Creative Writing PhD students nurture young poets during lockdown

The lockdown has meant that schoolteachers and pupils across the country have to find new ways to learn. For young people at several schools across Greater Manchester, creative inspiration has come in the form of a poetry competition from The University of Manchester, supported online by PhD students.

The annual Schools Poetry Competition encourages Manchester pupils aged 7 to 11 to explore the world around them and express themselves creatively. The competition is the brainchild of the Centre for New Writing in the University’s Faculty of Humanities and Creative Manchester, the University’s initiative for championing culture and creativity, and nurturing talent and forms part of our commitment to social responsibility and inclusivity. It was launched in 2017 by University Chancellor and poet, Lemn Sissay MBE.

Traditionally, PhD students from the University host face-to-face poetry clinics at participating schools. As the COVID-19 pandemic forced many schools to close in March, things have been done differently. 

Supporting young people’s wellbeing during lockdown

Manchester students provided detailed written critiques online to every pupil taking part. For example, final-year PhD student and returning competition judge Chad Campbell delivered a short video clip with his feedback to each of his students.

“In normal circumstances, we would be able to sit and speak with students, so we got a better sense of how the young writers felt about their poetry and their reactions to the critique they received. So this year I decided to record personalised feedback for each student because there wouldn't be an opportunity to meet our young poets,” says Chad.

“I think that the pupils really enjoyed the opportunity to think about their lives creatively. Making a piece of art or writing a poem is a rewarding way for people to engage with their lives.”

John McAuliffe, Professor of Poetry and Director of the Centre for New Writing said: “Each year the response from the school students amazes us. This year, to engage with the schools, we had to find new innovative ways of working, while maintaining the school students’ experience and safeguarding. The competition brings a lot of value to everyone involved. 

“It is a privilege for our PhD students to help them craft and shape the poems that come out of the schools, and to watch these young writers grow in confidence.”

The importance of creative expression

The competition challenges young people to think creatively about society’s biggest questions. This year, entries were invited that focus on climate change, while home, culture and identity have featured as previous themes.

As someone who also started writing creatively at a young age, Chad understands how important it is for young people to have their view of the world taken seriously.

“Poetry occupies a space for people to turn to in times of need or crisis when trying to understand what is happening around them,” he says.

“It’s been an absolute pleasure working with the school kids and offering them advice. It’s important that young people feel supported throughout their creative process. They will be the ones who carry on the tradition of speaking about the world around them through poetry and the voices we all rely on.”

The 2020 competition was run in collaboration with Whalley Range High School for Girls, Levenshulme High School for Girls, Burnage Academy for Boys and The East Manchester Academy.