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.

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