Young people and their parents

Maybe young people, particularly teenagers, can grow up with a sense of being put-upon by their parents; too many restrictions, too much pressure. This sense of injustice can manifest itself in anger, alienation or simply a lack of communication.

Sometimes it is hard to appreciate what parents do for their children – however ungrateful those offspring might be. So this poem, a classic by the American poet Robert Hayden (1913-1980), could prompt a really interesting discussion.

The writer reflects on a minor happening. It’s a cold, wintry, Sunday morning. The father, having worked all week, still gets up early to make a fire. He does it without thanks and the child responds with ill-chosen harsh words, speaking “indifferently”. The father also polishes the shoes for the child (maybe a teenager, maybe even older?). Here is an extract:

Those Winter Sundays by Robert Hayden.

Sundays too my father got up early
and put his clothes on in the blueblack cold,
then with cracked hands that ached
from labor in the weekday weather made
banked fires blaze. No one ever thanked him.
The final two lines are my favourite. Somehow the repetition is heart-breaking:
What did I know, what did I know
of love’s austere and lonely offices?
Read the full poem here. Read about the life of Robert Hayden here.
This is a performance, one of many, of this poem:

Lesson ideas
1. You could begin with a picture of a father building a fire in the kitchen. It could be contemporary or from a different era. What is this man doing? Where is the rest of the family? Why is he doing this? Why doesn’t anyone else help?

2. Introduce the idea of his children being upstairs, but having woken. How are they feeling? Who is showing love here – the children towards their father, or the father towards his children?

3. How many things do our parents do for us which we don’t appreciate? Should we be expected to thank them, or is this part of their role as parents?

4. Could we change by saying thank-you sometimes for what our parents or elders do for us?

There are some excellent discussion questions here.

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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.