Whatif by Shel Silverstein

Everyone has secret fears, often hidden inside – and children are no exception. This poem, Whatif by Shel Silverstein, articulates the anxieties of a young person. The fears range from not doing well in a school test, to a late bus, to parents breaking up, and even to death itself.

Shel Silverstein (1930-1999) was an American poet, singer-songwriter and cartoonist. Here is how the poem opens:

Last night, while I lay thinking here,
Some Whatifs crawled inside my ear
And pranced and partied all night long
And sang their same old Whatif song:
Whatif I’m dumb in school?
Whatif they’ve closed the swimming pool?

Read the full text of the poem here.

This is a really fun version of the poem (note: it begins with flashing images).

Suggested activities
This poem could be really useful in a PSHE context, especially if there are particular children in your class suffering from anxieties.

Read the poem out to the children and work towards a class performance. Share lines out to individuals, pairs and groups and get the children really familiar with the feel of the poem and its meaning.

Then, the children could work in groups, with large pieces of card, listing their own anxieties from the trivial (losing their ruler) to the serious things they are worried about. Perhaps there could be a scale across the top of the sheet from 1 to 10 and they could write their worries in the appropriate places.

Children could then start taking these fears and working them into a poem, similar to Silverstein’s. You will note that Silverstein rhymes pairs of lines, but I would not advise this approach with children, until some are very keen to give it a go.

You can read more poems by Shel Silverstein at Poetry Soup.

 

In Just-spring by e e cummins

What would children make of the experimental American poet e e cummins (1894-1962)? Well, there’s only one way to find out! Cummins played about with poetic form and language, to such an extent that his poems do not really look like many other poems. He breaks all the rules – capital letters, punctuations, length of lines and so on. But it is because his poetry is so anarchic that he appeals to children. They enjoy making sense of his strange structures and they like the way he plays with words. Welcome to free verse!

A good poem for them to start with is In Just-spring, the apparently simple tale of a balloon man and some children playing. Here is how it begins (and note the layout):

in Just-
spring          when the world is mud-
luscious the little
lame balloonman

 

whistles          far          and wee

 

and eddieandbill come
running from marbles and
piracies and it’s
spring
You can read the full text of the poem here.

Suggested activities

I think this is one of the poems which you just have to put out there for children to look at.
1. Give them a copy between two or three. Ask them to read it through a few times to themselves and to each other.
2. Discuss: What is unusual? Who do you like? What do you not understand? How is it different from the way you usually write? Hopefully, they will note the strange spacing, the running together of eddie and bill, the lack of capital letters, the inclusion of seemingly made-up words such as “mud-luscious”.
3. Then work towards some kind of class performance of the poem, or it could be performed in groups. Leave it to the children where to put in any pauses. Perhaps remind them that the end of a line in a poem is not necessarily a reason to pause.
4. Leading into writing. Imagine a story about Eddie, Bill, Betty and Isbel. What have they been doing? Where have they come from? What do they say to the goat-footed balloon man?

Some other questions to discuss:

How does the poet feel about spring?

Why is it “Just” spring?
What is “mud-luscious”?
What is it like when it is “puddle-wonderful”?
Do poems have to rhyme? What is the effect of not having rhyme or set rhythm in a poem? Do you like this?
Here is a performance of the poem by e e cummins himself (in audio) with pictures:

Another thing children could do is find images online to accompany the poem – or they could produce artwork themselves about this strange Spring scene. Here is how one group of young people illustrated the poem.

 

Joy at the Sound by Roger McGough

mcgoughRoger McGough has been described as ‘the patron saint of poetry’. Joy at the Sound is a beautiful and poignant poem with a wonderful ending. It plays with language and lends itself ideally to work in the classroom.

For an introduction to the poet, watch an interview with Roger McGough here. There is a mini presentation on this poem here, including links to some other videos.

Here is how it begins:

Joy at the silver birch in the morning sunshine
Joy at the spring-green of its fingertips

Joy at the swirl of cold milk in the blue bowl
Joy at the blink of its bubbles

Read the full text of the poem here. I cannot find a video version of a performance of this poem.

Suggested activities

Performance – divide this poem into verses. Ask pairs or groups of children to perform (not read) their couple of lines. Different voices? Varied volumes? Individual or group recitation? Actions or drama? Sound effects? Move towards a smooth and powerful class performance. Film it, or edit parts together. Or create a sound picture of the poem by recording the audio with special effects.

Artwork – create a picture, or use web images, to create a Powerpoint slideshow telling the poem. A soundtrack recitation could be added. Bring it to life! How would the moving last verse be portrayed?

Writing – after really getting to know the poem through performance or recitation, you could lead your class into writing. Brainstorm a variety of sounds which bring joy to the children. The lid of the ice cream carton being opened… the bark of your new puppy …the creak of the garden gate as the postman brings you birthday cards…

Think about the way the poet has organised his memories into pairs. How are they linked? Why has he done this? Ask the children to think about grouping their sound memories. Think about how even unappealing places (such as the dentist) can have a joyful sound associated with them.

Children can move towards finding their own poetic voices to write a version of this poem. To extend the fun, once you have given them feedback, ask the children to improve their poems and then to learn them at home. Next time, start the lesson by listening to their performances of their own work. Sounds like fun!

The British by Benjamin Zephaniah

Are children prejudiced? Do they carry around racial hatred with them? Well, in my experience, the answer is almost always ‘no’. Children do not see the colour of others, they just see them as other children – friends or otherwise. However, it is really important to reinforce tolerance and understanding at a young age. Never has this poem been more relevant than now. It would be all too easy for children to grow up reflecting the prejudices of their parents.

So this poem by Benjamin Zephaniah is excellent for classroom use, probably in Year 5 or 6. It looks at the British people as a recipe and goes back over our history to look at all the different influences which have gone into the mix we have today. Here is how the poem begins. (Silures by the way were a warlike tribe in Ancient Britain):

Take some Picts, Celts and Silures
And let them settle,
Then overrun them with Roman conquerors.

Remove the Romans after approximately 400 years
Add lots of Norman French to some
Angles, Saxons, Jutes and Vikings, then stir vigorously.

The full text of the poem can be found here. There is an excellent YouTube video of this poem which features young people sitting round a table, sharing a meal, and reciting this poem. Even Benjamin Zephaniah himself appears at the end!

Possible activities

Reflect on the make-up of your own class. How many children in the class have come from different countries? What can they tell us about these countries? Why is it important that we live together in “justice and equality”?

What does the poet mean by “justice”? Where might there not be justice in our society?
Why has the poet gone with a cooking theme? Why is it important to get all of the ingredients correct?

Look at all the detail in this poem. Write out all the different races mentioned and the dates when they came to this country. (You have about 2,000 years of history to research here!) This could lead to artwork or classroom posters or a timeline. The different ingredients could be handed out to pairs of children to research. This is what you have in the poem (you might wish to discuss if anyone is missing!):

Picts
Celts
Silures
Romans
Normans
Angles
Saxons
Jutes
Vikings
Chileans
Jamaicans
Dominicans
Trinidadians
Bajans
Ethiopians
Chinese
Vietnamese
Sudanese
Somalians
Sri Lankans
Nigerians
Pakistanis
Guyanese
Indians
Malaysians
Bosnians
Iraqis
Bangladeshis
Afghans
Spanish
Turkish
Kurdish
Japanese
Palestinians

Further reading

More mature children, possibly Key Stage Three, might like to reflect on What Stephen Lawrence Has Taught Us, also by Benjamin Zephaniah which argues that this dream of justice and equality in Britain is still some way off being realised.

The Magic Box by Kit Wright

The Magic Box by Kit Wright is a fairly well-known and used poem, popular in many classrooms. It is frequently used for a simple reason – it is good! We are asked to imagine a box into which we will put a series of items which can either by objects, memories, thoughts or hopes. Here is an extract:

I will put in the box

the swish of a silk sari on a summer night,
fire from the nostrils of a Chinese dragon,
the tip of a tongue touching a tooth.

Suggested activities

I don’t need to say too much about this poem, other than to refer you to the excellent lesson suggestions put together by The Poetry Society. The full text of the poem can be found here, together with lesson ideas. The ideas suggest activities for use with children all the way from Reception to Year 6. It is a very flexible poem which can be used at a number of levels.

In this clip, the poet reads his own poem to a group of children.

http://www.bbc.co.uk/education/clips/zkpmhyc

In this short film, a group of children perform the poem, with illustrations from their own artwork. Maybe your class could make a film of a performance.

Other information

The Magic Box by Kit Wright appears in A Poem For Every Day of the Year, chosen by Gaby Morgan (10th Anniversary Edition). There is a biography of the poet here plus the chance to read and hear other examples of his poetry.

A companion piece to look at would be My Box by Gillian Clarke (an article on this will follow shortly).