Tuesday, 6 May 2014

Mirror, Mirror - why we must be challenged and stretched

Last week I attended a Dove Foundation Poetry Event at Selfridges as part of their 'All types of Beautiful Project'. I went expecting to be read poetry by Hollie McNish - simple - I was going to listen and watch, enjoy, applaud and leave. It was much more powerful than that. I and many other PSHE fanatics talk about the importance of PSHE being both memorable and challenging for young people. Our worry that PSHE is often information heavy and personal development light. The same is true of adults learning. To grow we all need to be stretched and challenged, and to leave an experience intrigued and inquisitive, hungry to stretch ourselves further and find out more.

Mirror Mirror wasn't quite the listen, watch, discuss and applaud workshop I expected (with hindsight I should have read the details more closely). First I was the only man in the room at an event that was exploring beauty. Second apart from enjoying Pam Ayres reading poetry (probably affiliation with her West Country accent) it really hasn't been my thing. Unless of course you count the three poems I wrote for a school poetry anthology aged 7 when I was in Mr Spillers* class (one about a jumble sale with a forlorn teddy, one about a hamburger with juicy rivulets of gravy and one about a dentist and the horror of drilling and amalgam).

After reading some introductory poems from her collection Hollie set to work creating an experience that would challenge participants through both the process and content. First we had to find someone we didn't know as a partner. Let's call mine Zoe. Then we had to take it in turns to be their model for them to draw our face and vice versa. We were tasked with really focusing on some particular details and features. Then we were encouraged to get a 'poetry head on' by describing a woman's lips (a volunteer from the group had to stand in front of us whilst we got more and more descriptive. I felt for her.)

From our drawings we had to choose three things to write a sentence about. All the time there were hushed whispers, low squeals, resistance, anxious looks. All the time we were cajoled, supported and pushed to 'just try' because it would be alright.

Then we had to ask each other 4 ‘banal’ questions about everyday life. I asked how Zoe travelled around London, whether she preferred broccoli or cabbage, how often she tends to go to the cinema and whether she is a thumbs up or naysayer to twitter. She asked me whether I sang in the shower, lived in a flat or house and my favourite music. From this we wrote short poems. We then

1. had to read them to each other
2. read the poem about us while looking in a mirror
3. sit in front of everyone while your partner read the poem about you
4. read out the poems about our partner to the rest of the group.

The workshop was in equal measures tortuous and sensationally good - I haven't been stretched and challenged in quite that same way for a long way. It was tortuous as a result of my confidence - an internal talk about whether what I could draw or write would be good enough - in fact if I am honest an internal talk that said there was no way I would be good enough (and my drawing was spectacularly crap but my poem was alright). That feeling was overwhelming for a lot of the workshop. There was a lot of internal chatter going on. It was only really at the end when both Zoe and I, and I suspect many others were able to say 'that was good'. I shall remember that experience for a very long time.
Hollie's poetry was stunning to listen to. In just the few poems I heard she covered a whole host of issues about beauty, about growing old, about pregnancy and about being a woman - a great resource for working with all young people and young women in particular. Google 'Cupcakes or Scones' and 'Megatron' and you can see them on You Tube. Hollie runs similar workshops in schools and other settings too. I would sincerely recommend her. You can find her on twitter @holliemcnish

The experience taught and reminded me

1. That PSHE and personal development opportunities for young people have to be magnetic and thrilling. Young people are no empty vessels that need filling with information – our challenge is to create experiences that light fires.
2. That teachers and others working with young people must be able to do group process well – people can only stretch themselves when groups work well. Groups only work well with skilled facilitation that holds the ring, makes it safe and confidently enables, cajoles, encourages, rewards and challenges

3. That as professionals we can often get ourselves stuck in traditional learning modes – seeking out events to gain knowledge rather than stretch and challenge ourselves and our teams right the way across our organisations. Senior managers and leaders can helpfully think more creatively about how we develop confident people who know themselves and think for themselves.

4. That personal development must comes in lots of different shapes and sizes - as organisations we can do more together to create opportunities for peers to learn, to share, to play and to grow.

5. That in order to really thrive we must put ourselves to be in uncomfortable situations, to sit with our discomfort and to learn from it.

6. That i quite like poetry after all. My May 2nd resolution: to put myself in more uncomfortable places and see what happens.

*Mr Spiller was my favourite ever teacher. I was 7 and I adored him. It felt like he believed in all of us and he built relationships with all of us. He got excited, angry and disappointed with us and for us and because of that relationship he stretched and challenged all of us. Sticking with the poetry theme he told Kevin that he could be the future Poet Laureate like Sir John Betjaman. He taught us that life should always be an adventure.

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