Thursday 27 June 2024

Can poetry (and other literature) help with recovering from distress and trauma? A schools perspective

 These are notes and thoughts as part of the talk I gave at the Northern Education Show today on 'Reading, Writing and Recovery'.

The standard practice of what to 'do with' literature in schools is to 'comprehend it ('Comprehension') and critique it ('Literary Criticism'). There are other spaces  (eg PHSE) in schools where we can think of literature (plays, poems, stories) in another way. We can think of it as starting points for talk, discussion, debate and reflection (as readers) and as starting points for writing plays, poems and stories ourselves.

From my discussions with teachers, I gather that a space where that can kind of activity can take place these days is in PHSE sessions. 

So let's run with this. My core point here is that literature offers readers (or readers who are thinking about writing something) are possibilities and permissions. 

What does this mean? Every piece of literature holds within it possibilities in ways of behaving, thinking and feeling. These possibilities are, in a sense, dangled in front of us, as temptations, models, challenges, speculations about how the beings in the literature go through the thoughts and actions described there. There are also the possibilities offered to us (eg as students) in the shapes, patterns, forms and themes of a piece of literature. This possibility can invite us to think, 'I could write something like that.' This is how literature develops and changes. One of the most famous examples of this is Shakespeare picking up on the possibility offered by 'Revenge Tragedy'. He seems to have thought, I could write something like that. And he wrote 'Hamlet'. But 'Hamlet' was a new kind of play because it may well have used the template of the Revenge Tragedy, but created a something new by mixing in philosophy, psychology and politics. As a result, people have taken up the baton offered by 'Hamlet'. 

But this sort of thing involves 'permissions'. Back with students and young children, it's my observation (and many other people's) that young people benefit from being offered permission to speak about or write about what's in their minds. We can think of literature as expressing important things in ways that we can't say for ourselves. Perhaps. But there's a way of saying, if that writer can say it, I'll give myself permission to say something like that too. So we have feelings, thoughts and ideas that I may feel are not worthy of being written about, or that perhaps there's some kind of taboo involved. Then we read something and discover that there is no barrier to talking or writing about such things. 

So, we have these two overlapping ideas: possibilities and permissions. I hope that these are useful ways of thinking how we can treat poems, plays and stories in spaces where we don't have to be thinking about Comprehension or Literary Criticism - eg in PHSE sessions. 

I can say that poems, plays and stories in my life have helped me deal with various kinds of traumas. I've written about this in 'Getting Better' but in today's session with teachers at the Northern Education Show, I illustrated what I'm saying in this blog, by reading poems from eg 'Quick Let's Get Out of Here',  'On the Move', 'Michael's Big Book of Bad Things', and stories like 'Sticky McStickstick', 'The Big Dreaming', 'The Sad Book' and 'Please Write Soon' .

One of the reason why writing helps sounds trivial - writing is slow. But that word 'slow, disguises the fact that writing lets us reflect on what we're writing much more easily than when we speak. As we 'unfold' it onto the page, we have time to stop, think, change and rewrite. We can edit and weigh up whether the writing really does represent how we think. This is a way of standing outside of ourselves, giving ourselves some objectivity about ourselves. This in itself is a relief. 

I've written about this in 'Write to Feel Write' which appears in the Big Cat series published by Collins. It's a book for both students and teachers to help them write in this kind of area.