How to organise a poetry competition in a primary school

cropped-books.jpgAn English teacher once said to me that she didn’t have poetry reading competitions because they were “too public school”. She might do well to reflect on the words of Maya Angelou who said:

“Words mean more than what is set down on paper. It takes the human voice to infuse them with the shades of deeper meaning.”

Reading a poem is a wonderful thing and can bring it to life. But reciting a poem from heart is so much more powerful.

This is how I organised a very simple poetry reading competition in a primary school Year 5 classroom. I think it filled about a 45-minute slot over a period of three or four weeks.

Lesson 1

Announce the competition. This will be a poetry performance contest. Children must learn a poem by heart and perform it. The rest of the class will be the judges, scoring the performance on clarity and meaning. There will be prizes for the winners! Invite a guest judge such as the headteacher or teaching assistant.

Raid your school library for as many poetry books as possible. Provide a huge range for your children to choose from. Include silly language play poems, limericks, fun verses: but also feature serious poems about the environment, war, historic events and other social issues. If you school does not have a supply of poetry books, then shame on them.

Divide the children into pairs, or let them choose partners if you are comfortable with that. Then allow everyone to browse through the books and select one that appeals to them. Give them 15 minutes or so to choose a poem which they are going to have to learn by heart and perform in front of the class. Share the choices. Allow the pairs time to get familiar with reading the words and working out how they will perform it.

Will they read it all together? Alternate lines? Think about loud, soft, mysterious voices. Will there be movement or drama? Will they need props (they almost always do!)? Encourage a varied performance that will capture people’s attention.

Provide copies of the poems for children to take home and learn. Suggest that they annotate the poems in coloured pens.

Lesson Two

Rehearsal time. Reinforce the rules of the competition and give the children time to run through their performances again. The poems do not need to be long – a limerick might suffice – but the performances do need to be word perfect. There may be time in this lesson to begin the performances. You will probably have about 15 poems in all. Invite volunteers for who would like to start. They must introduce the poem with the title and the name of the poet.

Lesson Three

The competition continues. Ensure children are reflecting on both the clarity of the performance and how well the performers convey the meaning of the poem. Give everyone a chance to tall up their marks at the end and then collect the voting papers. You might wish to show some poetry performances (such as John Agard’s Poetry Jump Up) to inspire the children or to fill time whilst you count the ballot papers. Announce the results and award the prizes! Why not get some of the winners to perform their poems in assembly or for parents at a half-term assembly.

Everyone in the class has been involved in this competition. It is not elitist. It is not “public school”. Poetry is for everyone and can be enjoyed by everyone!

Website support

There is an excellent website, called Perform-a-Poem, organised by Children’s Laureate Michael Rosen, giving many tips on getting children to perform poetry. Do check it out! Here is a super example from the Perform-a-Poem website on how a poem can be performed.

http://performapoem.lgfl.org.uk/public/VC2_Player.swf

Advertisements

Tiananmen by James Fenton

tiananmenIn June 1989, hundreds of innocent civilians were massacred in Beijing in an uprising by students campaigning for democracy. This memorable poem, Tiananmen by James Fenton (born 1949) is a powerful, but accessible, reflection on the incident. I used this poem with a Year 5 class and, even though they were unaware of the incident, they brought many intelligent thoughts to the discussion, especially when confronted by the most famous image of this event in history.

Tiananmen
Is broad and clean
And you can’t tell
Where the dead have been
And you can’t tell
What happened then
And you can’t speak
Of Tiananmen.

Here is the full text of the poem. Below is a video showing the most striking image of the events in the square – a young man stands in front of a tank and will not let it pass. You could show this video, with or without the soundtrack which contains a poem by Rod Kerr.

Possible activities with this poem

I think I began with the text of this poem and just put it out there to the class. I asked them to read it in pairs, and note down a couple of questions on whiteboards which they would like to ask about the poem. I didn’t give them any clues about it and I didn’t even tell them what Tiananmen was or why it was important.

These are some of the possible questions:

Why are there dead people?
Where is Tiananmen? What happened there?
Why are you not allowed to think? Why are you not allowed to write things down?
Who are the ‘cruel men’? Why are they ‘ready to kill’?

It would be good at this stage, to move towards some kind of class or group performance of the poem. By now, children should have gathered what the appropriate mood is for the poem. The vocabulary is very simple and straightforward, though the meaning is deep.

At this stage, you may wish to reveal the picture (above, or similar) of the student facing up the tank. Alternatively, you could show the whole incident in the Youtube clip. I found that children were fascinated by this and suddenly the meaning of the poem fell into place.

Read the poem again. And look again at the questions posed at the beginning. Then, broaden out the discussion with questions such as:

What is democracy?
Why do people feel it is important to cast a vote for how their country is run?
Will you vote when you grow up?
Do you think children should have a vote?
For which things do we vote in school (eg school councils, class captains)? Why do we do this?
How does it make you feel when you vote?
Can you think of anywhere in the world where people cannot vote?
How does this make them feel?

Wonderful poems about the rain

When it is raining outside, don’t close the blinds in your classroom. I know it can be a terrible distraction if children are looking out of the window at the weather, but why not turn it into a creative moment?

I want to suggest a couple of poems you could use. These could lead to discussion, vocabulary work, and ultimately to children trying to find their own poetic voices. If you have an outdoor classroom, this would be a great time to use it. Get the coats on, and get outside. Find somewhere dry-ish and listen to these poems.

First up is April Rain Song by Langston Hughes (1902-1967). Hughes was an American poet and activist. Among his work is a fascinating book of poetry about jazz music. The poem can be found in One Hundred Years of Poetry for Children (Oxford, 2007), edited by Michael Harrison and Christopher Stuart-Clark. This is a short, but beautiful, poem about the rain. You might want to ask children to go outside and think of as many words to describe the rain first. Make a class list. How many are positive about the rain, and how many negative? Then read them this poem, very slowly. It begins:

Let the rain kiss you
Let the rain beat upon your head with silver liquid drops
Let the rain sing you a lullaby

Questions to ask about this poem:
How does the poet feel about the rain?
Which words does he use to describe it?
Who is the poet speaking to when he uses the word ‘you’?
From which country does the poet come? How do we know this from the poem?
How do you feel about the rain? How can it be a beautiful thing?
Can you think of an occasion when you, too, have loved the rain?

There is a glorious video of the poem here:

And another one here from the New York Botanical Gardens:

Another poem about the rain

The second poem to consider (on the same page of the book mentioned above) is There will come soft rains by Sara Teasdale (1884-1933). She was an American poet, from Missouri, and had a rather tragic life. Here is the beginning of it:

There will come soft rains and the smell of the ground,
And swallows circling with their shimmering sound;

And frogs in the pools, singing at night,
And wild plum trees in tremulous white,

The poem was published in 1920, not long after the end of the First World War. Here is the full text. Here is a video version of the poem:

This poem could fit into your project about the First World War, but it could also be considered alongside other weather poems, and leading into a deeper meaning.

Possible activities in the classroom

Just give this poem to children, perhaps in Years 5 or 6, and challenge them to explain what it is about. Don’t give them any introduction about it or any images to tease them. Then ask:

When do you think this poem was written?
Was it written by a man or a woman? Why?
Which war are they writing about?
How does nature respond to this war?
What point is the poet trying to make about war?

There are plenty more poems about the rain on the Poem Hunter website. I would be interested to know if you have used any, and which were effective.

 

Citizen of the World by Dave Calder

There has never been a more important time to address issues of refugees, alienation and racism. With feelings running high in many countries of the world – especially the UK – thirefugeess is an important subject to raise in classrooms. Many of our primary schools have welcomed children from other countries, some refugees, some seeking asylum. This poem, Citizen of the World by Dave Calder, will get the class thinking about how children must feel when they arrive in a new place, perhaps not of their own choosing. It begins:

when you are very small
maybe not quite born
your parents move
for some reason you may never understand they move
from their own town
from their own land
and you grow up in a place
that is never quite your home

The full text of the poem can be found here, along with other poems by Dave Calder. It is hard to find much information about Dave Calder, other than he edited The Usborne Book of Funny Poems.

Possible activities

Start the lesson by asking children what the word ‘home’ means to them. Make a list of class responses and some typical vocabulary.

Then show them a picture, such as the one above. Here are some possible discussion questions:
Who are these people?
Where are they going?
How are they feeling? Look at their faces.
Why do people have to leave one country and go to another?
What does the word ‘home’ mean to them? How does this compare to your idea of ‘home’ discussed earlier?

Perhaps someone in your class could share a story from personal experience of moving from one place to another. Perhaps someone has had to move to another country, not of their own choosing.

Then read, and experience, the poem. Ask children what they like about it, and what puzzles them about it. What does the line ‘with a smile or a fist‘ mean?

More poems about refugees

Other poems about refugees include We Refugees by Benjamin Zephaniah, though the reading is not by him.

This video is of a poem by a 12-year-old girl called Reema who had to flee Syria after her school was bombed. It was made by Oxfam America.

If you have suggestions of other poems about refugees, I would be pleased to receive them.

Everyone Sang by Siegfried Sassoon

This is a well-known poem by Siegfried Sassoon, written shortly after the signing of the Armistice in 1918.

Everyone suddenly burst out singing;
And I was filled with such delight
As prisoned birds must find in freedom,
Winging wildly across the white
Orchards and dark-green fields;
on–on–and out of sight.

Everyone’s voice was suddenly lifted;
And beauty came like the setting sun:
My heart was shaken with tears; and horror
Drifted away … O, but Everyone
Was a bird; and the song was wordless;
the singing will never be done.

Siegfried Sassoon

Here is a video of some secondary school children performing the poem.

There is a suggested lesson plan on this poem on the Poetry Archive. You can listen to Sassoon reading his own poem here.

Suggested activities

Begin with a picture of celebrations of World War One ending, then lead into the poem itself. Or begin with the words (this is what I did). Work towards a class performance. Do not discuss the meaning yet. Get children very familiar with the text itself. Give pairs one line of the poem and get them to learn it and rehearse it together. This should lead to a full class performance without having to refer to the text.

Whisper lines. Shout lines. Exaggerate lines. Respect lines. Say lines fast. Say lines slow. Say lines on your own. Say lines as a group. Say lines as a whole class.

Then think about these questions:
What were they celebrating?
Pick out words from the text which suggest a mood of joy and hope.
Why should they suddenly sing?
What is the setting for the poem? Which year is it? What has just happened?
Why is song important at a time like this?

Work towards a class performance which could be filmed. Ask a group to research pictures on the internet which could be used as a backdrop for the performance. Or record audio to accompany a Powerpoint or Moviemaker version of the poem.

 

Teaching the Holocaust through children’s poetry

Is the Holocaust a subject which is appropriate for learning in primary schools? My answer would be an emphatic ‘yes’. I was fortunate to be a student teacher at a village school which tackled this very subject as part of its World War Two project with a mixed Year Five/Six class.

Our main text for the unit was The Diary of Anne Frank which fascinated the children as they could identify with this young girl. My supporting text was the wonderful book Rose Blanche by Ian McEwan which examines resistance to the Nazis from within Germany, particularly by young people.

We also went on a school trip to The National Holocaust Centre and Museum at Newark in Nottinghamshire. The centre has a special programme for primary school children, called The Journey, which teaches about the Holocaust at an age-appropriate level and through the eyes of children. We were also fortunate enough to have a talk, followed by a question-and-answer session with a lady who had been on the Kinder Transport. You can watch a short video of children from various schools talking about their visit here.

So what can poetry add to primary children’s experience of learning about the Holocaust? Well the International School for Holocaust Studies has a series of poems, linked with artwork, which are accessible and suitable for Key Stage Three children. I think some of them could also be studied by Year Five/ Six children. Take Shema by Primo Levi.

Levi, a chemist, was deported to Auschwitz and survived the war. His novels and poems make powerful reading. You can read the full text of the poem here. There is also an illustrated version of the poem which can be downloaded from this link. This is an extract:

Consider whether this is a man,
Who labors in the mud
Who knows no peace
Who fights for a crust of bread
Who dies at a yes or a no.

There are teachers’ notes with the poem, so there is no point me repeating them here. As with many of my suggested poetry activities, it might be useful to begin with the image (which shows three figures – two Holocaust victims, and one from the generation which survived). You could discuss who they might be, what lives they might have had, and how they are different.

I think that study of this poem does assume some knowledge already of the Holocaust, and it may be that it would fit in towards the end of a unit which has included learning about Anne Frank. Certainly the five lines shown above have enough in them to stimulate a mature debate about the rights of humankind. The debate could also be broadened to include discussion of discrimination in the world today.

Here is a video from the Yad Vashem project about the poem. Judge for yourself whether you think this is suitable for Years 5 and 6, but I think most children could cope with this content and would be interested to learn about it.

There is also a collection of poems written by children whilst in the Terezin ghetto and concentration camp in Czechoslovakia. Here is a link to them. Pavel Friedman’s poem The Butterfly is especially powerful. It tells of the very last butterfly seen in the ghetto:

The last, the very last,
So richly, brightly, dazzlingly yellow.
Perhaps if the sun’s tears would sing
against a white stone …

I think children could easily relate to this poem. Pavel is believed to have been 17 when he wrote it. He died in 1944 at Auschwitz and it wasn’t until after his death that the poem was discovered. The full text of the poem is on the above link. The poem could easily be used as a stimulus to artwork portraying the horror of the camps in contrast to the enduring beauty of nature. There is a song inspired by this poem here.

If you have used any poems about the Holocaust at primary level, I would be interested to hear about them and add them to this page. Similarly, if you have experience of primary children writing their own poetry about the Holocaust, please send me any examples which I could add here.

Note

National Holocaust Memorial Day is on January 27th 2015. You can find resources here.

Tackling loneliness: poems and songs you could use

I often use song lyrics in poetry lessons. Usually I would examine the text first and only play the song to the children at the end of the lesson. A really interesting session on loneliness can be had by using a couple of popular songs and linking them to poems on the same theme.

You could begin with a picture portraying loneliness or solitude, such as this. Ask the children to talk about what is going on. Ask them to come up with three adjectives describing how the man is feeling. Make a list of this vocabulary on the board. Discuss why this man is begging, what might have happened in his life. Ask the children if they have seen homeless people on the streets, especially in busy towns or cities.

lonely

Then hand out the lyrics of The Streets of London, a folk song written and performed by Ralph McTell. Here’s the first verse:

Have you seen the old man
In the closed-down market
Kicking up the paper,
with his worn out shoes?
In his eyes you see no pride
Hand held loosely at his side
Yesterday’s paper telling yesterday’s news

You can find the full lyrics here.

Read through all of the lyrics. Use the Questions Cards for a Poem approach if that helps. Ask pairs to come up with ideas why these people are homeless. Ask them about their favourite phrases in the song, such as “Yesterday’s paper telling yesterday’s news”. Can you add any more vocabulary to the list on the board?

Then play the children the video of the song (written in 1970). This includes an interesting interview with Ralph McTell explaining why he wrote the song and why it has lasted so long.

At this stage, children could be thinking about their own poem, based on a character feeling alone. An old person who is bereaved? A homeless young person in a city? A child in a new school without friends? Their poem could begin: Have you seen…?

If you want to develop this further, look at The Beatles’ song Eleanor Rigby, (written in 1966) and its refrain:

All the lonely people
Where do they all come from?
All the lonely people
Where do they all belong?

Find the full lyrics here. Who was Eleanor Rigby? Why was Father McKenzie also alone? How did their stories come together? Who is lonely in society today? What can we do to help them? The song is seen as a lament for lonely people and a comment on post-war society.

There is a brilliant cover version of the song by Ray Charles here:

Children could compare the two songs. Which is most effective? Which is your favourite line in either song? Why were the songs so popular?

If you wish to bring in a poem which looks at the issue of loneliness, you could look at Alone in the Grange by Gregory Harrison. I have a separate page looking at how you could use this page.

My Mother Saw A Dancing Bear by Charles Causley

bearCharles Causley (1917-2003) was a schoolmaster and poet from Cornwall. Probably his most famous poem is ‘Timothy Winters’ which appears in many collections. You can find out more about him, and listen to him reading some of his poems here. There is a Charles Causley Society devoted to continuing interest in his work.

This is a poem which worked well for me in the classroom and really got children talking about a serious subject – cruely to animals. Is it right to keep animals in captivity to perform to the public?

My mother saw a dancing bear
By the schoolyard, a day in June.
The keeper stood with chain and bar
And whistle-pipe, and played a tune.

There is a link to the full text here.

Here is a video of children reading the poem. There are some images on the video, but nothing unpleasant. The children reading the poem have added some extra verses themselves.

Some suggested activities

Read the poem and ask children to respond. Use the five questions approach.

Talk about the moods in the poem – why are the children laughing in the beginning? How was the bear feeling in the summer heart? How was the keeper speaking to the bear? Can you speak like the keeper was speaking? Why was the keeper handing round a begging-cup? Why did the laughter stop? Why did the bear (bruin) have aching eyes? How did the crowd feel at the end? Draw an emotions timeline for the poem.

Re-write the poem from the point of view of the bear. What is he or she thinking? What would the bear say to the crowd if it could speak?

Why do you think Charles Causley wrote this poem? What is his message? Does he approve of animals performing in public? Can you think of any animals you have seen performing in public? Who benefits from this? How did it make you feel? Should it be allowed?

 

Carol Ann Duffy in the classroom

duffyThis charming poem is called F for Fox and is by Carol Ann Duffy, the Poet Laureate since 2009, and taken from her book New & Collected Poetry for Children. Faber and Faber (2009). I really like this collection. It is very accessible for children and the language play is very enjoyable. There is a sequence of poems about musicians which could be used in a series of lessons introducing children to different types of music and poetry to go along with them.

F for Fox is a playful, clever poem in which all the key words begin with the letter F. Here is a link to the full text. Here are a few lines to give you a taster. (I cannot find a video of this poem anywhere.)

The fox fled over the fields away from the farm and the furious farmer.
His fur was freaked.
His foxy face was frantic as he flew. A few feathers fluttered out of his mouth.
The fox had broken his fast with a feast of fowl!

Possible activities

1. Have fun with reading and performing it. Use group work, individuals and pairs.

2. Ask children about the language features. Obviously alliteration will figure quite highly. But what else is there?

3. Discuss how the poet approached this poem. Was it as simple as listing loads of words beginning with F? When you look closely, it is a very clever, and difficult trick to pull off!

4. Take another letter. I think we chose M. Ask children to work in pairs or individually to write as many words as they can which begin with M. Ask them to divide their sheets into categories eg names, places, adjectives, adverbs and so on.

5. Ask them to choose the name of one of their M characters and build up a word picture of them. Eg Moody Maisie from Manchester carried a magnificent map. Share these in a plenary, highlighting uses of different techniques. Swap ideas, steal ideas.

6. Then ask the children to try to construct a simple story for their character, using the lists of vocabulary, ticking off each word as they have used it. The task is harder than you might imagine. Urge the children to make every word count. The results will be hilarious and great fun!

Shakespeare in the primary classroom

Can primary pupils cope with Shakespeare? The simple answer is yes. They are fascinated by codes, and the code of Shakespeare’s language presents them with problems which they love to solve.

I worked with small groups looking at the Prologue to Romeo and Juliet:

Two households, both alike in dignity,
In fair Verona, where we lay our scene,
From ancient grudge break to new mutiny,
Where civil blood makes civil hands unclean.
From forth the fatal loins of these two foes

A pair of star-cross’d lovers take their life;
Whose misadventured piteous overthrows
Do with their death bury their parents’ strife.
The fearful passage of their death-mark’d love,
And the continuance of their parents’ rage,
Which, but their children’s end, nought could remove,
Is now the two hours’ traffic of our stage;
The which if you with patient ears attend,
What here shall miss, our toil shall strive to mend.

You will need to do a fair amount of text work with the children, as well as explaining the context of the Prologue. You can watch a very exciting YouTube version of this.

(There are a number of guns in this short video. I think it would be acceptable for years five and six, but please use your own judgement). The film really gives an exciting backdrop to the Prologue and will make children want to find out more about Shakespeare.

Possible activities

You might want to work towards a written modern translation of the Prologue or you might just wish to bring this out in discussion. Perhaps the best way to treat this is to move the tables and chairs out of the way and explore it through drama. Get the children into the ‘two foes’, let’s see the ‘star-cross’d lovers’ and their parents’ strife. You could ask individuals or groups to memorise certain lines or phrases. You could have a series of narrators. You could take a short phrase and see how many ways you could deliver it. Work towards a whole class performance of this prologue. Think about anger, mystery, outrage, anticipation. Film it yourself and let the children watch themselves.

Another passage which children will enjoy is a speech by Jaques in Shakespeare’s As You Like It (II, vii). Here is the whole thing.

All the world’s a stage,
And all the men and women merely players;
They have their exits and their entrances,
And one man in his time plays many parts,
His acts being seven ages.

At first, the infant,
Mewling and puking in the nurse’s arms.

Then the whining schoolboy, with his satchel
And shining morning face, creeping like snail
Unwillingly to school….

And then the lover,
Sighing like furnace, with a woeful ballad
Made to his mistress’ eyebrow.

Then a soldier,
Full of strange oaths and bearded like the pard,
Jealous in honor, sudden and quick in quarrel,
Seeking the bubble reputation
Even in the cannon’s mouth…

And then the justice,
In fair round belly with good capon lined,
With eyes severe and beard of formal cut,
Full of wise saws and modern instances;
And so he plays his part.

The sixth age shifts
Into the lean and slippered pantaloon,
With spectacles on nose and pouch on side;
His youthful hose, well saved, a world too wide
For his shrunk shank, and his big manly voice,
Turning again toward childish treble, pipes
And whistles in his sound.

Last scene of all,
That ends this strange eventful history,
Is second childishness and mere oblivion,
Sans teeth, sans eyes, sans taste, sans everything. 

Watch a video performance of this speech here.

Possible activities

Allocate one ‘age’ to each group. Ask them to prepare a performance, look up any strange words, include drama if possible or mime. Ask them to find pictures on the internet to illustrate their age. Perhaps they could make a powerpoint of the words, accompanied by their own images. Film the final performance.

If you have other passages of Shakespeare which primary children have enjoyed, I would be very interested to hear about them.

Poet Brian Moses kindly contacted us to suggest using the opening of Macbeth. What fun children could have with the vocabulary spoken by the three witches. I used this with a small drama group and asked the non-speakers to make sound effects to accompany the words. The actors made spooky swirling motions with their bodies and adopted suitable gnarled voices. Great fun! Get the children to learn this by heart and put their scripts away.

ACT I  SCENE I  A desert place.
[Thunder and lightning. Enter three Witches]
First Witch When shall we three meet again
In thunder, lightning, or in rain?
Second Witch When the hurlyburly’s done,
When the battle’s lost and won.
Third Witch That will be ere the set of sun. 5
First Witch Where the place?
Second Witch Upon the heath.
Third Witch There to meet with Macbeth.
First Witch I come, graymalkin!
Second Witch Paddock calls. 10
Third Witch Anon!
ALL Fair is foul, and foul is fair:
Hover through the fog and filthy air.
[Exeunt]

 

 

Challenge your class to write a poem containing five devices

I wanted to revise poetic devices with my class, so I challenged them to write a poem about their favourite place. It had to contain:

a simile
a metaphor
alliteration
personification
– an idiom

I asked them to label them in different colours and be prepared to share them with the rest of the class. This was rather a false situation and was unlikely to produce great poetry, but I just wanted them to think about different devices and varying their approach to writing.

To get the class going, I showed them a picture of my lounge, along with this poem, written by me. Not great, but containing everything I wished to highlight:

My favourite place

I am going to the place
Where I feel safe,
Rows of books like teeth in a big smile,
The red sofas a huge hug waiting for me,
Crazy cushions cover every corner,
The coffee table complains under the
Weight of paper, pens, toys and cups;
A place of peace, a window on the world.
When I’ve got the blues I return to
My favourite room.

Preludes by TS Eliot

This was, perhaps, my biggest gamble as a poetry teacher but it really paid off. I noticed that part of T S Eliot’s Preludes was included in the excellent poetry collection, Sensational, edited by Roger McGough. It also appeared in a transition unit for use between Years 6 and 7. Preludes is a four-verse poem in which a hidden observer describes dusk on a winter’s evening in a poor part of the city. We don’t know exactly where, or necessarily when, though the poem was written in 1920.

In a sense, we do not need to know anymore because we want children to use the language to imagine where we are and what is going on. For this lesson, I just used Preludes Part I. There is enough in here to support a whole week of literacy. (Please note that the other parts do contain themes unsuitable for primary age children). It begins like this:

The winter evening settles down
With smells of steaks in passageways.
Six o’clock.
The burnt-out ends of smoky days.

(TS Eliot, 1888–1965)

I read the full Part I to the class and then displayed a series of pictures, partly suggested by the text. Which picture would they choose and why? These are a couple of the images I found:

Prelude 1prelude 2

The last two lines of Part I are:

And at the corner of the street
A lonely cab-horse steams and stamps.

I asked the children to discuss this cab-horse. Who is inside? Where have they come from? Who are they meeting? Why is the cab-horse lonely? Why is it stamping? Is it anxious to get somewhere?
From these questions, children can begin to construct a mood and a scenario. You might wish to begin writing an alternative version with the children’s own vocabulary. You might wish to turn this into prose and construct a story around this bleak image.
Here is an example of one poem written by a Year 5 pupil:

The Station (inspired by Preludes by TS Eliot)

The veil of mist shrouds all
As the girl glances back.
Gears grinding.
The train heaves down its track
And now the veil of mist is back.
The girl on the train
Fiddles with her feet.

The train chugs away from the strife,
Brought on by her life.
She orders from the trolley
And readies her brolley
For outside, the rain is reluctant
To cease its fire at the earth.
But she likes the rain.

(Max Crossland)

I think you will agree that this is a pretty impressive effort. It was highly commended in the John Betjeman Poetry Competition.

You can read the full text of Preludes here.

Words and images from Preludes have, of course, been used in the production of TS Eliot’s Cats poems for the stage, particularly in the song Memory. Here is a video of the song, sung by Elaine Paige, which could also be used as a stimulus for writing. Children could also try to spot which parts of the poem appear in the song.

 

 

How to write your first poem

I learned this technique at university. It is fairly straightforward, and any child can attempt it. The process can also produce a wide variety of poetry on many different levpoetry-events-for-kidsels. This is a good way to begin a series of lessons in which children will be writing poetry. They will probably think writing poetry is difficult (and has to rhyme!). This should show them it is fairly easy. See what you think.

The activity

1. Give each child a blank piece of A4 paper and a pencil. Ask them to write their name in the centre of the piece of paper and draw a circle around it.

2. Now ask children to write down around their name, and branching out from it, any different roles they play in their lives. For instance, they could write son, sister, cousin, gymnast, swimmer, guide, friend, Lego modeller, skateboarder, puzzler, grand-daughter etc. Ask them to write about eight to ten words. If they struggle, model it yourself on the board. (Inevitably you will get the ‘footballer’ description, but remember this will be one of ten). Share some of the results, giving children who have only written a few time to add extra ideas.

3. Now the teacher must model turning each of those descriptions into a line in a poem. For instance, if they have written ‘brother’, the line could be:

I am the brother who cleans out the hamster

Each line will be in the pattern of:

I am the xxxxx who xxxxxxxxxxxx

Here are some more examples:

I am the daughter who cares for her granny,

I am the swimmer who jumps from the diving board,

I am the chess player who checkmates my dad

4. I suggest you model a few lines in a poem about yourself, taking each of the headings in turn. The last line of the poem simply will refer to the child themselves: I am John. Please avoid rhyming as this can lead to some terribly forced vocabulary. There is a time and place for rhyming, but this isn’t it!

The results

You should end up with poems of eight to ten lines, each starting I am. When I have tried this in classrooms, the result has been a wide variety of poems, some silly, some very basic, but others quite moving.

The lesson could conclude with children performing their poems to their partner, as a rehearsal, and then to the whole class. Tell the children that they have begun to discover their own poetic voices.

Please, no colouring

What is it about poetry that seems to end up with every poem written by children being decorated? We don’t decorate essays or comprehension! Allow the words to speak for themselves. They don’t need pretty pictures round them!

The Gresford Disaster by Anonymous

The Gresford Disaster was a real-life tragedy that happened in 1932 at Gresford Colliery near Wrexham. An explosion killed 266 men and boys. Poor mine management was blamed for causing the tragedy. Should children be exposed to an incident like this? Should they be shielded from real-life disasters?

gresford2

Well I would argue that the average year four, five or six can cope with this, and experience has shown that they are fascinated by it. They have many questions: What happened? Why did it happen? Who was to blame? Could it happen again? Here is a link to a Wikipedia article about it.

Here is the full poem. The identity of the writer is not known. By the way, the Dennis was the name of one of the two shafts. The other was called the Martin.

You’ve heard of the Gresford disaster,
The terrible price that was paid;
Two hundred and forty two colliers were lost
And three men of a rescue brigade.

It occurred in the month of September;
At three in the morning that pit
Was wracked by a violent explosion
In the Dennis where dust lay so thick.

The gas in the Dennis deep section
Was packed like snow in a drift,
And many a man had to leave the coal face
Before he had worked out his shift.

A fortnight before the explosion
To the shot-firer,Tomlinson cried:
‘If you fire that shot we’ll all be blown to hell!’
And no one can say that he lied.

The fireman’s reports they are missing,
The records of forty-two days,
The colliery manager had them destroyed
To cover his criminal ways.

Down there in the dark they are lying,
They died for nine shillings a day;
They’ve worked out their shift and it’s now they must lie
In the darkness until Judgement Day.

The Lord Mayor of London’s collecting
To help both the children and wives.
The owners have sent some white lilies
To pay for the colliers’ lives.

Farewell our dear wives and our children,
Farewell our dear comrades as well.
Don’t send your sons in the dark dreary mine
They’ll be damned like the sinners in Hell.

(Anonymous)

This song by contemporary folk singer Seth Lakeman is also believed to be about the Gresford Disaster, though the number of victims differs from the poem. It is on Youtube bu audio only.

This is a rather badly filmed, but live version, of the song.

Possible lesson structure:

1. Show children a picture such as the one at the top of this page. Where was this photograph taken? Look at the clothes the people are wearing. When was it taken? What are the people waiting for? What are they saying to each other?

2. Get the discussion going but do not give any answers. List the different ideas on the board.

3. Then show the poem to the children. Read it to them. Ask them in pairs to come up with a question about it, and note some of these down. Ask different groups to prepare a verse each for a class performance. Then listen to each of the groups, so the whole poem ends up getting performed.

4. Through discussion, talk about what has happened. Who seems to get the blame? Now, who are the people in our picture and what are they waiting for? Then link in to the Seth Lakeman song below (about the same incident). What do children think about the song? What is the message for today? Why are people still singing about it? Is it bad taste to write a poem or a song about a disaster? Is song more powerful than words? Which modern disasters should we remember in song?

My experience using this poem:

I introduced a Year Five class to the narrative poem, The Gresford Disaster. We discussed the idea of an ‘anonymous’ author. I allotted each of the eight verses to a different child (volunteers) and then asked each to rehearse a reading to children around them. We then listened to the eight reading the poem. Some verses were read too quietly while other less able children stumbled over some of the words. I asked all of the class to read the last verse together. We then started a class discussion about the poem, picking apart what might have happened and who was to blame. The children enjoyed discussing why white lilies might have been sent (‘the sign of death’). We finished with reading the poem again with the eight readers taking the lead. I had intended to link this with a Youtube version of the song The Colliers by Seth Lakeman – which is based on the disaster – but the whiteboard was not working. This linked with narrative poetry unit.

The Adventures of Isabel by Ogden Nash

Ogden Nash (1902-1971) was an American poet particularly well-known for his light verse. This makes an excellent introduction into poetry for young people (though they should be reminded that there is serious stuff ahead!) This silly poem, about the adventures of Isobel, is ideal for class performance. Nash’s daughter was called Isabel, by the way.

Here is an extract:

Isabel met an enormous bear,
Isabel, Isabel, didn’t care;
The bear was hungry, the bear was ravenous,
The bear’s big mouth was cruel and cavernous.

You can read the full poem here, and also hear Ogden Nash reading it. Here is a version of him reading it, accompanied by a picture show.

Activities in class:

Keep the pens and paper in the cupboard. This lesson is all about performance and understanding. In the poem you have a bear, a witch, a giant and a doctor. Each of these speaks in the poem. You will also need a narrator.

When I used this poem, I had five groups. One group was each character, and one was the narrator. Or you could split the class into groups of five and have each one prepare a performance. There is plenty of scope for dramatic and silly reading – the witch must crow, how does a giant speak, and how does a bear speak? Groups could spice up their performances with actions and drama. They could fill in the backgrounds of their characters by imagining where they came from. Try getting rid of the tables and chairs. Work towards a creative, noisy and funny performance of this poem which could easily be learnt by heart. Good luck!

 

Don’t Call Alligator Long-Mouth till You crossed River by John Agard

This simple poem is great fun, especially for Key Stage 1 children. It is by the wonderful poet John Agard. It could easily be learned by heart by a class of children, or conducted in different parts by the teacher. It could also be used as inspiration for story-telling or artwork. Also, what does it mean? What is the message? What other animals could we write poetry about?

Here is a very simple video performance of the poem. Maybe you could make a video with your pupils.

There is a downloadable PDF resource about John Agard here.

The poems of Benjamin Zephaniah

Dis Poetry

Here is a clip of Benjamin Zephaniah performing Dis Poetry.

The poem begins:

Dis poetry is like a riddim dat drops
De tongue fires a riddim dat shoots like shots
Dis poetry is designed fe rantin
Dance hall style, big mouth chanting,

You can read the poem in full here. Children were at first confused by the words in this poem, but then they were excited. How should they decipher the language? What does it mean? How should it read? There were plenty of laughs as they tried to speak each verse, but eventually they started to see words that re-appeared and approached the rest of it as a puzzle to be solved.

According to my mood

This anarchic poem begins:

I have poetic license,
i WriTe thE way i waNt.
i drop my full stops where i like………..
MY CAPITAL LetteRs go where i liKE,

I haven’t found a reliable on-line source for this poem, and I can’t locate it in any of my poetry books. I know it appears in a school collection. Perhaps someone can remind me!

Read about Benjamin Zephaniah on the PoemHunter website.

This is the official website of Benjamin Zephaniah.

The Christmas Truce

1914The Christmas Truce in 1914 is an inspiring subject which captures the imagination of young people. I once did a lesson on the Christmas Truce, looking at two songs about the incident, but treating them initially as poems.

The two works were Pipes of Peace by Paul McCartney and Christmas 1914 by Mike Harding. Here are links to the songs:

This is the first verse of Christmas 1914 by Mike Harding. It is a beautiful poem and a lovely melody.

Christmas Eve, 1914, stars were burning, burning bright
And all along the Western Front the guns were lying still and quiet.
And men lay dozing in the trenches, in the cold and in the dark,
And far away behind the lines, a village dog began to bark.

Read the rest of the lyrics here. Christmas 1914 lyrics

Pipes of Peace lyrics – not overtly about the Truce, so should be looked at second

Suggested activities:

1. Show the picture (or similar) first. What is happening? Where are we? What is the date? Who are the people? Are they friends of enemies?

2. Look at the text of Christmas 1914. Read together. Use the five questions approach to studying the text.

3. Watch the video of the song Christmas 1914. How does this make you feel? Why wasn’t there a football match in Christmas 1915? What does this say about war?

4. Watch the Paul McCartney video of Pipes of Peace. How does this compare to the Mike Harding song? How is it different? Which do you prefer, and why?

The Sea by James Reeves

The Sea by James ReevesDSCF1767

EXTRACT

‘The sea is a hungry dog,
Giant and grey.
He rolls on the beach all day.’

This poem is excellent for developing personification and metaphor. You can read the full text of this poem here.

There is a really good analysis of this poem, with biographical details about James Reeves here.

Listen to the poet reading it here.

This video has been produced with simple pictures to illustrate the words.

Classroom activities and questions:

Rehearse a class performance of the poem, with different groups working on different verses. Think about using different voices, speaking together, actions, different volume, speaking in sympathy with the words.

Draw a picture based on the words you have heard.

Look for examples of personification and metaphor in the poem.

Try replacing them with examples of your own.

Brainstorm words matching the different moods of the sea. Write your own poem about the sea.

 

James Reeves (1909-1978)

An example lesson of getting pupils to write poems

This is another extract from my dissertation. It describes just one poetry lesson, based on a wonderful poem, Alone in the Grange, by Gregory Harrison which can be found in Pyott, L (ed), (1985), The Possum Tree: 161 poems for children. London: A&C Black. 

7.1 On my final year placement, I managed to negotiate a lesson to try to put into practice some of the approaches I had learnt about during my dissertation. I was teaching a mixed Year 5/6 class. In the end, I was left with one lesson for poetry so I decided to use one of my favourite poems, ‘Alone in the Grange’ by Gregory Harrison, about a mysterious old man who lives in an old shuttered house. It has a distinctive pattern beginning:

Strange,
Strange,
Is the little old man
Who lives in the Grange.
Old,
Old;
And they say that he keeps
A box full of gold.

I began by asking the children simply to read it through. I then invited four children to the front to read a verse each. I wanted the children to become familiar with the text before they started to discuss its meaning, so I continued by asking them to come up with different ways of saying the key words such as strange, old and soft. I encouraged them to use different voices and emphases.

7.2 I then asked children to work in pairs to consider: If the poet were to walk in the room now, what would you ask him? The responses were written on post-it notes and I read these out to the whole class. Many children wanted to know whether the old man was real, who it was based on, and whether he was really a magician. Others wished to know why he was lonely. I collected the notes together and stuck them on the board – and later referred to them as possible answers to the questions emerged from the lesson. I then asked children to work in groups to come up with a description of the old man using their own words. This produced some interesting and imaginative answers. One group thought the man looked like Gollum from ‘Lord of the Rings’, and another said he was more like Yoda from the ‘Star Wars’ films, so I asked one of the Year 6 pupils to find pictures on the internet and display them on the whiteboard.

7.3 We discussed the different ideas and I made a spidergram on the board of vocabulary to describe the old man. In literacy, I like to use children’s suggestions to make a visible wordbank. This particularly helps children of lower ability to get started, and I make a point of saying I do not mind anyone ‘stealing’ words from the board. I then modelled an opening to my poem, staying close to the structure used by Gregory Harrison. I wrote my own first verse, explaining my thought processes and making alterations and improvements as I progressed. I then asked the class to offer comments or suggestions to make it better, and made further changes. I wished to emphasise the importance of writing a first draft and then changing and improving it.

7.4 I then asked children to use their rough books to construct their own opening verses. Given the short time limit for the lesson, I suggested they keep to Harrison’s structure: in a longer series of lessons, I would have given children more freedom. I also made it clear I did not expect the poem to rhyme, although some still insisted on trying.

7.5 I was very impressed by many of the contributions. A very low ability girl, after a short one-to-one discussion with me, came up with:

Grumpy
Grumpy
Is the worthless old man
Who lives in the grey empty school house.

One of the most pleasing pieces of work was from a lower ability Year 5 boy who began his poem:

Scary
Scary
Is the manky man
In the mysterious house.

His poem went on to talk about the man’s grumpy dog, and his mad wife ‘who he killed with a knife’. This boy rarely completes work in literacy, but he had finished four verses of his poem and gone on to illustrate the work.

A higher ability Year 6 came up began with some fairly deep characterisation which posed plenty of questions for the reader:

Homeless
Homeless
Is the troubled man
Who never stops to say hello.

One of my favourite poems came from a lower ability Year 5 boy who often struggled with writing but was often able to come up with unusual ideas and images. He called his poem ‘The Curse’:

Fat
Fat
Is the man
Who eats marshmallows.
Blood red,
Blood red,
Is the colour of his burning eyes.
Heartless,
Heartless,
Is his glare which haunts his victims.
Strange,
Strange,
Is his curse that comes when the moon is full.
Hairy,
Hairy,
Is his dark fur which is stained with blood.
Cure,
Cure,
Is what he’s been looking for, ever since it happened.

7.6 Considering there was only an hour for this topic, I was very impressed with the overall quality of the poems written. I was particularly pleased that many of the most interesting images came from lower ability children, not known for the quality of their writing, or for completing tasks in normal lesson time. I could have improved the lesson by giving more time to immersing children in poetry – perhaps sharing with them several poems on the same theme, before moving on to Harrison’s. I could also have begun the lesson with an arresting image of a strange old man and asked children to brainstorm ideas before introducing the poem. I did manage to find time later in the week for children to make final copies of their poems. By this stage, I had been able to give written feedback to them on their first drafts. The final versions were free from crossings out and would have been suitable to put into a class anthology.