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Creative Translation in the Classroom, a Translators in Schools programme run by the Stephen Spender Trust

Poet and translator Cheryl Moskowitz ran a 'Poems from Home' workshop with Year 9 pupils at Sir William Ramsay school in High Wycombe, together with English teacher and school literacy lead Kamraan Khan

We began the workshop with names: exploring the history and meaning of our names, and pooling together favourite words from a variety of different languages. This helped to cohere the group and introduce the idea of translation. We discussed different terminologies and techniques in poetry – alliteration, tone, metaphor and so on, and worked together to construct a group cinquain which showed the group that there is no single right way to make poetry, only the task of choosing 'the best words in the best order' to say whatever it is that needs saying. Cinquains are poems with a specific number of syllables per line, and this is the class's composition:

Magical mist
Connection of countries
Bridging lives and sharing stories

Through the school librarian, EAL students from different year groups across the school had been encouraged to find poems from their home country that they could bring in to share in the original language. The class teacher, whose family originates from Pakistan, set the example by bringing in a poem in the original Urdu, which had been chosen by his mother-in-law, to share with the class. We looked at the shape of the poem written down and listened to a recording of the teacher's mother-in-law reading the first two verses of the poem, Allama Iqbal's Shikwah ('The Complaint'). In small groups the students shared initial thoughts and ideas about what the poem might be about. Students were then played an interview with the mother-in-law recording her reasons for choosing the poem and explaining why it holds particular significance for her. Specifically, she explained that the poem was asking the impossible question 'Can one group of people or one person ever be more deserving of love than another?'.

Equipped with dictionaries and thesauruses, the original poem and the recorded reading and commentary, personal information supplied by the teacher and his mother-in-law about their own Pakistani history and biographical information about the poet Allama Iqbal sourced from the internet, the students were given the task of producing their own version of the poem in English.

The workshop shone light on the riches that learning in a multilingual environment can bring. No one has ownership of language, all words are there for sharing. Deciphering meaning in unfamiliar languages requires us to really listen and learn from one another and seek out commonality in our experience. By being prepared to share some of his own personal history in the group the teacher encouraged the students to do the same. The poem from home that the teacher brought in from his mother-in-law was a gift and made the students realise that they too had such gifts to share. By giving a whole day over to the task the classroom became a laboratory, a place of experimentation and discovery, alive with passionate discussion and a real desire to unlock meaning and create new understanding.

Cheryl Moskowitz

Charlotte Ryland, Director of the Stephen Spender Trust, observes:

"The workshop provided what felt like a unique space, where different forms of multilingualism could be highlighted and validated. From the pupil who is able to share a cool-sounding French word that they have learnt the previous week (and find a group of people who thought it sounded cool too!), to the pupil whose knowledge of Urdu gave her a special role within her group, this was an environment where knowledge of any language at any level was validated and celebrated. Cheryl's delight in language, in its sounds and its capacity to convey meaning and emotion, was infectious."

Creative Translation in the Classroom was generously supported by the Rothschild Foundation.