My ten favourite poems

cropped-books.jpgIn no particular order, here are my current top ten favourite poems. The list changes all the time. I have tried to include only one from each poet, but Robert Hayden’s two in the list are just so wonderful they both have to be included. I have gone for contrasting themes so that they match our every-changing moods.

  1. Those winter Sundays by Robert Hayden
  2. The Voice by Thomas Hardy
  3. Frederick Douglass by Robert Hayden
  4. Walking Away by Cecil Day Lewis
  5. Preludes by T.S.Eliot
  6. A poem is a city by Charles Bukowski
  7. Poetry Jump-Up by John Agard
  8. Shema by Primo Levi
  9. April Rain Song by Langston Hughes
  10. Adlestrop by Edward Thomas

And a few more…

Joy at the sound by Roger McGough
There will come soft rains by Sara Teasdale
In Time of Breaking of Nations by Thomas Hardy
So you want to be a writer by Charles Bukowski
Everyone Sang by Siegfried Sassoon
About his person by Simon Armitage
I wish I were by Rabindrath Tagore

Please let me know your favourite poems.

 

Let no one steal your dreams by Paul Cookson

I used to encourage my class to follow their dreams. I used to ask them to think of what they wanted to become – a great inventor, a doctor, a professor, a teacher, a designer, an actor, a musician… and inevitably a footballer. I told them about people I knew who had followed their dreams, no matter what setbacks they might have faced.

Once we had shared our different dreams, I asked the children to think about how they might get there. What do they have to do now to succeed in achieving that dream? I was trying to get across the idea that everything they do now, at school and at home, can play a part in the journey towards that dream. Yes, I was trying to get them to think about working hard and behaving well, but I also wanted them to consider the bigger picture and how their lives could contribute to making the world a better place.

If someone wanted to be a footballer or a wrestler, then fair enough – but I did try to suggest other occupations which might benefit the world, and also to try to break down gender expectations and move away from stereotypes.

This poem, by Paul Cookson, picks up beautifully on this idea. It is perfect for a PSHE lesson looking at jobs and growing up. It is also perfect for one of those introductory lessons when pupils meet their new teacher and are looking ahead to a new school year. This is how the poem begins:

Let no one steal your dreams
Let no one tear apart
The burning of ambition
That fires the drive inside your heart.

Let no one steal your dreams
Let no one tell you that you can’t
Let no one hold you back
Let no one tell you that you won’t.

Here is a link to the full text which can be downloaded.

Here is an unusual video performance of this poem:

Here is a video of poet Paul Cookson performing another of his poems in a workshop with children:

Suggested activities
1. Ask children to think about being grown up. What will they be doing? How can they make the world a better place?
2. Share these ideas. Then consider: what do I have to do now to make that dream come true?
3. Share with them some well-known people who have fulfilled their dreams. Ensure there are positive images of females within the selection and a good mix of cultures. Try to avoid the obvious (David Beckham etc).
4. Work towards a class performance of the poem.
5. Ask each child to write their dream down and list three things they need to do this year to make it come true. Seal these in an envelope and open them on the last day of term.

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.

Television by Roald Dahl

Television. Good or bad? Well, this poem by Roald Dahl will be familiar to many primary school pupils. It appears in Charlie and the Chocolate Factory as a song by the Oompa-Loompas. The poem tells of the dangers of children watching too much television (or any television at all) – how it dulls the senses and kills the imagination. The only antedote is reading. Who could disagree?

Well, Dahl grew up without television and this certainly didn’t seem to do him any harm. But the medium of television has helped Dahl to become the favourite author of so many children – with television and film adaptations taking his stories to so many more children, beyond the reach of the written format. This article, on the official Roald Dahl website, discusses whether Dahl was ever really anti-television or whether he was being deliberatley provocative in this controversial poem. Whatever his thoughts, this is a great talking point for children!

Here is an extract from the opening of the poem:

The most important thing we’ve learned,
So far as children are concerned,
Is never, NEVER, NEVER let
Them near your television set —
Or better still, just don’t install
The idiotic thing at all.
In almost every house we’ve been,
We’ve watched them gaping at the screen.
They loll and slop and lounge about,
And stare until their eyes pop out.

You can read the full text of the poem here. Watch a lovely version of the poem here:

Suggested activities
1. This is a long poem. Break it up. Cut it up into pieces and give pairs rhyming couplets to perform. Number them. Conduct the performance. Keep doing this until the performance is perfect. Encourage the pairs to learn their two lines and then discuss which words to emphasise, whether a silly voice is needed, and how to best bring out the comedy. Video the performance and put it on your school website.
2. Open up a discussion about television by taking phrases from the poem. Do you agree or disagree? Why?
Try all that shocking ghastly junk or
IT ROTS THE SENSE IN THE HEAD!
IT KILLS IMAGINATION DEAD! or
How used they keep themselves contented
Before this monster was invented?
3. Stage a debate in the class. Half must argue for television being the best thing, and half for books being the best thing. Ensure everyone has their say.
4. Lead into writing a persuasive argument or a discussion. Ensure you use three strong arguments to support your case – with evidence from the poem. Make sure you include a summary of the opposite argument. Rehearse persuasive language.

A Chance in France by Pie Corbett

A Chance in France

corbettI really like this poem by Pie Corbett, a great educationalist who is passionate about writing fiction and prose. This poem uses wordplay to stretch the imagination of children – and is pretty handy, too, in finding out how much they know about the world and its cities and countries.

Following the recommendation from mum to ‘stay at home’, the poet seeks to be more ambitious and courageous by heading first for France, neatly rhymed internally with France. From then on, we have a destination partnered with a rhyme – day/St Tropex, did/Madrid, tussels/Brussels. Here is how the poem begins:

‘Stay at home,’
Mum said,
But I took a chance in France,
turned grey for the day in St Tropez,
forgot what I did in Madrid,
had some tussels in Brussels
with a trio from Rio,
lost my way in Bombay,
nothing wrong in Hong Kong,
felt calmer in Palma,
and quite nice in Nice,
yes, felt finer in China,…

You can read the whole text of the poem here:

https://thehenrybrothers.wordpress.com/2011/05/04/a-chance-in-france/

Here is a video of Pie Corbett talking about writing poetry. It does not relate specifically to the task above, but gives you an idea of the man and his passion for writing.

Suggested activities
1. Begin with a class reading or performance. For advice on how to do this most effectively, follow this link.
2. Then break the poem up and give pairs one line to analyse each. Give out atlases or use the internet to research the place mentioned. Where is it? How do they speak there? What is it famous for? How long would it take to get there? What might it feel like to live there?
3. Then ask children to add more lines, perhaps using places they have been on holiday or would like to visit. Add these lines on and shuffle them about to get the best effect. Move towards a new version of the poem, all written by the children.
4. Make a class performance of the new poem and entertain the rest of the school with it at assembly. Perhaps you could do a wall display with pictures of all the places mentioned.

The Shores of Normandy

jim radford 1
Jim Radord, D-day veteran and composer.

The Shores of Normandy is an incredibly moving song written by Jim Radford in memory of the crew mates he lost on D-Day, June 6th, 1944. It can stand alone as a powerful poem, but is even more impressive as a song.

This is how the poem begins:

In the cold grey light of the sixth of June, in the year of forty-four,
The Empire Larch sailed out from Poole to join with thousands more.
The largest fleet the world had seen, we sailed in close array,
And we set our course for Normandy at the dawning of the day.

There was not one man in all our crew but knew what lay in store,
For we had waited for that day through five long years of war.
We knew that many would not return, yet all our hearts were true,
For we were bound for Normandy, where we had a job to do.

The poem goes on to tell of the experiences of a galley-boy on board the Empire Larch, a deep sea tug, as it crossed the channel and landed at Normandy. As Radford writes:

I little thought when I left home of the dreadful sights I’d see,
But I came to manhood on the day that I first saw Normandy.

This is a poem in the style of story-telling ballads. It is straight-forward, packed with action and emotion and will appeal to people of all ages.

In the video below, Jim Radford performs his composition at the Service of Remembrance at the Royal Albert Hall in November 2014.

Suggested activities

1. Begin with the words. Give the poem to the children. Do not give them the context, but ask them to highlight key words or phrases that give clues as to what this poem is all about.

2. Discuss what happened at Normandy. Why did the people die? What were they doing there? What did they achieve? What must it have been like to have been aboard the Empire Larch that day in June, 1944?

3. Prepare a class reading of the poem. Individual groups could work on particular verses.

4. Add artwork to your performance. Could children draw the boat and the servicemen on board?

5. What do those children who might play video games about war think about it in reality? Has it changed the way they feel about warfare and being a soldier?

6. Show the children the recording of Jim Radford performing the song. Do they think it brings the song to life? What questions would they like to put to Jim Radford? He can be contacted here.

What is Orange? by Mary O’Neill

This is a really fun poem which can inspire children of all abilities to think and write creatively. In a way, this is one of the easiest poetry lessons to teach – and the results can be wonderful and varied.

It is based on a poem by the American poet Mary O-Neill. She was born and raised in Ohio and later lived in New York City. Her best-known works were inspired by colours. She died in 1990.

This poem is called ‘What is Orange?‘ and is a list, very skilfully done, of things that are orange. Here is how it opens:

Orange is a tiger lily,
A carrot,
A feather from
A parrot,
A flame,
The wildest colour you can name.
Saying good-bye
In a sunset that
Shocks the sky.

The full text of the poem can be found here. Here is an American school presenting a sung version of the poem (in a different order, slightly, from the written version).

Suggested activities
1. Show the children a Powerpoint slide either of things that are orange, a just a plain, bright orange background. An alternative is to present some objects and ask them what they have in common, eg a carrot, a tiger lily, a fox. What could possibly link these together?
2. Read the poem to them and work towards a class performance, either in groups or together.
3. Ask the children to work in groups to choose their own colour. Then brainstorm on a big sheet as many things as they can think of which are that colour.
4. Encourage children to think not in words but in phrases. Model them on some in the poem such as Saying good-bye/ In a sunset that/ Shocks the sky. If they chose blue, they could come up with The feeling you have when it rains on a Saturday or When clouds disappear and the sun shines on the sea.
5. Challenge the children to use all of their senses – not just sight.
6. Ask the children then to fit the images together in a coherent order. Why have they chosen to start with that? How does it link to the next word or phrase? Suggest to them that every word should count and have a reason for being there?
7. Children could work in pairs or groups to perform their poems. They could also produce Powerpoint presentations to illustrate their poems.

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.

 

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 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).

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

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.

 

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.

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!

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!

 

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.