, using their senses to capture their first impressions of their surroundings.
I continued with the NPD theme of ‘Change’ with Years 5/6, who pupated into completely different creatures, and wrote poems that introduced us to their new form. I was very impressed by how the children’s poems got better and better and better over the course of the workshop as we applied different magic tricks to what they had written.
It wasn’t just the poetry that was special that day. No – lunch-time was pretty amazing too. Caroline’s daughter had made (vegan) sushi for us to share. Delicious!
And then, as if having lunch made for me wasn’t enough, I was given a fabulous present (and it couldn’t have been a better present!) by the school’s Head, along with a beautiful card signed by all the staff.
See what I mean about this visit being special?
And that’s not all. In the afternoon, I introduced Year 3/4 to haikus. And I left them with the thought that they could write haikus about anything, any time, any place, anywhere. Then lo and behold, the next day I was taken to see the installation in Tervuren that marks the centenary of the end of the First World War. It was a very moving installation. And on the end of each of the four ‘walls’ of ‘poppies’ was an inscription. It was my friend Clare (without whom this whole Belgian visit would have been impossible) who noticed that these inscriptions (in English, French, German and Flemish) were, in fact, haikus:
I hope the ISF Year 3/4 children get to see these haikus, too. And see how moving just 17 syllables can be. And what power they have, now they know how to write them.
But back to my National Poetry Day visit. Which ended with a book signing.
I love interacting with individual children during book signings. But usually, that interaction is the last I know of the matter. What was extra special this time was that later that evening one of the parents sent beautiful photos of her children tucked up in bed with their copies of Buzzing! and Flying High!, with the message:
‘Loving our bedtime reading tonight …’
The perfect ending, for me, to National Poetry Day!
But that was not the end of poetry at ISF Tervuren. Oh no. The school really was in the poetry mood, and the next day they finished the week with a poetry celebration in which the children performed poems for their parents. Some were poems they had written with me, some were poems they had practised performing earlier. The reports I heard back from that celebration were very enthusiastic. I wish I had been there myself!
The success of a school visit depends very much, I have found, on how much the school buys into it. And ISF Tervuren certainly bought into it 100%. What was lovely was that they appreciated how much effort this had taken by Caroline Gill (with whom I had liaised extensively prior to my visit), and presented her with a bunch of flowers to thank her.
I’d like to add my thanks to Caroline here. And to all the staff and pupils and parents at ISF Tervuren International School for making my National Poetry Day 2018 so very special. There’s nowhere else I would rather have spent the day!