How to get your class to perform a poem

Performing poetry? Isn’t that a bit elitist? A teacher once said to me how performing poetry was very “public school”. How much farther from the truth could you get?
There is no better way to get children animated and excited about a poem than performing it. Here are a few tips:
1. Divide the poem into verses. Ask pairs or groups of children to perform (not read) their couple of lines.
2. Ask children to decide how to perform the lines. You could put these questions on the board:
Loud or quiet?
Fast or slow?
Serious or funny?
Silly voices or normal voices?
One voice at a time or everyone together?
Should you add actions or drama?
Do you need sound effects?
Which words should you exaggerate?
3. 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.
4. Film it and put it on the school website.
5. Perform it for a parents’ assembly or in front of the rest of the school. If there’s a repeated chorus, get the whole school to join in.

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.

Here are some CBBC stars performing poems:

Here is Michael Rosen performing Chocolate Cake:

Here are some children performing poetry. Your class could watch these and suggest how the performance could be improved.

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.

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).

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.

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!

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.

How to start a poetry lesson

I used to start my poetry lessons in exactly the same way. I used the poem Poetry Jump Up by the brilliant John Agard. I would show the video below (which can be found on YouTube). At first, the children enjoyed watching it, especially the funny moments. After a few weeks, they were joining in with it and anticipating the (slightly!) rude words towards the end. By the end of the term, they knew most of the poem by heart. If I tried to vary the beginning, I would get complaints that they didn’t have Poetry Jump Up. I found this video was suitable for anyone from Year 2 to Year 6. If you have different beginnings to poetry lessons, I would be interested to hear your suggestions. (You will need to double click on this link to watch it.)

Find out more about John Agard here, and listen to him reading another of his poems.