‘Students are journalists and poets and storytellers and performers’

Mary Lowry on the impact of Fighting Words on Donabate Community College

“It sometimes means entering the work for competition and framing writing that win prizes or is published in newspapers, online or in poetry publications.” Photograph: iStock

“It sometimes means entering the work for competition and framing writing that win prizes or is published in newspapers, online or in poetry publications.” Photograph: iStock

 

I work in a coeducational school in Donabate, North Co Dublin. It has been a great privilege for me and for my fellow English teachers to participate in workshops at Fighting Words and to kindle in our students the joy and the power of writing. I have learned much from my interactions with Fighting Words, the most important lesson has been that students love to tell stories and we just need to find ways for them to tell those stories in all sorts of different ways.

Culture of Writing

Over the past nine years we have slowly built a strong culture of writing in Donabate Community College. We have done this through encouraging creative expression, through viewing writing as a process and through publishing our students’ work. Sometimes that just means hanging selected pieces on the walls of our classroom, sometimes it means framing and hanging it in our library. It sometimes means entering the work for competition and framing writing that win prizes or is published in newspapers, online or in poetry publications.

It also means that our Journalism class in Transition Year is tasked with reporting on school events and publishing them on our website, our Twitter and Facebook pages and in a local community newsletter.

Mary Lowry: “We encouraged our students to write stories and poems and we supported them with drafting and editing”
Mary Lowry: “We encouraged our students to write stories and poems and we supported them with drafting and editing”

What all of this tells you is that our students know that their work is valued and appreciated. They feel encouraged and challenged. They know what success looks like because they see it in our school. They are journalists and poets and storytellers and performers of their own work and the work of others.

We started by attending workshops in Fighting Words and then we heard about the call for submissions to this supplement. We encouraged our students to write stories and poems and we supported them with drafting and editing. In that first year, one of our students was published in the supplement. So we tried again and next time we had two and the year after three. And we began to anticipate the call for submissions, as did our students. They saw the published work of others in a national newspaper and on the walls of our school and it ignited interest. It is open to students of different abilities and it encourages them to strive to be one of those published authors whose work lands in newsagents around the country in May of every year.

Long Story Short

We did the book project in 2014 and our school management supported me to go every Thursday into “Fighting Words” with a group of 20 students. “Long Story Short” was published and we had a celebration and a book launch. We now had published work on our walls and a book by our students on the shelves. We could have left it at that but we didn’t. We started looking around and we had some success with poetry competitions. We took advantage of opportunities to have writers in residence and we kept sending our students to Fighting Words workshops.

And we valued their work. We encouraged, we praised and we supported their endeavours.

A place that was quiet and beautiful; created and owned by our students

In 2016, we decided to publish a pamphlet of students’ work. Students were sometimes disappointed that they had not been successful in competition. But we saw great merit and beauty in their work and wanted to share them and so we put together a selection called “Finding Our Voices” and dedicated it to an English colleague who was retiring.

Then we needed more space to hang their poems, their stories, their newspaper articles and their story boards. We began looking around us and our Art teacher was enabling students to create permanent artwork to decorate the walls of our new school building.

Library

TY Art students took on a project to make our library a more welcoming and comfortable space
TY Art students took on a project to make our library a more welcoming and comfortable space

We began to talk and an idea was born. TY Art students took on a project (supported by management and the Parents’ Council) to make our library a more welcoming and comfortable space. Over the year it became a gallery of writing, of words of well-known authors and of our own authors and poets and artists. It became a relaxing space for reading and thinking. A place that was quiet and beautiful; created and owned by our students.

We invited past pupils to come along, whose stories are hanging in our library. A past pupil who has worked as an intern with “Fighting Words” and whose play was performed last year in a theatre in Dublin, a past pupil who is just about to publish his first novel. And students can see where his stories began and this inspires them. And it inspires all of us.

In April and November of this year we had poetry events in our library. Our students read from their own work in English; stories and poems and spoken word. They also read from the work of published authors. And we asked our colleagues to participate. We had a sixth year songwriter perform his own composition. We had a first year perform a poem she had written in Spanish. We had students perform pieces in French and Irish.

And it was powerful.