A letter to 6.2 A Level English

By Julia Bevan, Teacher of English

For the past two years, I have been in the unusual position of teaching a whole cohort of A Level English students. What a privilege this has been; first to get to know you all last year through studying the contemporary Poems of the Decade and an evening with Julia Copus, and then to guide you through some of the pressures of online learning.  

Certainly, my most fulfilling teaching moments last spring involved supporting many of you as you wrote your coursework essays. We worked together, adopting university-style tutorials that were really conducive to the task at hand. In this intimate learning environment, you rigorously dismantled and reassembled your analytical arguments, embedding close textual analysis and context into essays, and become young but impressive scholars of Seamus Heaney, and Arundhati Roy. It is wonderful that I have taught one or two of you since Block 4 and that a number of you are now determined to study English at university: what more could a teacher want?

In the autumn term of this academic year your focus and determination were remarkable. At times as a teacher managing the new COVID secure protocol on site was tough; but it was worth it so that I could introduce you to Mrs. Dalloway by Virginia Woolf in person and watch you draw comparisons between this novel and her older sister Wuthering Heights. Both novels deal radically with early forms of mental health, a subject on which you often edify me.You demonstrated such maturity and sensitivity in November, embracing hybrid teaching early on so that those of you at home self-isolating could stay part of the class discussion. You make me very proud and are a credit to your parents.

I believe passionately that we learn much from creating peak experiences inside and outside the class room and I had hoped to take you on a weekend trip to Haworth in Yorkshire, to visit the Parsonage where Emily Bronte died and to walk up onto the Moors to Top Withens, a remote, abandoned farm considered to be the inspiration for her only novel. Instead we returned to our homes and computer screens and I have had the challenge of trying to inspire you with the poetry of John Keats. 

A poet of the senses, he is a joy to teach in the winter and early spring in Steep, ideally in the Meditation Hut or the Lupton Hall, where two years ago I launched the first ‘Eve of St Agnes Experience’ with Lucy McIlwraith. 

This year I asked you to work on collaborative creative responses to the poem and I have been amazed at what you have achieved from homes many miles apart. Your original work neatly coincides with the publication of an essay entitled ‘Weavers of Dreams in The Eve of St Agnes and A Midsummer Night’s Dream‘ in the English and Media Centre EMAG, co-authored with my partner in Keatsian crime, Lucy. I’ve decided this will be my third and last Keats’ experience, and hope to teach Shakespeare next year. It makes sense to end on such a high.

To all of my 6.2 English students: thank you. “St Agnes moon hath set.” 

Block 3 experiment with comparative poetry

By Julia Bevan, Teacher of English

My Block 3 students have been practising writing poems using extended metaphors.

In class, we read The Beach by William Hart-Smith, Winter Morning by Roger McGough and In a Station of the Metro by Ezra Pound to inspire us, observing that none of the poems used full rhyme or a particular rhythm; instead, they’re constructed using one long sentence.

Students then worked together in small teams groups, looking at a range of images – a skiing scene, traffic on a motorway, a mountain top and a red London bus – and coming up with a number of metaphors and similes to describe aspects of the picture (mountain tops as “Stegosaurus spines” in the skiing scene, for example).

Next, they were asked to turn their collective notes into a descriptive sentence that uses at least one metaphor, then turn that into a poem.

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Bedales represented at Round Square International Conference

By Julia Bevan, Teacher of English 

Bedales was delighted this year to be one of the schools represented at the 51st Round Square International Conference in India. Al McConville and I were joined by two 6.2 students, Freya Leonard and Anton Ellis, on the trip. It was Bedales first delegation to the five-day conference, which this year was attended by 1000 people – 700 students and 300 staff – from all five continents.

For three days, the conference was hosted at the Emerald Heights International School, a boarding school on the outskirts of Indore that has 4000 students in total. Student delegates from around the world slept in the school dormitories. Over the course of three days, we saw all the keynote speakers, including a Nobel Peace Prize winner who works to end child slavery, a Government Minister (in opposition to Modi) and Madam Ghandi, a feminist musician.

Other highlights included a presentation with an AI robot. In between speakers, the students broke into Barazza groups to discuss issues relating to this year’s conference theme, ‘the world we wish to see’. We also spent time meeting other delegates, learning about the Round Square organisation, and meeting representatives from other schools that might wish to arrange international exchanges with us in the future.

We spent a day sightseeing at the city of Mandu, where we visited a beautiful mosque which is now a historical site of interest, rather than a working mosque. We also saw some impressive forts and palaces overlooking lakes and hills. We spent nearly six hours travelling to and from Mandu, which gave us time to observe Indian life and culture from the windows of the bus. It was fascinating – families of four riding on mopeds, Tuk-Tuks behaving like pushy, rude teenagers, and cows sitting on the road. At one point, our coach had to reverse to allow a chicken and six chicks to cross safely!

Another day was spent doing service in the morning and sightseeing in the evening, and there was one very early start with a run for charity alongside Blade Runner, the first Indian to run with a prosthetic foot! Al, Freya and Anton got up early to join him, and a tree was planted to honour the occasion.

We had a very long journey there and a long journey home, so we are now looking into carbon off-setting for the trip, which seems particularly fitting as climate change and air travel was a hot topic amongst delegates.

First Duke of Edinburgh expedition of the year

By Julia Bevan, Teacher of English

When 37 students in Block 5 headed out on their qualifying Silver Duke of Edinburgh (DofE) expedition, they might have been extras in John Keats’ seminal poem, To Autumn. Last weekend on the South Downs, the world was rich in “mellow fruitfulness”. They plucked ripe blackberries from hedgerows, scrumpt apples from “moss’d cottage-trees” and in the evenings you might have come across the odd corn on the cob cooking alongside Wayfarer’s meals and pesto pasta.

On Friday morning it took a while to organise routes and check kit at the Triangle Car Park near the Trundle. As classic cars drove past on their way to the Goodwood Revival, assessors made a note of who had packed particularly carefully, and made sure those that needed an extra compass or water bottle were looked after. Routes were checked and starts were then staggered so as to make sure the groups were not tempted to mass together, before they headed off in different directions: east towards Graffam or west to Treyford.

There was no doubt that the participants had the weather was on their side, and navigation was considerably easier than on the practice expedition in the New Forest. That said, the West Sussex terrain presented the groups with different challenges, and many arrived in camp on Friday sore and exhausted from 400 metre climbs past fields of “full-grown lambs” and nosy herds of cows. After a glorious sunset, the full moon lit up the campsites making the night colder than expected and thus the tents were drenched in moisture on Saturday morning.

As the weekend bore on, it was clear that all 37 participants had personal challenges to meet. Some found the walking very tough, others had to manage their frustration with slower members of their group. Some had to share their food and kit, others to manage sore ankles and painful blisters. It was impressive to see groups leaving relatively early on their second day, and even earlier on the third, determined to get the bulk of the walking done in the morning. It was even more impressive to watch groups share out the load, so that all could complete the walk. All did and can hold their head high, having successfully completed this section of their Silver award.

A big thank you must go to Allen, David, Gordon and Rob for bringing wisdom, humour and years of experience to the trip. A thank you also to Duncan Selmes, who joined us from Dunhurst on Saturday afternoon, bringing more DofE expertise and enthusiasm to the team.

Arvon attendees reunite for writing workshop

By Julia Bevan, Teacher of English

Last Wednesday, 14 students who attended the Arvon Creative Writing course in Shopshire over the Easter holidays attended an afternoon writing workshop. We held the workshop partly so they could collect The Lighthouse (the anthology of their writing from the course), but also to celebrate seeing their work in print and practice writing techniques they learnt on the course.

To get themselves in the writing headspace, they began by carrying out a free writing task to some serious music, which quickly led to much fast scribbling! The students then attempted some ‘Golden Shovels’, a technique devised by the American poet Terrance Hayes in honour of his fellow compatriot Gwendolyn Brooks.

The last words of each line in a Golden Shovel poem are, in order, words from a line or lines taken often from another poem; the original Golden Shovel is The Pool Players / Seven at the Golden Shovel by Brooks. The results of this technique can be quite different in subject, tone and texture from the original poem, depending on the ingenuity and imagination of the poet composing one!

In honour of the incoming Poet Laureate, Simon Armitage – who visited Bedales last September – students chose lines from his poems Poem and I Am Very Bothered, and had a lot of fun sharing the new poems that evolved from his lines. The intention is to keep the writing momentum going with monthly writing reunions next year and include new work in The Poet’s Stone.

Engaging Arvon Creative Writing trip

On 15 April, English teachers Lucy Mcilwraith and Julia Bevan accompanied a group of Bedales students to the Hurst Arvon Centre in Shropshire for a five-day residential creative writing course.

Set in the former home of the late playwright John Osborne and led by tutors Malika Booker and Colin Grant, both of whom are published writers, the course saw the group take part in a series of workshops designed to “ignite a life-long love of creative writing”.

Over the course of the five days, group writing workshops saw students take part in a range of exercises, including keeping haiku diaries as a way of focussing observation skills; free writing as a means of ‘loosening up’ and increasing the flow of ideas; exploring ways of creating images to express emotions; using memoir writing as a way of recording not only facts but also atmospheres; and practising writing dialogue where each new speech had to start with the sequential letter of the alphabet.

In addition to workshops, one-to-one tutorials and readings with guest speakers, the group were given the freedom to develop their own written work and explore the beautiful remote environment.

The independent living experience formed a significant part of the retreat, and students spent time in small groups in the kitchen, preparing the evening meal and washing up – something which promoted rather than stifled creativity.

In an email to parents during the trip, Lucy and Julia wrote: “As we’re in the home of John Osborne, a writer of kitchen sink drama, I think it’s particularly appropriate that the washing up crew indulged in kitchen sink poetry. We tried one word each, then rhyming couplets, then answering each other only in rhyme. For some reason we kept coming back to ‘feet’ and ‘beef’, but it certainly made the washing up go more quickly!”

The students, who will now produce an anthology of their written work from the course, praised the way the course offered them the space to write creatively with minimal distractions.

As many of the students particularly enjoyed the writing exercises in the mornings while on the course, Julia now intends to keep the group going following their return to school, through monthly writing sessions.