The Uncertainty of the Poet by Wendy Cope

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Wendy Cope

This poem is a great example of wordplay. It encourages children to experiment with language and the results can be very funny. It is said that the poem is based on the painting, Uncertainty of the Poet by Giorgio de Chirico (see below).

Wendy Cope (born 1945) begins with a simple verse:

I am a poet.
I am very fond of bananas.

She then uses the same ten words in all the following verses – but changes the order and the sense, and throws in the odd extra bit of punctuation. For instance, her second verse is:

I am bananas.
I am very fond of a poet.

Pretty clever, yes? As the verses develop, they become increasingly bizarre until the final verse reads:

I am of very fond bananas.
Am I a poet?

Suggested activities

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Uncertainty of the Poet by Giorgio de Chirico

First, have fun with reading and performing the poem. Can the children get what is going on? If there were a rule for this poem, what would it be? There are eight verses, so split the class into eight groups and get them to memorise and perform their two lines. Try it in different orders, different voices, different volumes. Put the emphasis on different words.

Then try getting the children to write their own verse. We need two statements and they can only use ten words. For instance…

I am a swimmer.
I like to pat my dog.

Then ask them to write more verses using only those words. They are only allowed to change the punctuation. Who can write the most verses? On this occasion, some artwork could be created to accompany the finished versions (though poetry does NOT need to have decorated borders ordinarily).

The full text of the poem can be found here.

41sAbATNtDL._SY344_BO1,204,203,200_This poem appears in this excellent collection, Best Poems on the Underground.

 

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A poem is a city by Charles Bukowski

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Charles Bukowski

One of my favourite poets is Charles Bukowski (1920 – 1994).

For anyone who hasn’t read either his poetry or his novels, Bukowski could possibly be described as Tom Waits without the music.

You are probably wondering what he is doing on a website which recommends poetry for Key Stage 1, 2 or 3 children. Well, I think something can be done with some of his wonderful poems – providing they are carefully selected. One example as: A poem is a city.

This is a great opportunity for young people to be as creative as they like, by thinking: What is a poem? What can it be?

The answer is: anything – and that description of anything by children could be very exciting. Take the opening of Bukowski’s poem:

a poem is a city filled with streets and sewers
filled with saints, heroes, beggars, madmen,
filled with banality and booze,
filled with rain and thunder and periods of
drought, a poem is a city at war,
a poem is a city asking a clock why,
a poem is a city burning,
a poem is a city under guns
its barbershops filled with cynical drunks,
a poem is a city where God rides naked
through the streets like Lady Godiva,
where dogs bark at night, and chase away
the flag; a poem is a city of poets,
most of them quite similar
and envious and bitter …
a poem is this city now,

The full text of the poem is here (but remember to edit some lines out – sorry, Charles)

Suggested activities

You could try giving each of these images to a child and asking them to draw one (you could live without God riding naked, perhaps!) Imagine, though, the dogs barking a night, the city burning, a city filled with rain and thunder. Imagine putting all these pictures together on a wall and creating a landscape for this poem. The teacher could point to the picture and encourage the class to remember the phrase that inspired it.

Obviously, you have to be selective about some of Bukowski’s images but you could go with at least three-quarters of them. Think about “small music from broken windows” and “small men rant at things”. Brilliant images.

From your collage, ask the children to dream up a few images each about what a poem could be. It is SO EASY for them to write this poem. Then, put them into groups and run the images together in order. Once they’re happy with it, get the groups to perform the poem.

What a great lesson!

 

 

 

The Garden by Franta Bass

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Franta Bass

Franta Bass was a Jewish boy born in Czechoslovakia in 1930. When he was 11 years old, his family was deported by the Nazis to Terezin Ghetto/Camp, just north of Prague (also known as Theresienstadt). He stayed there, living under terrible conditions, for three years. On October 28th, 1944, he was murdered in Auschwitz, a Nazi-controlled concentration camp in Poland. He was 14 years old.

Of the vast majority of Czech Jews who were taken to Terezin (or Theresienstadt), 97,297 died among whom were 15,000 children. Only 132 of those children were known to have survived. (Source: http://www.jewishvirtuallibrary.org)

This is a poem written by Franta, The Garden:

The Garden

A little garden,
Fragrant and full of roses,
The path is narrow
And a little boy walks along it.

A little boy, a sweet boy,
Like that growing blossom.
When the blossom comes to bloom,
The little boy will be no more. 

 

Possible activities using The Garden:

Give children the first four lines of the poem, but with no background about the poet or the context. Just tell them it is written by a child, about their age.

A little garden,
Fragrant and full of roses,
The path is narrow
And a little boy walks along it.

Who might the poet be? Where is he? How is he feeling about his surroundings? Why is the path described as ‘narrow’? Is the boy in the garden now – or is he remembering a time when he was in the garden?

Then move on to the second verse:

A little boy, a sweet boy,
Like that growing blossom.
When the blossom comes to bloom,
The little boy will be no more. 

How has the mood of the poem changed? Why is he compared with blossom? Why will the little boy “be no more”?

Then introduce the children to Franta Bass and tell them about when and where he lived. Talk about his death at the age of 14. Lead the children to a discussion of memory – why are we talking about this poem now? Why is it important to remember the Holocaust? Are the children today who are facing terror and hardship?

Useful resources

Butterfly-cover-large.jpg (216×333)This book features children’s drawings and poems from the Terezin Ghetto/Camp.

Read about the background of the Terezin Ghetto/ Concentration Camp.

Various photographs taken at the Terezin Camp today (suitable for young audience, discretion advised)

Here is another poem written by Franta Bass:

I am a Jew

I am a Jew and will be a Jew forever. 
Even if I should die from hunger, 
never will I submit.
I will always fight for my people, 
on my honor. 
I will never be ashamed of them, 
I give my word.
I am proud of my people, 
how dignified they are. 
Even though I am suppressed, 
I will always come back to life. 

 

 

 

 

The Rainforest by Judith Wright

4746f12a5f3073d69c9bb83481aed20a.jpeg (443×267)The Rainforest is a three-verse poem by Australian poem Judith Wright. It is ideal for use in rainforest projects and of particular relevance to years five, six and beyond. It can be used as a stimulus for art or for discussion in a PSHE-context of conservation and the threat to our planet.

Whilst, on the surface, there are descriptions of life in the rainforest, there is plenty of implied meaning beneath and enough ambiguous phrases to get young people talking. It is also an excellent example of the concise use of language; just how much can be said in so few words.

This is how the poem begins:

Rainforest

The forest drips and glows with green.
The tree-frog croaks his far-off song.
His voice is stillness, moss and rain
drunk from the forest ages long.

Read the whole poem here.

Wright.jpg (391×316)According to Poem Hunter website, Judith Wright was a prolific Australian poet, critic, and short-story writer, who published more than 50 books. She was an uncompromising environmentalist and social activist campaigning for Aboriginal land rights. She believed that the poet should be concerned with national and social problems. Even at the age of 85, just before her death, she attended in Canberra at a march for reconciliation with Aboriginal people.

Here is a link to Judith Wright’s poems on Poem Hunter.

Here is an unusual video treatment of the poem using synthesised music:

Possible activities using this poem

Use the poem as a stimulus for artwork. Create the environment which Judith Wright is so passionate about.

Discuss the future of the rainforest. Which animals live there? Why is it under threat? How do we rely on the rainforest? Write letters to powerful people expressing your concern for the rainforest.

Tease out the meaning of key words and phrases from the poem:

“unless we move into his dream”. What is his dream? How can we move into it?

“where all is one and one is all”. What does this mean in a global sense? How would we think about the world if we adopted this approach?

“our quick dividing eyes”. What does this mean? Why are we quick? What do we divide?

“the forest burns”. Investigate why this is happening. What is Judith Wright saying about the rainforest here?

41sAbATNtDL._SY344_BO1,204,203,200_This poem appears in the excellent collection, Best Poems on the Underground. You may have seen it on your travels around London.

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.

 

Are you looking for quotes about poetry?

What better way to inspire young people about poetry than to provide them with an inspirational quote to begin a lesson, or to get them thinking? Here are a few which I have collected. Your contributions would be most welcome.

A poem is a city filled with streets and sewers/ filled with saints, heroes, beggars, madmen. (Charles Bukowski, a poem is a city)

All poetry is magic. It is a spell against insensitivity, failure of imagination, ignorance and barbarism. (Charles Causley, 1990)

Poetry is not the new rock’n’roll, it was the first rock’n’roll. (A Wilson, The Poetry Book for Primary Schools)

A poem is like a shot of espresso – the fastest way to get a hit of mental and spiritual energy. (Jeanette Winterson)

Poetry is all that is worth remembering in life. (William Hazlitt)

Poetry is the rhythmical creation of beauty in words. (Edgar Allan Poe)

Poetry is the opening and closing of a door, leaving those who look through to guess about what is seen during a moment. (Carl Sandburg)

Poetry lifts the veil from the hidden beauty of the world, and makes familiar objects be as if they were not familiar. (Percy Bysshe Shelley).

Poetry is thoughts that breathe, and words that burn. (Thomas Gray)

Poetry is an echo asking a shadow to dance. (Carl Sandburg)

Poetry is like making a joke. If you get one word wrong at the end of a joke, you’ve lost the whole thing. (W S Merwin)

Poetry isn’t a profession, it’s a way of life. It’s an empty basket; you put your life into it and make something out of that. (Mary Oliver)

I Am by John Clare

John Clare lived from 1793 to 1864. He was the son of a farmer and came to be known as the “peasant poet”. Most of his work is not particularly accessible to young people, but the following poem could provoke an interesting discussion with able Year 5 or 6 students, and certainly for Key Stage Three students.

Clare suffered from mental health problems for much of his life and this poem, I Am, was written in the Northampton General Lunatic Asylum. There is some background about the poem here. It deals with a sense of alienation and ends with a longing for a better place, perhaps in another life. This is how it begins:
I am—yet what I am none cares or knows;
My friends forsake me like a memory lost:
I am the self-consumer of my woes—
They rise and vanish in oblivious host,
Like shadows in love’s frenzied stifled throes

And yet I am, and live

You can read the full text of the poem here.

There is a brilliant performance of the poem here:
Possible activities
– Present the whole poem to groups of three. Ask them questions such as:
1. When was this written?
2. Is it written by a man or a woman?
3. How are they feeling and how do you know? (do not accept basic words such as happy or sad)
4. Can you guess where this poem was written?
5. Are they ultimately optimistic or pessimistic? (or similar vocabulary)
– Then reveal the background of the poem.
– Dish out phrases from the poem such as “the self- consumer of my woes”. Ask pairs to look up all the difficult words and come up with alternative phrases. Put these together in a class soliloquy. Compare this modern version with the original.
– Challenge groups to perform the original poem. Watch various video performances and assess them, compared with the class versions.
– Research the story of John Clare, his love of nature, his mental health problems, and look at other poems he has written.

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.

Poems about places

I would like to suggest two contrasting poems about places – both are wonderful poems and conjure up the sense of place vividly.

Adlestrop by Edward Thomas

The first is called Adlestrop by Edward Thomas (1878-1917). Thomas is seen as a nature poet and his short life was ended when he died in the First World War. Adlestrop is a place in Gloucestershire where his train stopped one day. It was one of those occasions when the train stops at a station unexpectedly, and no one gets off or gets on. He captures the moment beautifully in four simple stanzas. Here is how it begins:

Yes, I remember Adlestrop —
The name, because one afternoon
Of heat the express-train drew up there
Unwontedly. It was late June.

You can read the full text of the poem here. There is a reading of the poem by legendary film actor Richard Burton here:

This is a longer film with pictures of the station, which match some of the phrases in the poem.

Midsummer, Tobago by Derek Walcott

Midsummer, Tobago is by Caribbean poet Derek Walcott (born 1930), a winner of the Nobel prize for literature. It evokes a moment in midsummer. You can feel the heat, see the river on this stifling August day. Walcott takes this opportunity to think about the past and the memories he treasures. This is how the poem begins.

Broad sun-stoned beaches.

White heat.
A green river.

A bridge,
scorched yellow palms

from the summer-sleeping house
drowsing through August.

The full text of this short poem is here. There is a rather unusual musical treatment of this poem here:

Suggested activities

1. Read one of the poems to the class. Get them to close their eyes. Divide the five senses out to groups. When they have heard the poem, what do they see, hear, touch, taste and smell? Now do the same with the second poem – how is this different?

2. Talk about the feelings of the two poets. They have not just described a place they have visited. They have managed to suggest what it means to them. How do the poets feel about these places? Don’t accept ‘happy’ or ‘sad’. Get a thesaurus out and ask the children to brainstorm the feelings of the poets.

3. Once the children are familiar with both poems, ask them to think of a place they have visited. They could first produce a shower of words associated with that place. Then ask them to list feelings they have about that place. If it is a fond memory, why?

4. Ask children then to write in the style of one of the poems (they may find the Walcott free verse easier). Make sure every word counts. Once they have put some ideas down, get them to swap their poems and see if any words can be removed.

5. Ask them to perform their poems to partners and to groups. Work on a second draft. Then perform them to the class.

 

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).

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