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Emma Sheppard (@Comment_Ed), founder of The MTPT Project takes her sister as a willing victim on a short, but productive CPD trip to The Imperial War Museum in Waterloo to explore the ‘conflict’ poems from AQA’s Power and Conflict cluster.

Recently, my sister has discovered an interest in creative writing.  It’s part of the 12 week course she’s following using a book called ‘The Artist’s Way‘, in order to ‘discover and recover her creative self’.  As part of the writing aspects of this creative therapy, she has been asking me – the English teacher – for exercises to inspire and craft her writing.  I’ve offered her ideas learnt from a course I attended at the BFI in my NQT year on cineliteracy, and a few bits and pieces I’ve trialled with my own students to get them producing descriptive and narrative writing for AQA’s Language Paper 1, Question 5.

Whilst we’re approaching the exercise from polar opposite ends of the creative spectrum: me to ensure students with fairly low literacy have a formula to produce a semi-decent piece of writing in 45 minutes to pass a standardised test; her to explore a dormant and repressed part of her spirituality, there are some obvious opportunities for experimentation here, and she is a very willing guinea pig (and also very helpful with babies and toddlers).

Two weeks postpartum, I’m still fairly fragile.  This is pretty frustrating as I’ve spent the last five months not really being able to do anything and now I’m ready to get going again.  Ever solutions-focused, however, I’ve been considering all the exciting places I can get to that require almost no physical exertion at all.  As I’m fortunate enough to live in London with so many great transport links and free things to do on my doorstep, Waterloo and surrounding areas with a sling and a helpful sister has provided the answer.  

We therefore headed for a short afternoon at The Imperial War Museum to do a bit of poetry-inspired creative writing.  I wanted to see what the museum could offer me in terms of improving my contextual understanding of the poem, and what activities I could propose for a future trip for KS4 students.  With my sister as my ‘student’, we did the following…

1. My sister read the three ‘older’ war poems from AQA’s Power and Conflict anthology – Kamikaze, Exposure and Bayonet Charge.  I asked her to choose one, and she decided on Kamikaze.

2. We found the WW2 part of the museum, and I asked her to explore the exhibition and find an artefact, a photo, a piece of art or information that best captured her understanding of the poem.  

What was great about this moment, was that my sister – when I commented on the speed at which she had read Exposure and Kamikaze – had previously told me that she was ‘the type of person who doesn’t read every word’.  When I asked her to find an artefact, however, she immediately said, ‘oh, I’ll have to look at the poem again’.  This reading and re-reading was exactly what I’d hoped a ‘student’ would get out of a focused enrichment trip to a museum or cultural site – a new angle into the text; developed readings; alternative interpretations; new realisations.

Now I didn’t want to influence my sister’s creative decision making, but it was difficult not to get a bit excited by the perfection of this part of the exhibition:

I quietly took some photos to take back to my classroom in nine month’s time to use for display whilst resisting the urge to ask a teacher-type leading question like, “What do you think of this?  Can you see any connections with the poem here?”

Eventually, my sister chose the display of samurai swords taken, or gifted to British forces from Japanese officers.

3. I asked her to explain to me why she had chosen this artefact.  In a school trip setting, this could involve partner chat, or students annotating their ideas on their poems, or the same style of teacher-lead questioning that I was able to do in a 1-1 setting with my sister.  Being the gifted and talented person that she is, she spoke of the honour and shame represented by the swords, the ancestry, the shape of the sun rays created by the display and the morning setting of the first stanza, the reference to the navy in the accompanying information and the links to the grandfather in the middle stanzas of the poem.

4. I asked my sister to return to the rest of the exhibition and collect vocabulary – juicy, exciting, wow, evocative, highly connotative words that she would like to use in her own writing.  I sat in a corner and fed baby and did some people watching.

5. When she returned, I asked my sister to choose one image or thought that had particularly struck her from the idea-gathering we had completed so far.  She chose the sword, and then I asked her to choose one word from her vocabulary bank that summed up her interpretation of the sword’s significance.  She chose ‘honour’, and this was the word with which she started her descriptive piece.

What was interesting about her writing process was that she asked the same sort of questions that my students ask: how long is a paragraph?  Should I have been using my vocabulary bank words? (I made her use more in her redraft)  How long do I have to do this?

6. As a final activity, I asked her to return to the exhibition and collect all the numbers she could find on the artefacts, photographs or information plaques.  We didn’t get round to a third draft (nursery pick up loomed), but with students, I would ask them to use these numbers to vary their sentences – so the first sentence would have 19 words in it, the second 45, the third 29 etc.

As maternity CPD, a real benefit of this trip was that it was very manageable: we chose one very isolated part of the museum – just one exhibition – and spent a very focused hour or so really soaking up what this corner had to offer.  As my sister wrote, I had the opportunity to zone out a little bit, change the baby’s nappy, rest, and reflect on all the other learning offered by the displays: the wider reading and film opportunities I could suggest to students to enrich their contextual understanding of Kamikaze (below); historical concepts like bias and interpretation (it must be difficult as a museum curator to present an complete version of history on a very small plaque that you want an average tourist to read, and it is surprising how often Great Britain comes across as the mighty victor…) and cross-curricular links.

Suggested Films and Books to Accompany Kamikaze by Beatrice Garland

  • The Railway Man by Eric Lomax (also a film starring Colin Firth and Nicole Kidman) – Paper 2 Section A opportunities here, as this is a non-fiction autobiography
  • Three Came Home by Agnes Keith (also a 1950 film starring Claudette Colbert) – also Paper 2 opportunities, as this is a non-fiction autobiography
  • Unbroken by Laura Hillenbrand (also a slightly naff film directed by Angelina Jolie, but if I remember it, it must have made some sort of impression) – also non-fiction
  • Empire of the Sun by JG Ballard (also a film starring a very young Christian Bale) – based on JG Ballard’s own childhood experiences, but technically fiction, so good for Language Paper 1 Section A

My sister has been very brave and agreed to share her notes and drafts.  There’s a missed opportunity for a colon at the beginning, and some shifting into narrative, but a clear understanding of the poem and a massive jump in the quality of writing between draft 1 and 2 thanks to the vocabulary bank focus – Level 9, A*!