Case study - The Species Book

Seaford Head secondary school, Seaford, Sussex, March 2015

A three day workshop with year seven

The idea of these workshops was to enable each child in year seven to write a poem. I struggled with how to do this - time was tight, how would I achieve anything in such a short time? Added to this was the brief to involve them all in their local environment, to get them writing about the natural world around them when my sessions with them were based in the classroom.

I had the idea of giving each child a species to write from. I scoured local websites for lists of species particular to Seaford. I found PDFs of the Sussex Biodiversity Partnership, a Sussex Notable Birds list including birds as exotic as the Little Egret, Goshawk and Osprey. The Grey Heron, Barn Owl, Turtle Dove and Kingfisher claim their places, along with many sea birds like the Kittiwake, Fulmar and Mediterranean gull and the migratory birds like the swallow and swift, which are among 200 species recorded in the area.

I wanted other species too, that children might pass and not notice, fungi, trees and wildflowers that determine the landscapes they take into the future with them, that they will remember as adults. A document justifying its status as a site of special scientific interest (Seaford Head to Beachy Head) lists the flora making up the grassland of Seaford Head's chalk cliffs: sheep's fescue, rock sea lavender, early spider orchid, gorse, a rare cranefly and moth.

Creating these lists was a challenge but the biggest was finding an image for each species in the time I had. At one point, immersed in the Latin names, I felt lost. My mother's always used the Latin names for the plants in her garden but I didn't have the application for Latin at school. I have enough to get by, but neither am I a botanist or environmentalist, not a specialist of any kind, in fact. I wanted an image library of local species, available to view, to match up the names of the rare and the common, the ugly and beautiful. I wanted close ups and National Geographic-style detail for these children so they would be fascinated by the species they were given, at random.

The pictures were to be the starting point for the writing - each child would have a notebook with a photo on and a name. I had to identify around 230 species. In itself that shouldn't have been hard. There are chalk, alluvial, coastal and marine habitats. Seaford Head is a local nature reserve. I struggled through lists, trying to select mammals and insects, seaweed and fungi, reptiles, flowers and trees. I have a list of bats, of sensitive birds and then an overwhelming list that starts with lichen and ends with the brown hare.

How easy it is to become lost in the common names: pygmy moss, olive earthtongue, velvet tooth, channelled crystalwort, rusty fork-moss, starfruit, interrupted brome, stinking hawk's-beard, coral necklace, bastard balm, pale dog-violent, wart-biter and ghost moth, goat moth, mouse moth, dark bordered beauty, the speckled footman and neglected rustic, the sprawler, the dusky brocade and dusky-lemon sallow. Then the fish - smelt, herring, dover sole, undulate ray, mackerel - the tentacled lagoon-worm and medicinal leech, dolphins, crayfish, spiders, snakes, crickets, the dormouse and otter.

It begins to sound like preparations for the flood but my attempts to find images were eased enormously by the records of two local photographers and wildlife enthusiasts Bob Eade and Rev. Colin Pritchard, who came up with named JPEGs we could print out locally. The species I gave the children in the end ranged from the mullein moth to the otter, from the bee orchid to the starfish, from lichen to the adonis blue butterfly.

And what incredible metaphors many pupils came up with. I hope those images are still gathering force in the notebooks and in their memories. Flicking through a few of the books at the end of the project I read: the mallard is 'a dark green secret', the garden snail 'is a recycler of plant life, a tank track powering over a leafy landscape', the mullein moth is 'a long, burnt fingernail', the robin is 'a feathered dancer' and finally….'the silence of the crab hums the ocean.'

At the end of each day, Head of Creative Arts, Dave Faulkner and I read lines from the books to each other. The librarian was inspired to go home and write a poem. Amber, the classroom assistant who helped out at each session was going to write a poem for her sister's wedding.

It was rushed, it was difficult at times dealing with such a quick turnover of children of all abilities. I would have liked more time and to extend the project so I could have been involved more and for longer, but it worked and was inclusive, which was the key point of the brief.